Renovated Oriental Institute brings contemporary Middle Eastern art into galleries

Installation of works, including “Hiraeth,” “Collateral Damage” and “Baggage #5,” by Syrian artist and architect Mohamad Hafez, at the Oriental Institute Museum.
Contributed image by Michael Tropea

Staff writer

The Oriental Institute (OI), which recently finished a multimillion-dollar renovation in its centennial year, is exhibiting contemporary art that illustrates the impact current geopolitical upheaval is having on Middle Eastern antiquities.

Syrian architect and artist Mohamad Hafez, who previously had works up at the Mansueto Library and the Harris Public Policy School’s Keller Center, where he is this year’s artist-in-residence, wanted to merge the architectural heritage of his country with the destruction wrought by its civil war.

“I am interested in the loss of heritage and archaeology and architecture and history,” he said. “Undoubtedly the most expensive price in conflicts are human lives, but also there’s so much more that gets lost when we lose so much heritage bombed out of existence, like a 1,200-year-old minaret in Aleppo that comes crumbling down.”

From found objects, paint and scrap metal, Hafez’ works are surreal, architectural and politically charged, depicting stylized streetscapes battlered by war.

But he also incorporated Christian and Islamic scriptures into the works. “To add hope,” he said. “To add the context, the big picture — because if you focus on the moment, it’s a dark image. But if you zoom out and look at the big picture, you see that there is hope. Similar civilizations have gone through this, and they’ve rebuilt and moved forward.”

“Whether it happens in my lifetime or not, I hope to see that happening. But I know that I have a duty to educate and work with youth today, in getting them interested in this moving forward,” he said. On display amid the heritage of lost civilizations and peoples, Hafez hopes his work will carry a message to young people: “If this gets wiped, it’s as though we never existed.”

Works by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, in which he recreated reliefs from newspaper clippings and Iraqi food packaging reliefs from an Asyrrian palace in modern-day Nimrud, Iraq (which the Islamic State group destroyed in 2015). The OI, 1155 E. 58th St., received the relief fragment, which dates to the 800s BC, from the British Museum in 1974; Rakowitz completed it.

“We took the installation as an opportunity to address where the objects come from,” said Chief Curator Jean Evans at a Sept. 24 press event.

“There’s such a rich and varied response to what’s happening in the region that I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity to reach visitors in a different way,” she said in a subsequent interview. “The opportunity that we have to really draw these connections between contemporary locations and what’s going on today and what happened in the past, I think that’s really worthwhile.”

The contemporary artworks on display coincide with the OI’s new exhibit of early Islamic art — objects that had been in its collection since its beginning 100 years ago but never in the galleries.

“People can make these collections, even though they are early-AD collections,” said OI Director Christopher Woods. “People connect the Middle East with Islam, and I think having an Islamic collection will draw a connection we haven’t had before.”

In addition to the contemporary art, performances are also planned this academic year. The Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., will present a one-man adaptation of Homer’s Iliad at the OI in February and March, and an interpretation of the Gilgamesh epic is also planned.

And artist Ann Hamilton’s exhibit, “aeon,” is also on display at the Mansueto Library, 1100 E. 57th St., through Oct. 31, displaying images from the museum’s collections on the reading room’s glass ceiling.