In a special pull-out print that accompanies the March 2023 issue of Art in America (pictured below), Rayyane Tabet spotlights a document from a court case that bears traces of a sculptural fragment’s surprising—and revealing—journey around the world and back. The Lebanon-born, San Francisco–based artist is committed to examining histories that nod toward gray areas of complicated topics, like Orientalism and repatriation. But his artwork focuses on specific cases, deliberately leaving their moral implications open to interpretation. To accompany a portfolio of his work with his print included, Tabet spoke with AiA about wealth, war, and espionage that he has uncovered.
How would you describe your research process?
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I’m trained in architecture, and architects do this thing called site analysis: when you’re assigned a site, you study it from economic, political, social, geological, and other perspectives. I eventually began to apply the same logic to found objects, excavating stories that are all around us. But I have to admit that I never really thought about my work as research-based, because my research isn’t very academic. It’s more that, sometimes, I encounter random things and then just kind of follow them. I’m drawn to the accidents, anecdotes, rumors, and detours. I have to confess that I failed my theory classes—but I’m a big fan of short stories.
One reason your work stands out under the umbrella of artistic research is that so much other art in that vein can be didactic or even moralistic, whereas you place an emphasis on nuance, like in “Arabesque.”
I don’t want my work to simply announce itself. For me, it’s not the case that, if only you knew what I know, then you’ll get what I’m doing. It’s less about passing on knowledge and more about research as a method of meandering. My work is political work in the Greek sense of the word “polis”: it’s a place where people have a conversation.
“Arabesque” (2020) was born of an accident. In a thrift store in Beirut, I came across this 19th-century manuscript by a French ornamental specialist named Jules Bourgoin. As somebody who was born in 1983, I was mostly taught history as something that happened from World War II onward, but with this project, I became fascinated by how much we still live in the shadow of the 19th century.
Bourgoin was part of these French archaeological missions to Egypt. He was sent to make drawings of buildings and ornaments; the French were obsessed with Orientalism at the time. His drawing wound up being utilized by interior decorators in Paris, who made fake oriental interiors, and he realized that his studies were being instrumentalized in a pastiche way. In 2020 I showed the work in a show called “Arabesque” at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. The title is a European concept; it doesn’t exist in Arabic. I took every page of that book and cut out forms, then folded them back. So you’re actually looking at the back of the print. Basically, I abstracted the abstractions. There’s a sense in which I’m destroying the manuscript too. I wouldn’t quite call it reverse Orientalism, but it’s a form of exaggerating the problematics of that way of thinking, hopefully.
How about “Fragments”?
“Fragments” (2016–ongoing) is a multiyear project that looked at an archaeological dig that took place between 1911 and 1913, and then again, between 1927 and 1929, in Tell Halaf, on the border between Syria and Turkey. The dig was led by an amateur archaeologist named Max von Oppenheim. My great-grandfather worked on this dig in the summer of 1929, as Oppenheim’s personal secretary and translator. I found photos of them together, and correspondence between them. In 2016 I was headed to Berlin for a residency and thought, Well, this guy is German—maybe I should look into it. A lot of the material that he excavated wound up at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, so I sent an email to something like [email protected] [saying] “I’m the great-grandson of somebody who worked to dig up objects in your collection.” I wound up meeting with these two incredible conservators who told me “we’ve been waiting for you.”
They had photos from the dig with my great-grandfather in the background, but they had never identified him. They’d been researching Oppenheim since the ’90s; he was quite a character. He opened his own museum in Berlin with the material that he brought back, but the museum was bombed during World War II, so most of it was destroyed. Then, Berlin was divided and the fragments got separated. But after reunification, the conservators started putting them back together. I was there when ISIS was destroying sites like Palmyra and became fascinated by this story in part because the objects were destroyed in Berlin, not Syria. This complicates the idea that objects are somehow safer in the West.
How did “Fragments” progress from there?
Six or seven museums throughout the world have objects from Tell Halaf, so I started contacting all of them. The museums share parts of this same large frieze that was made of about 200 stone slabs, now divided and dispersed. I asked for permission to make rubbings of those objects. The project culminated in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019 called “Alien Property.” The Met holds four of these stone tablets, which they acquired as a result of the Alien Property Custodian Act. Enacted in World War I and reactivated during World War II, the act said that objects belonging to US enemies on US soil could be requisitioned and put up for auction.
Between the wars, Oppenheim was short on cash, since he was building a museum, so he brought eight stone reliefs to try and sell them to collectors in New York. He arrived right after the stock market crashed, so he didn’t find any buyers. He stuck them in storage and went back to Berlin. Fifteen years later, at the height of World War II, the alien property custodian police realized that the tablets were in a storage room in New Jersey, and that they were owned by the enemy. The Met acquired all eight of them, and then sold four to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. This transaction was legal, but today it’s no longer considered ethical.
At the Met, I showed the acquisition documents—the first time the Met ever made acquisition documents public. I also showed personal artifacts from my great-grandfather, as well as rubbings I made of the friezes at the Louvre, the Pergamon, the Walters, and the Met. The show also included a rug, a work called Genealogy (2016–ongoing). My great-grandfather was actually sent to work as Oppenheim’s secretary in order to gather intelligence information on him for the French authorities, because they suspected the archaeologist was radicalizing Bedouin tribes for a possible coup; at the time, Syria and Lebanon were under French mandate. At the end of his mission, my great-grandfather received this rug made out of goat hair. He had nothing else to leave behind when he died, so he decided to cut the rug into five pieces for his children, who then divided it further among their descendants; this will continue until it disappears. In a strange way, the fate of the rug mirrors the fate of the stone slabs. I wanted to parallel a personal story and an institutional story so it isn’t just me pointing a finger.
Your current research project also relates to matters of looted cultural heritage.
That research is for a show called “The Return,” which opens in Beirut in May, and for a performance I’ll premiere at Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels. In the summer of 2017, a sculpture of a bull’s head was requisitioned from the Greek and Roman galleries at the Met, then returned to the National Museum of Beirut the following year. In 2018 I visited the museum in Beirut and noticed the wall text said something vague, like “these objects disappeared during the Civil War and have been repatriated.” I did some digging and realized that the bull’s head had been returned from the Met to Lebanon after a court case. It was displayed alongside some other objects that had been returned willingly, once the collectors were notified they’d been looted. The case was groundbreaking in that it led to the uncovering of a web of [unethical] antiquities dealers.
Then there was a revolution in Lebanon, and then a pandemic, and then the port explosion in Beirut, so I forgot about the bull completely. I had put a Google alert on the sculpture, so when the court documents were made public in December 2020, I got a notification. And the story is stranger than fiction.
How does it go?
It begins in the summer of 1967, when about 600 objects are uncovered at the temple in the south of Lebanon. The Civil War started in 1975; by 1979, the site came under threat, so the head of the National Museum decided to move all the objects north. In 1981, a group of Christian militiamen stormed a storage room and stole the objects. For the next 15 years, the story is mysteriously dark, but, eventually, the bull’s head appears in a Bronx storage room belonging to a now-disgraced British art dealer. In 1996 he sold it to a Colorado couple for $1 million. Then they sold it to someone else, the billionaire Michael Steinhardt. He was renovating his apartment at the time, so rather than taking possession of the object, he lent it to the Met, where it was on display for four years, until one of the curators recognized it as looted and contacted Lebanese authorities. Steinhardt relinquished ownership and it wound up back with the couple. When they refused to send it back, the federal court case began.
When the object was first uncovered in 1967, archaeologists took four black-and-white photos. Then—I’m not making this up—50 years later, to the day, the police requisitioned the bull’s head. By complete accident, they took four extremely similar photos. The entire court case wound up hinging on whether or not the four photos taken in ’67 were of the same object photographed in 2017.
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The object was ultimately returned to Lebanon, but in a sense, the story could not be returned. At the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the peace agreement stipulated that all criminal activity during the war was to be absolved. Everyone was pardoned. In a government institution, you can’t say something like “these objects were stolen” without implicitly blaming someone for stealing them. So all the curators could say was, basically, “this object disappeared, and then reappeared.”
My installation, at Sfeir-Semler gallery in Beirut, will tell the story while the bull’s head is on view at the National Museum. I’m usually against showing documents as art, but in this case, I’m printing out every single document that I was able to get from the New York Supreme Court, alongside the photos of the bull’s head, shown mural-size. It marks the return of the story.