Michael Rakowitz: Backstroke of the West

Join artist Michael Rakowitz and curator Omar Kholeif for a plate of kubba shwandar as they reflect on Rakowitz’s work, hospitality vs. hostility, Star Wars, and translation.

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Join artist Michael Rakowitz and curator Omar Kholeif for a plate of kubba shwandar as they reflect on Rakowitz’s work, hospitality and hostility, Star Wars, and translation.


Michael Rakowitz: So this is a dish called kubba shwandar, one of the dishes that one could say comes from the Iraqi-Jewish community in Baghdad. "Spice mix" in Arabic is called baharat. So you have baharat from Syria, from Jordan, from Palestine, and everybody fights over whose is better.

Interviewer: When did you start thinking about food as part of an art practice?

MR: In college I started to really appreciate the expository labor of it, in kitchens, and then also cooking taking on a lot of the alchemy that I’d become familiar with and had loved a lot about sculpture, and the idea that it was the hands that were leaving an impression.

So you have this olfactory experience where of course memory can be triggered by smell in ways that it can’t happen with visual works.

It was also a callback to what my mother said when the First Gulf War began, which was: she’s watching us see Iraq for the first time in our lives, that, “There’s no Iraqi restaurants in New York.” And it was a way of her pointing to the fact that that was an absent cultural visibility beyond oil and war. And that’s when it became important to me, that’s when I asked her to start teaching me.

Like with Enemy Kitchen, the food truck, what I find super interesting about it is that the Iraqi refugee chefs and the veterans are working together. And one of the dishes they make is kebab. And when you think about the hands of an American war veteran that was forced to make a fist around one thing but is now making a fist around something else to form the kebab or the kofta or the kubba, it’s a pretty profound thing, where it’s like that imprint, and then it goes into one’s body.

So, those ritual things have always been part of artistic practice for me. So the Passover Seder I think is the perfect example of where it is that I think that cooking becomes art, or food becomes art, because everything has its poetic, metaphorical meaning.

Omar Kholeif: Habibi!

MR: Welcome! Ahlan Wa Sahlan.

OK: How are you doing?

MR: Good! We are making kubba shwandar. Your favorite I think? With the beets.

OK: It’s my favorite.

OK: We’ve talked a lot about food, and I’ve always wondered how the food projects related to this idea of hospitality. How do you define the concept of hospitality in this day and age of political turmoil and civil unrest?

MR: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that we’ve talked a lot about the etymology of "hospitality" and how it comes from "hospis."

But then also "host" and "hostility" sharing the same roots. And that there’s a certain etiquette to being a good guest and a certain etiquette to being a good host. But the host is the one that’s in this position of power. In the United States, it’s been very easy to just have Iraq exist as this abstract where the only place where it’s really visible is in places like a gas station or the Mesopotamian section of an imperial museum.

And I think it’s evidence of just how vulgar the whole American experience with Iraq has been. The idea of enlisting not just the food but also the concept of Iraqi hospitality was one that I found to be kind of a critical moment at the center of a project like Enemy Kitchen.

OK: So much of your work deals with the issue of translation. Tell us about how you came to that title, Backstroke of the West.

MR: Well, I’m very interested in ready-made titles. I remember being in New York and the first bootleg copies of Revenge of the Sith were hitting the streets, but they were Chinese copies. And they had a title that was called Backstroke of the West instead of Revenge of the Sith. And it turned out that the entire movie had been put through a kind of Google Translate algorithm.

They ended up with these amazing, incidentally poetic fragments where I was thrilled with this added layer of comedy, but also it was almost like magnetic poetry. So Backstroke of the West as a title was simultaneously so weird, but also kind of profound. Thinking about so much of what Western imperative has visited on the world since I’ve been alive.

It really does seem as though there’s a return to a certain kind of colonialism and there’s also a very backwards step that the West has taken in terms of their ability to actually put good things into the world as opposed to the horrific situation we find ourselves in now.

It was also just an opportunity for me to go back to something like Star Wars, a pop-cultural moment that formed me, but to also kind of think of it as the very tricky area of translation.

And right now I think the most radical space of hospitality is translation.