Rayyane Tabet presents “Bruchstücke/Fragments“, focusing on the history of the Syrian settlement of Tell Halaf.
Discovered by German diplomat and Orientalist Max von Oppenheim, Lebanese artist Tabet explores the history behind the historical site in connection with his own personal narrative, as Tabet’s great-grandfather, Faek Borkhoche, worked for a period of six months as von Oppenheim’s secretary during his 1929 expedition.
When in 1899 the German diplomat and Orientalist Max von Oppenheim was travelling across present day Syria, then the Mesopotamian region of the Ottoman Empire, he came upon the fragments of Tell Halaf, a Neolithic archaeological site whose location was disclosed to him by local villagers. In 1911, with the encouragement of archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld and the financial backing of his father Albert Oppenheim, Max von Oppenheim returned to Tell Halaf with five archaeologists, uncovering the ruins of the town of Guzana, large statues, tombs and Neolithic pottery. Oppenheim returned to Germany in 1913, and was delayed from returning to Tell Halaf by the First World War.
Following the war’s end, and the formation of the League of Nations and the subsequent French Mandate of Syria, Oppenheim returned to Tell Halaf in 1927, where he shared his findings with the French government and sent much excavated material back to Berlin. Yet, initial discovery set off a chain of political intrigue and espionage: the British and French feared that Oppenheim was as a covert operative who used archaeological interest as a guise to radicalise Bedouin natives against colonial authority.
At Kunstverein in Hamburg, Rayyane Tabet incorporates the complicated history of Tell Halaf as the conceptual basis for a series of sculptures and installations in his exhibition “Bruchstücke/Fragments”. Tabet is notable for his research-based approach to creating sculptural work; his 2013 exhibition “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points” at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut, examined the geopolitical implications of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, a joint venture between American oil companies that would transport Saudi oil to Haifa, Palestine.
In his most recent works, Tabet turns his attention to the political intrigue of von Oppenheim’s excavation, to which the artist has a personal connection: his great-grandfather, Faek Borkhoche, was appointed by French Mandate authorities in Beirut to serve as von Oppenheim’s personal secretary, in order to gather intelligence for the colonial government. Espionage played a key role in the tense relationship between the British, French and German occupation of the Levant and North Africa, and archaeological expeditions were often subterfuge for gathering important geographic information for military attacks.
Weaving together the personal history of his great-grandfather with the intricate histories of the region, Rayyane Tabet conducts his own version of an excavation, examining the connections between the state and its subjects, the museum and its collection, and the archive and its artefacts. A selection of Ernst Herzfeld’s papers from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the exhibition will travel in 2018, is put on display to call attention to the close and often accidental links between Tabet, Oppenheim, and the imperial project. The letters include a postcard identical to one sent by von Oppenheim to Tabet’s great grandfather, as well as a copy of Oppenheim’s book, Der Tell Halaf from which Herzfeld cut out portions in order to examine objects separately. The cutouts speak to the overall conceit of the exhibition: that the fragmented nature of the past drives curiosity and spurs new questions in the present, serving as a motivating and creative force for Tabet and contemporary artists.
Genealogy (2017) is made from pieces of a Bedouin goat-hair rug owned by Borkhoche. The rug was cut into pieces and passed heirlooms among Borkhoche’s children, and in turn, their grandchildren, tracing the history of the heirloom and materialising the blood connection to Borkhoche, and by extension, to Tell Halaf. Where it was not possible to borrow these fragments, there are linen replicas and gaps, emphasising the fragmented nature of connection. In a similar fashion, a display of objects belonging to Borkhoche, including a suitcase, nine photographs documenting the six months that Borkhoche spent at the archaeological site, and notecards, as well as a copy of Der Tell Halaf.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Tabet moves from the literal to the abstract, trading direct lineages of history for objects that index power relations between European and colonised groups. Exquisite Corpse (2017) consists of seven military tents, used by European forces in the Middle East in the 20th century to house soldiers. These tents are aesthetically and structurally similar to bisht, a type of Bedouin jacket that unfolds to form a single-occupancy tent with the addition of two wooden poles.
Alongside these pieces of fabric, Tabet places a genealogical tree of a Bedouin tribe and a volume of von Oppenheim’s ethnography of these peoples, published between 1939 and 1968. These additions to the military tents amplify the colonial connection to the native population, suggesting that the cultural interactions between the two groups were simultaneously one of anthropological study and domination, but also of survival.
The archaeological elements of Tabet’s exhibition is put into relief most literally in Ah, My Beautiful Venus! (2017). Central to this work is the Tell Halaf Venus, the highlight of Oppenheim’s initial discovery and the treasure of the museum he built to house his discoveries in 1931, which served as the foundation of the present day National Museum in Aleppo. In Ah, My Beautiful Venus!, Tabet places foil pressings made from the mold of the Tell Halaf Venus on sculpture stands, which viewers can examine in the round.
These pressings are incomplete, broken shards, echoing both the literal process of piecing together broken artefacts but also the epistemic process of trying to reconstruct, bit by bit, forgotten histories. Behind these sculptural fragments are 6.5 tons of black basalt tiles that were imported from a quarry in Swaida, in southern Syria via Rotterdam and finally arriving in Hamburg. The volume reflects the original volume of the Tell Halaf Venus, echoing further the centrality of this object to the research and aims of von Oppenheim.
Tabet’s exhibition, in addition to displaying the cultural artefacts of colonial history and the legacy of the archaeological site of Tell Halaf in material terms, also emphasises the importance of the trace: the spectres of history that haunt and inform contemporaneity. Orthostates (2017- ongoing) consists of 27 framed charcoal rubbings on paper of low-relief carvings of animals, vegetation and deities that Oppenheim discovered on the back wall of the Tell Halaf temple in his initial 1911 expedition. Tabet’s ongoing project is to copy this process in the available sections of Tell Halaf, and in this processual reenactment, the artist emphasises that the labour of archaeological work is one of the most resonant traces of history.
Similarly, Basalt Shards (2017), a series of 1000 charcoal rubbings of unidentified basalt shards, remnants of objects destroyed during a 1943 bombing raid on Oppenheim’s Tell Halaf Museum, accentuates the painstaking process of artefact reconstruction. Tabet’s attention to the nuances of history, and their resonance in the present, allows his work to take on a multidimensional and compelling ethos, one that allows the artist to bridge personal and broader political histories into compelling and challenging work.
“Bruchstücke/Fragments” by Rayyane Tabet is on view from 25 November 2017 to 18 February 2018 at Kunstverein in Hamburg, Klosterwall 23, 20095 Hamburg, Germany.
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