Rayyane Tabet exhibited with us for the first time in 2006 as part of the group show Moving Homes. He had his first solo at the gallery in Beirut in 2013: The Shortest Distance Between Two Points, followed by Only Gods Never Die at the gallery in Hamburg in 2015.
FRAGMENTS explores an archeological dig led by Max von Oppenheim, a German diplomat and ancient historian, in Tell Halaf, Northeast Syria, at the turn of the 20th century. The project stemmed from a performance presented at the 2016 Marrakech Biennale, and evolved through a residency at the DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Program, and a show at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. The completed project was presented in Tabet’s first major institutional solo at the Kunstverein in Hamburg in November 2017.
In 1929 Tabet’s great-grandfather, Faik Borcoche, was appointed by the governing authorities of the French Mandate stationed in Beirut as von Oppenheim’s secretary to gather information on the excavations the latter was conducting in the village of Tell Halaf in Syria. This encounter leads Tabet to uncover a story that connects his family to major historical figures. He raises questions on the survival of heirlooms, the preservation of archeological artifacts, cultural appropriation, museological practices, and migration patterns.
Rayyane Tabet is an artist who conveys complex ideas and powerful emotions through form and material. With each project, he reinvents his working techniques, bringing together unrelated facts that result in unexpected stories. FRAGMENTS includes a performance, drawings, sculptures, personal belongings and ready-mades which, together, become a multifaceted large installation. Against the backdrop of complex contemporary geopolitics, Tabet reconstructs the material remains of the Tell Halaf temple, tracks stone reliefs scattered in museums around the world, and assembles carpet fragments. Following the deconstruction and reconstruction of remains through the accidents of history, across time, generations and continents, the show draws on autobiographical notes and self-directed research, to explore stories that offer an alternative understanding of major events through individual narratives.
The main wall text of this exhibition is a transcript of a reading writtenand performed as the project evolved through presentations for the 6th Marrakesh Biennial; at the Galeries Lafayette Foundation in Paris; in the storerooms of the Pergamon Museum and at the daadgalerie in Berlin; in the Galleries of Ancient Near East Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam; during Act II of Sharjah Biennial 13 in Beirut and at the Kunstverein in Hamburg.
Faek Borkhoche (1895 - 1981) was a Lebanese schoolteacher, translator and Tabet’s great- grandfather who was assigned by the governing authorities of the French Mandate stationed in Beirut to be Max von Oppenheim’s secretary and gather information on the dig he was conducting in Tell Halaf in 1929. The little material documenting his six months-long stay are displayed in this vitrine. Alongside this material is Max von Oppenheim’s Der Tell Halaf book, which Faek received as a present in 1932, a postcard from the Tell Halaf Museum he received in 1937 and paraphernalia that connects the two figures which hints to the fact that the two stayed in touch long after the expedition ended.
In 1943, during one of the nightly bombing raids on Berlin, Max von Oppenheim’s Tell Halaf Museum and most of the objects inside were destroyed; among them were artifacts made from basalt stone that shattered into 27,000 fragments. A reconstruction project started in 2001 at the Pergamon Museum where the shards were kept in storage. Since then, 25,000 pieces have been reassembled. 2,000 fragments were unable to be identified or matched against any object and still remain in storage. As part of the Artists-in-Berlin residency program of the DAAD, Tabet gained access to the material while working with Dr. Nadja Cholidis and Dr. Lutz Martin, two of the main researchers involved in the conservation work of the Tell Halaf artifacts. By making rubbings of the unidentified shards, Tabet emphasizes the material traces of the loss of cultural heritage that might never be recovered while simultaneously proposing that a different form might emerge from the unidentified remains.
During Max von Oppenheim’s initial excavation at Tell Halaf in 1911, he discovered along the back wall of the palace a sequence of 194 orthostates. The slabs had been carved in low relief. They alternated between black basalt and red-painted limestone to form a narrative frieze of imagery including animals, plants, deities, and scenes from daily life. One hundred years later, several are now lost, destroyed or divided among several museums worldwide. During his residency in Berlin, Tabet started an ongoing project to make rubbings of the existing and available orthostates. So far, he has managed to copy twenty-four of the fifty-nine owned by the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and the four that are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A complete list of the 194 orthostates is presented above the framed rubbings, and highlights their current location, material, and the motif depicted on them.
The installation is made of several single-soldier-tents used by Germany, Russia, France and the United States in various ground offensives in North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf throughout the 20th century. They showcase the adoption and evolution of a simple square-shaped design introduced by the German army in 1899, which bears a striking resemblance to a classical Bedouin jacket called “bisht” that can be transformed into a single-person- tent by using two wooden poles. Between 1939 and 1968, Max von Oppenheim published an ethnographic study of Bedouin tribes in 4 volumes. Tabet includes in the installation these books alongside the genealogical tree of a Bedouin tribe and the maps of their movements in summer and winter derived from von Oppenheim’s publication. With this, Tabet not only emphasizes the accidental connection between von Oppenheim’s archeological endeavors and a historical case of cultural appropriation, but also confronts two fundamentally different concepts of society: objects that have come to symbolize colonial interventions, and traces of migration patterns and tribal links that negate the common conception of borders and nation states.
In 2009, to honor Max von Oppenheim’s work and legacy, the Hamburg based company Montblanc® issued a limited-edition pen under its “Patrons of Art” label. The edition consisted of 4,810 pens with 18k gold and 925 sterling silver with “engraved Bedouin motifs paying homage to Oppenheim’s passion for the tribes of the Arab world”. Tabet used one of these pens to write “KOPF HOCH! MUT HOCH! UND HUMOR HOCH!” on a large linen banner. The sentence can be translated as “CHIN UP! GOOD LUCK! AND KEEP SMILING!”, which was von Oppenheim’s motto and advice to whomever will be in charge of putting together the shattered artifacts from Tell Halaf— emphasizing his unbroken optimism despite seeing his life’s work being destroyed.
When Tabet’s great-grandfather died in 1981 he left behind a rug made from goat hair that had been given to him in 1929 by the Bedouins of Tell Halaf while working there as Max von Oppenheim’s secretary. It was his wish that the 20-meter rug should be divided equally among his five children with the request that they, in turn, divide it among their children and so on and so forth until the rug eventually disappears. As of today, the rug has been divided in twenty-three pieces across five generations. Tabet borrowed several of the fragments from his relatives and used linen replicas for the pieces where a loan was not possible. The work reflects on the tradition of family heirlooms as shared stories by way of a metaphor that extends from a genealogical tree to an abstract mathematical composition.
The installation comprises of 6.5 tons of black basalt tiles, imported from a quarry in Swaida, southern Syria. It is the same volume of the stone that constituted the original Tell Halaf Venus: a statue that became the emblem of the Tell Halaf expedition and was the centerpiece of Max von Oppenheim’s Museum Displayed on sculpture stands are foil pressings made from von Oppenheim’s mold of the original Venus, which was cast upon the discovery of the seated goddess in 1911. This mold was used by the conservators at the Pergamon Museum as a guide for the reconstruction of the shattered original. The fragmented presentation of the sculpture refers not only to its destruction and painstaking reassembly, but also to the scattering of cultural artifacts through violent moments in history.