An American Iraqi-Jew and an American Iraq War veteran walk into a bar . . . What sounds like the start of a bad joke is actually the start of a collaboration, mentorship, and friendship between Michael Rakowitz and fellow Chicago-based artist Aaron Hughes. In conjunction with Rakowitz's first solo museum exhibition at the MCA, we invited Hughes to reflect on their relationship as well as his involvement with projects like Enemy Kitchen.
On a quiet night over a decade ago, Michael Rakowitz and I got drinks at Danny’s Bar on the northwest side of Chicago. It was our first chance to talk one-on-one and really connect with one another. Before long we were deep in a discussion on our common interests and individual commitments to seeking out and sharing the poetic connections that reveal our shared humanity. I remember excitedly talking over the potential for creative practices to counter the destructive and oppressive forces our world is consumed by. We bonded in our optimism.
Since that evening, Michael has been one of my closest friends and mentors. I am continuously learning from his creative practice and his endless generosity, despite.*
One of my first experiences with Michael’s work was when I participated in Enemy Kitchen at the Experimental Station in 2007. I had received a general email invitation from Michael about the event and knew I had to go. I was excited to finally taste Iraqi food. Just three years prior, I had been driving trucks all over Iraq with the 1244th Transportation Company of the Illinois Army National Guard. During that 15-month deployment I never once tasted Iraqi food. We were always discouraged from interacting with the locals. We were told they were a security threat. Thinking back on it now, it was more than security concerns; it was a military culture, which perpetuated racism, xenophobia, and dehumanization, that prevented us from interacting with the Iraqis, Kuwaitis, or Third Country Nationals. We were in the cradle of civilization and we could not even share a meal.
The day of the event I headed down to Hyde Park to spend the afternoon learning how to prepare Iraqi dishes based on Michael’s family recipes. I remember getting to the Enemy Kitchen event early. I didn’t want to miss anything. I was nervous. At that time, and still often today, I feel anxious at art and cultural events where I know I will be the only veteran. But I was desperate to learn about the Iraqi culture. I wanted to connect. I was trying to figure out how to reposition myself. I was trying to find a way to be in solidarity with the Iraqi community so impacted by American foreign policy. Paulo Freire described it best in Pedagogy of the Oppressed when he wrote, “Discovering himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. Rationalizing his guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do. Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is in solidarity; it is a radical posture.”
Michael, with his endless generosity, made me feel at home. I helped him set up and then he passed out recipes and instructions for each of the dishes for the feast we would prepare. Thinking back on it now, I can’t remember exactly what we made or who was there, but I remember following the instructions to a T, trying to do everything just right, wanting to do a good job, as if somehow that would put me in the good graces of history. I remember carefully chopping vegetables to the exact size described in the recipe. I remember mashing my hands in the meat and mixing in the spices. I remember this humbling feeling creeping up the back of my neck bringing an overwhelming sense of love, beauty, life, and the vast connection to others and to history.
I remember a sense of joy in preparing each dish. Meals are the sustenance of life and as we served the food to the other guests, and I remember thinking that this service was the kind of positive community-building service I had always wanted to be involved with. This was the kind of service I wanted to do when I talked to my Army recruiter before I joined. We talked about fighting floods and saving homes by sandbagging the Mississippi River. This was the kind of service I wanted to be thanked for.
I was humbled and inspired by the event. I could not wait to share it with the rest of the veteran community, including the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM). I asked Michael if he would host an Enemy Kitchen barbecue at NVAM on Memorial Day 2009. He generously obliged and together, with members of IVAW and VVAW, we cooked Iraqi kofta instead of traditional hot dogs and hamburgers. We bonded over mashing meat into kabobs—piles of meat were first mixed with onions and spices in the hands of an Iraqi, then formed into a kabob in the hands of an Iraq veteran, and then grilled by a Vietnam veteran. Connecting with wonderful Iraqi food and a few beers, across all of our differences. Connecting not to erase the power dynamics, pain, and violence of our interwoven histories, but to acknowledge them and each other. We were seeking and sharing those poetic connections that bind us together and pushing back against the meaninglessness of the wars that had radically changed each of our lives.
This event began a long, interconnected web of relationships between Michael, myself, and the Iraqi refugee and Iraq veteran communities. I have been inspired by Michael’s many projects that intersect with these affected communities and have had the honor to participate in expanding this web of relationships. One of his most recent projects, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, springs from this web. In this stop-motion video, the protagonist, Special Ops Cody, a G.I. Joe doll with a unique and crazy story, finds himself standing, hands clasped in prayer next to the Mesopotamian votive statues securely locked in a vitrine at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. They all stand together in silence, witnesses to occupation, war, and empire but are unable to speak to one another or to us; they are trapped on a pedestal just as we are all trapped by context and history. It is haunting and surreal.
The video reflects this feeling I often have on Veterans Day, or really any day in our militarized American society. I often feel shuttered—just like the votives and Cody—unable to truly connect. Unable to get away from the spectacle in order to reflect or remember . . .
Exhausted. Covered in sweat and dust. Sitting at the Baghdad International Airport in the spring of 2004, I watched little brown birds fly in and out of barbed wire. My mind wandered over and over again to the night before, our lost convoy in the dusk of western Iraq. The stomach-sick and head-throbbing anxiety still passed through my body. The birds spoke up, interrupting the haze of feeling and messy memories that had no rational meaning. Again, I watched the birds fly in and out of the barbed wire, soaring from red zone to green zone. And then a distant thought started to come into clarity. A whisper welling up from deep inside me, “We created this.” The whisper grew to a clear statement and then a blaring shout, “We created this.” And it was suddenly clear to me that those birds do not think of “red zones” and “green zones.” They fly in and out of our constructed walls like they are meaningless. We created these wall and “zones.” We created all of these divisions and perhaps over time, if we would just listen to the birds, we could deconstruct them, build new relationships, heal, and be like those birds that know no barbed wire.
Michael’s artwork is continuously reminding me of those little birds. His work generously shares the unexpected, poetic connections he finds through simple gestures and objects, which complicate the assumptions and challenge the rationalization of the structural violence and oppression of our society. But through his work, he also hopes that you see what he sees—our interwoven, shared humanity, in all its pain, humor, and beauty.
So please, go to the MCA** and spend time in Michael’s exhibition. Sit in the back room with The Ballad of Special Ops Cody and, as you watch the vitrine close on Cody and the votives, let that overwhelming feeling of love, beauty, and life creep up the back of your neck. Then, as the feeling of our interconnectedness washes over you, ask yourself what it means to be in solidarity with those most impacted by America’s wars.
Thank you Michael for your mentorship, friendship, and generosity, despite.
* When I say despite, I mean despite the endless layers of power, privilege, and history that have built up between Michael and myself, and so many people in general. I mean despite my direct involvement in the occupation and destruction of Iraq, Michael’s family’s homeland. I mean despite America’s long history of dehumanization bolstered by greed and racism. I mean despite all the humiliation. I mean despite so much personal, political, and historical trauma it is almost impossible to encompass. I mean despite all the pain.
** The MCA is free to members and veterans of the military, every day.