Book Review

When Rayyane Tabet moved to Berlin on a DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Program in 2016, his project was still undetermined. “I didn’t really have a story in mind,” he sayss. So, he took with him the Der Halaf book that German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim had given his great grandfather Faik Borkhoche, and some photographs of the two men together. Ever since discovering these objects years ago as a child, he had been intrigued and haunted by this unlikely familial link. “Perhaps something will come of it,” he thought as he travelled.

Two years later, Rayyane Tabet presents his book Fragments, designed as an installation, coupled with a performance, and inspired by that same family legend. The book is an exact replica of the one given by Von Oppenheim – it is a bright yellow jacketed, hard backed and bearing the same insignia and Der Halaf title. The cover in itself sets the precedence for the main preoccupation of the text, that is, to breathe new life into ancient objects. Fragments takes on an interesting form of storytelling: using the approach of an archaeologist excavating material to piece together a history, artefacts are also used here as the focal points around which the narrative is woven. These artefacts have been transformed into installations, transmuting the ancient history of Tell Halaf and the often-accidental links between Tabet, Oppenheim and the imperial project. Photographs of these installations, original documents, and narrative texts come together, in fragmented ways, to comprise the contents of the book. The photographs are striking, taken at artistic angles, enabling the reader to figuratively move around the installations almost as if they were present. The scanned copies of documents appear like evidence, enabling the reader to become a detective in the “spy story,” as Tabet calls it. The book is artfully put together, the pages are bold and aesthetic – a powerful blend of art and archaeology.

The story of Von Oppenheim’s excavation becomes a tale of espionage. The very reason that the artist’s great-grandfather was appointed by French Mandate authorities in Beirut to serve as Von Oppenheim’s personal secretary, was in order to gather intelligence for the colonial government. Though archaeology during the colonial era did operate as a form of espionage, this was not the case with Von Oppenheim, who was simply there to recover the remains of Tell Halaf in Syria. The finds were divided with the French authorities, and some remains were transferred to the National Museum of Aleppo. Von Oppenheim stored the rest in his own private Tell Halaf Museum in Charlottenburg. The Museum was actually destroyed during a nightly bombing raid in 1943, but the artefacts, being made of basalt, survived, albeit shattered. In one installation, Tabet shows a large linen banner reading: “KOPF HOCH! MUT HOCH! UND HUMOR HOCH.” It translates as “Chin up! Good luck! And keep smiling!” – it was Von Oppenheim’s optimistic motto and apt advice to whomever will be in charge of putting together the shattered artefacts of Tell Halaf.

It is evident that the work has been painstakingly researched, taking Tabet from the ninth century BC to the present day and through the deconstruction and reconstruction of remains through the accidents of history, across time, generations and continents. Through Fragments, Tabet seeks to show how, “objects sit on a continuum of being timely and timeless – they come from the past but exist in the present and have an infinite life,” he says.

He succeeds. His work may be set in antiquity but nevertheless is certainly a timely contribution to current issues. This was the key consensus of the roundtable discussion that launched Fragments at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut. Present were Clare Davies and Kim Benzel, curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Bettina Steinbrügge, director of Kunstverein in Hamburg. They celebrated the ways Tabet has managed to find a way to explore a political problematic through a personal history. In particular, they focused on how, through his work, Tabet lays bare the imperial legacy inherent in museological practices. As the curators discussed, this is a time when museums are confronting the uncomfortable reality that many of their galleries are filled with a collection of colonial spoils. Thus Tabet’s ancient history becomes immensely timely, and is what enthused all of the women to work with him. Benzel spoke of how the Met would be redoing and rethinking the way they planned their galleries in the years to come, moving from a mandate of “collection to acquisition.” She envisages that museums could now act as a place of collection for displaced peoples. This is a huge shift and offers a kind of redemption from the way museums used to be. “Rayyane has catapulted us into new era at the Met,” says Benzel, with tears in her eyes. Evidently this has been a work that has led to a great deal of personal and emotional investment. All present at the Roundtable understood its importance and felt its power. It’s an amazing testament to the seismic impact of small stories.


By Priyanka Raval