Worlds Collide in Room F. Michael Rakowitz’s The invisible enemy should not exist (Room F, section 1, Northwest Palace of Nimrud), Jane Lombard Gallery, NYC, February 22, 2020


jane lombard installation
Jane Lombard Gallery( NYC), January 9th – February 22, 2020

I had been meaning to see the latest Rakowitz show in Chelsea. I was waiting for a convenient day. Maybe I’d have some reason to be in the neighborhood. I could swing by then. I figured I’d see it at some point. I’ve been following and appreciating his work for a decade. This was another iteration of his ongoing project The invisible enemy should not exist (2007-).

I’ve also been working on my book about Assyrian queens in the Northwest Palace at Nimrud. This is part of the reason why I hadn’t yet made it to Chelsea. I try to spend my working hours tucked in at the library.

Rarely do I wake up (on a Saturday nonetheless) and say “I have an idea! I have to go write! Sorry dear husband, but can I leave you with little girl for an hour or so? I have to find a quiet place and write this down.” I had an idea about Room F of the palace.

I got myself to a spot, and started to type. Then an iMessage popped up. Oh no, I thought. I probably need to go back home. But that was not it. It was a friend reminding me it was the last day of the Rakowitz show. Ok, I’ll make it happen. We’ll check it out this afternoon.

Family in tow, I walked into the Jane Lombard Gallery about an hour before closing. Perfect timing. But even more perfect, and serendipitous, or psychic, or just crazy, is that I walked right into Room F of the palace!! Maybe somewhere in my subconscious I’d absorbed the show title; maybe I actually, deep down knew the close-date. But I had no recollection of these facts. I’d been operating on the vague notion of “Rakowitz show is up in Chelsea…” I was completely surprised, totally delighted, floored, and down-right freaked out to find myself at the eleventh hour in the room I probably dreamt about the night before.

jane lombard installation
Jane Lombard Gallery, February 2020

I quickly tried to take every picture I could of every element of the show. It was for sale, as one complete installation. I will probably never see this again. I kept imagining it set up in its new home, maybe in Hollywood, overlooking an infinity pool from a room of glass walls. What would it mean there? Would it matter?

The work itself recreates the massive carved stone, once-painted panels that lined the walls of Room F on Nimrud’s Northwest Palace in the 800s to 600s BCE. Room F  is described among ancient Near Eastern specialists as the “back room” or “retiring room” of the main throneroom. It is described in the show as a banquet hall. Sure, banquets might have been held here. I like the idea of imagining the space as it was once lived in. Maybe the new owner will install this in their dining room.

Learning Sites, Inc. simulation of queen in Nimrud's Northewest Palace

The installation consists of five panels, each over seven feet tall, displaying colorful sacred trees and bird-headed, human-bodied, winged creatures (apkallu) carrying cones and buckets with which they ritually treat the blossoming palm (the emblem of the Assyrian empire).

The Arabic words on the collaged scraps of candy wrappers, tea cartons, and newspaper collide with a daintily printed cuneiform text that runs across the panels in gold script evoking the ancient inscription carved on the original stone slabs (“…great king, strong king, king of the universe…”).

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Rakowitz, Room F, Jane Lombard Gallery, February 22, 2020

The dark patches, cracks, and swaths breaking up the images indicate surfaces lost to the ages. The gaps between the panels remind us of the palace’s more recent losses — these gaps refer to the places where nineteenth-century archaeologists extracted the neighboring slabs, now embedded in Western collections, such as the Assyrian gallery of Met uptown.

Assyrian_Court_1520 met museum walls
Assyrian reliefs from Nimrud’s Northwest Palace, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC)

The wooden beams extending from the panels emphasize their lost architectural context, while also propping these ghosts of recent and ancient memories up in our living world after their most recent tragedy. Rakowitz’s panels reconstruct the sculptures that were still in place at the excavated palace site when Nimrud fell to the hands of ISIS in 2015.

“The act was a crime against Assyria, against Iraq, and against humanity. Destroy the past, and you control the future. – Tom Holland” read a quote at my feet.  Another quote on the floor said “Fueled by an insatiable appetite for Near Eastern antiquities, sites throughout Iraq are being worked daily by teams of looters in search of ‘merchandise.’” These are the words of Dr. Selma Al-Radi, to whose memory, and the memories of two other archaeologists, Dr. Sam Paley and Dr. Donny George, the show is dedicated.

Amy Herritt so kindly took some time to step away from the desk and give me a tour. She was telling me about Rakowitz’s interest in dates as a symbol of the Iraqi people (his Fourth Plinth lamassu was made of date syrup cans) and the aptness of the Assyrian sacred trees he chose to reconstruct being date palms. As she was talking, I was also being tugged by the crescendo of ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy…” and so many layers of so many worlds collided again.

Feb 22 2020 Jane Lombard Gallery

A new course: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World

cartoon figures of men and women with gender symbols
Image source:

This year the Women’s and Gender Studies minor at my school (St. John’s University) updated its title and scope. It is now a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. To support its new dimension, we need new courses. This is good news to me because I have wanted to teach a course on Ancient Gender and Sexuality since I was first exposed to the subject of ancient Greek sexuality by Professor Helene Foley when I was an undergraduate at Barnard over 20 (wow!) years ago.

Greek kylix, c. 520-510 BCE, Yale University Art Gallery, image source

So I have set about developing a new course: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World. In envisioning a course that would be most inclusive and of the broadest relevance to students’ culturally diverse interests, I found my efforts aligned with the disciplinary turn to globalize Art History. However, most courses (most of which are very good!) on ancient Gender and Sexuality focus on the Classical/Near Eastern world, which is my own area of expertise, putting me at a certain disadvantage to expand beyond these bounds. But, my Graduate Assistant (Elizabeth Pamblanco, Museum Administration MA candidate) and I have turned up a lot of material on gender and sexuality in Prehispanic American and Prehistoric European cultures. We’ve also found scholarship on gender and sexuality in ancient India and China. The outcome nonetheless remains remains globally imbalanced, and I’m not sure if it’s a result of the strengths/weaknesses of my own knowledge or if there has simply been more work done on Classical and Near Eastern cultures. It is probably a combination of both factors. But I hope that this course will nonetheless help students to think globally and cross-culturally. And I hope that by teaching it I will learn more so that I can teach more about cultures and topics with which I am presently less acquainted. 

Moche ‘sex pot,’ Peru, c. 500–800 CE, image source

Our research in preparing a course proposal alerted me to two issues that I would like to raise. First, what is ‘ancient’ across cultures? Pre-Columbian cultures, for example, continue to the era of the European Renaissance, but I will include material on Aztec (c. 1300s-1521) gender and sexuality in the course. On the other end of the spectrum, I will also include Prehistoric (Paleolithic and Neolithic) material that falls outside of some definitions of “Ancient World.” Second, so many publication and course titles refer to the “Ancient World,” but this world turns out to be limited to Classical civilizations. Sometimes “Ancient World” more broadly refers to Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures. But very rarely does it refer to the whole world. So that it is clear that this new course aims to cover cultures beyond the Mediterranean and Near East, I’ve preliminarily titled it “Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World.”

Woman of Willendorf, c. 28,000-25,000 BCE, image source

Please have a look at my proposal with bibliography, posted here. Maybe you are looking for ideas for globalizing your own Ancient Gender and Sexuality course. And/or maybe you have advice for me. I’d love feedback, and especially any suggestions on the course title or additional bibliography on any culture (including those not already represented). Thank you!