The Artist Hoping to Trade His Work For British Museum Artifacts

Michael Rakowitz, Fourth Pliny Exhibition, museum
Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2018. Photography by Rick Findler.

Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz is the latest artist in a series of activists demanding the repatriation of art aquired from predominantly African and Asian countries. Rakowitz's public request was targeted at the British Museum, which has received six formal requests to repatriate a collective total of 149 artifacts from various organizations between 2014 and 2020. The majority of requests came from indigenous peoples, though a few were sent from Indian government officials  and Ethiopia's Minister of Culture. 

Rakowitz is unique, however, in that he is proposing a trade on behalf of Iraq. For one of two large Assyrian gypsum statues, a lamassu, or Assyrian protective deity, he is offering one of his own creations in exchange: a large-scale lamassu decorated with date-syrup cans, to be given to the Tate Modern, an affiliate of the British Museum, on the condition that it share custody with Iraq. In an article published by the Guardian, Rakowitz explains that he is seeking to supplant what has been ransacked by both Western forces and the militant Islamic group Daesh.

Image courtesy of the British Museum.

So far the artist has an ally in the Tate Modern, which informally agreed to lobby for the lamassu's return. The British Museum's response, however, has yet to be received. Historically, the museum has sent replicas in place of genuine artifacts, and Rakowitz recalls his past demands for repatriation of the artifacts being dismissed in 2020.

Its reluctance is to be expected; Section 5 of the 1963 British Museum Act compels British Museum Trustees to repatriate their objects only if the object was made after 1850, found out to be a dupe, or no longer educationally enriching. Since then, they have had free rein to disregard requests which don't fall into accordance with these three niche specifications.

Rakowitz regards the British Museum's half-hearted efforts in creating replicas and citing regulations with thinly-veiled contempt. "Where's the dignity," he asked in the same Guardian article, "of sending back these things that are basically a husk of the original?"