Artist Michael Rakowitz Calls for British Museum to Return Assyrian Sculpture in Exchange for His Work

Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz has called on the British Museum to return an artifact to Iraq in exchange for the donation of a large-scale work by him.

Rakowitz’s proposal will be addressed in a forthcoming visit between Iraq’s culture ministry and British officials in London next month during a scheduled British museum is tour, the Guardian reports.

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Rakowitz has proposed the gift of his 2018 Fourth Plinth commission in Trafalgar Square to the Tate Modern, a British Museum affiliate overseen by the U.K. government, in exchange for the latter sharing ownership of an Assyrian artifact with Iraq. He began exploring the exchange in 2020, according to the Guardian, and is now moving closer to becoming a reality.

Rakowitz’s Fourth Plinth commission was a mythical Assyrian winged bull known as a lamassu made of date syrup tins. He wrote of his intentions to give a related work to the Tate Modern in a letter to the British Museum.

Through Rakowitz’s proposed deal, the British Museum would return one of the two Assyrian lamassu sculptures in its permanent collection. The sculptures were uncovered by a 19th-century British archaeologist.

In his work, Rakowitz has often called attention to Iraq’s losses of cultural property amid ongoing conflicts. The Chicago-based artist has frequently considered the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that left its national museum ransacked.

Iraqi officials in charge of the countries’ cultural initiatives are now working to restore the Mosul Museum, which was damaged in 2015 by ISIS militants. During the attack, lamassu sculptures were among the artifacts destroyed.

The Tate is also involved in private talks with the British Museum to move Rakowitz’s request forward, the artist told the Guardian. A representative for Rakowitz and the Tate did not immediately respond to ARTnews’s request for additional comment on the discussions.

The British Museum has not yet said it will return the original lamussu to Iraq, although it is reportedly considering a loan deal and “future collaborations,” per a statement obtained by the Guardian. The museum has historically loaned replicas of displaced objects to national museums requesting restitutions, a practice that has drawn criticism from repatriation activists.


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