For Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz, the intricate web of power, control and hypocrisy in this equilibrium cannot but inform his decisions as an artist who creates, participates and refuses to. I visited Iraqi-American Rakowitz’s first exhibition in Los Angeles, Dispute Between the Tamarisk and the Date Palm at CalArts’ downtown space, REDCAT, after a long drive from the west side. With the memory of the Beverly Hills and West LA palm trees still fresh from my slow drive in traffic, I began to wander among the nascent palm trees in the exhibition. On the southern wall of the gallery the artist reproduced the timeline of the date palm from his project Return (2004-ongoing). “A house with a date palm will never starve,” it reads. In other words: to actively starve a house, destroy the palm trees, just as the US war on Iraq devastated the palm industry.
I visited the exhibition on May 8, the day the US unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), and the Department of Treasury announced an executive order implementing new sanctions on Iran’s iron, steel, aluminum, and copper sectors. AJ+ recently posted a short video of interviews with Iranians during Ramadan where a woman shares her distress about how, due to the economic sanctions, some Iranians can no longer afford to even buy dates and milk, two staples of Iftar for millions of Muslims in the region. While Iran’s date industry continues to play a major role in the international market, the crippling of its economy due to US sanctions undermines Iranians’ ability to purchase dates, among other food. The US can crave a land’s resources while wanting to starve its people—as they did in Iraq and now in Iran.
The landscapes in the exhibit are a world away from California, but they are hardly foreign. Not only are the desert climates of Los Angeles, Baghdad and Bandar Abbas quite similar, their histories are intertwined. Date palms were first introduced from the Middle East to California in the 1890s. Today, four primary kinds of dates are produced as part of a large agricultural industry in the Coachella Valley: the Deglet-Noor, the Medjool, the Barhi and the Zahidi. The idea for Return (2004-ongoing) started at Sahadi’s in NYC which is when Rakowitz came upon a date syrup he was told was from Iraq despite a “Made in Lebanon” label. The date syrup, produced in Baghdad, traveled to Syria and crossed the border to Lebanon where it was labeled and shipped to the rest of the world, including the US. This was a way of circumventing international sanctions on Iraq, beginning in the 1990s, which restricted the export of Iraqi dates. This circumventive method of export, still in practice in 2004, inspired the artist to reopen his grandfather’s import export business, Davisons & Co, which he had opened after settling in Long Island in 1946 as an exiled Iraqi Jew.