By Sam Baldwin
When most Americans think of Iraq, they think of war, hostility, and terror. The country’s vibrant culinary and artistic culture is all too often eclipsed by connotations of distress. Michael Rakowitz, a New York born Iraqi-American artist decided to change the nation’s skewed views of Iraq through artistic and culinary endeavors.
Rakowitz, who is an associate professor of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University has been creating politically focused conceptual art for many years, but one of his most notable and groundbreaking projects is Enemy Kitchen, a food truck that employs American war veterans to serve traditional Iraqi recipes to residents of numerous Chicago neighborhoods.
The Enemy Kitchen project began in New York City in 2003 when Rakowitz and his mother compiled some of their favorite Iraqi recipes and began to teach them to the public, hoping to spark more meaningful conversations about conflict in Iraq and in doing so, explore the inverse relationship between hostility and hospitality.
The project continued to grow when Rakowitz made his way to Chicago to begin teaching at Northwestern. He found a vintage 1960s ice cream truck, painted it army green and added the Iraqi coat of arms: the Eagle of Saladin. He then flew a Chicago flag of red, black, and green—the Iraqi flag’s colors. With that, the Enemy Kitchen food truck was ready for business.
The truck began traveling around Chicago, handing out free Iraqi meals to the public. With Iraqi chefs cooking, and U.S. veterans serving food, Rakowitz’s project was bridging the gap between supposed enemies. Two national identities thought to be irrevocably hostile towards one another were sharing immense generosity and bonding over something as simple as lunch.
In 2012, the truck was put into retirement behind Milo’s Pita Place, a Middle-Eastern restaurant and part-time nightclub in West Ridge. However, after years of vandalism, theft, and damage to the truck, Rakowitz, along with help from the Chicago public (and a Museum of Contemporary Art Kickstarter page), repainted, refurbished, and brought the truck back into service on time for Rakowitz’s exhibit Backstroke of the West, which showed from September 2017 to March 2018.
Backstroke of the West, Rakowitz’s first ever museum exhibition, highlighted some of his early works alongside new commissions. Each of Rakowitz’s installations worked to challenge the viewers’ preconceptions of Iraq, and to break social, political, and cultural boundaries by juxtaposing common American ideas with Iraqi art, culture, and of course, food. Hundreds of meals were served straight from the Enemy Kitchen food truck at the steps of the museum.
Through this exchange of food and art Rakowitz breaks bread and boundaries all in one.