MICHAEL RAKOWITZ, Dar al Sulh, 2013. Photo courtesy Kamel Rasool. 

MICHAEL RAKOWITZDar al Sulh, 2013. Photo courtesy Kamel Rasool. 

MICHAEL RAKOWITZDar al Sulh, 2013. Photo courtesy Kamel Rasool. 

May 15 2013

Art Fare: Michael Rakowitz’s Dar al Sulh

by Kevin Jones

Michael Rakowitz believes art can be invisible. His work has hidden behind a Brooklyn storefront (Return, 2004–), nestled inside heated tents (ParaSITE, 1997–), fuelled a food truck (Enemy Kitchen, 2004–), paraded as a main course in a Park Avenue restaurant (Spoils, 2011), and, for seven nights in May, wafted through a pop-up restaurant in Dubai’s Traffic art space.

Dar al Sulh, commissioned and co-produced by The Moving Museum as part of its recent “Tectonic” show, is billed as the first Arab-Jewish restaurant in the Arab world, serving recipes culled from the culinary repertoire of Rakowitz’s grandmother, an Iraqi Jew who fled Baghdad in 1946. “You are eating a dying language from the plate of a ghost,” informs an eerie sign on the threshold, stressing the “endangered” status not only of the dishes served, but of Arab-Jewry itself.

The title, which can be translated as “Domain of Conciliation,”  harks back to the halcyon days prior to the emergence of the state of Israel. In Iraq, “oriental” Jews, present for millennia, lived harmoniously with their Arab neighbors, until they fell on the wrong side of both Arab and Jewish nationalisms. In the 1940s, the Jews either fled Iraq, or were ensnared in the “rescue” net cast out by Israel. Dar al Sulh, like a time machine infused with spices and music, intends to reactivate this bygone era.

Like other Rakowitz works, Dar al Sulh is as intricate as it is politically charged. A pinch of agitprop, a dash of performance, and the artist concocts a critical moment wherein guests, almost in spite of themselves, wrestle with thorny issues.

The work is heir to Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen, a Chicago food truck that teamed Iraqi immigrant cooks with US veteran sous chefs. The same heritage recipes—kubba qari’ya, tabyit, amba salad—were served to an American public momentarily sensitized to the complexity of the demonized “other.” While Dubai’s Dar al Sulh tackles insidious Arab versus Jew antagonism, it is fuelled by the same will to provoke exchange. “The critical aesthetic moment in the work,” reveals Rakowitz, “is in the smells and the consumption. I try to render my intention through the senses and the proximity of who is next to you.”  

Ultimately, the success of the work hinged largely on your dining companions. Up to 80 people congregated nightly at long communal tables. The discussion ricocheted off of the evening’s many stimuli (music, vintage plates, storied tableware, a worn photo illustrating Palestinian Jewish solidarity). Older Iraqis came out of the Dubai woodwork, some of whom brought a tinge of resistance, like the couple who complained they had paid for Jewish food, “but there was nothing Jewish about it” (which was, of course, the point). “Antagonism is part of all this work,” says Rakowitz. “I appreciate people who can bring difficult information. Or disdain.”

But such encounters seemed rare. Given the high risk of inciting municipal ire with Dar al Sulh, little was done to promote the work prior to opening, so it remained a bit of a Dubai art-world secret. Unsurprisingly, the gathering at times felt more like a networking event than a space of discourse à la Enemy Kitchen.

“Does everyone realize they are sitting in an artwork,” wondered aloud one of my art-world neighbors, oblivious to Rakowitz’s pedigree in making work that blurs into the real world. If nothing else, Dar al Sulh has whet the local appetite for art that doesn’t rely wholly on the idea that it is artwork. As a result, Dubai is looking forward to future iterations of Dar al Sulh: as one fellow diner summed up on closing night, “We’re still hungry.” 

Kevin Jones is an independent arts writer currently based in Dubai. New York-born and Paris-bred, he has lived in the Middle East for the past seven years.