America is 233 years old. America will turn 234 on July 4, 2010. By contrast, the war in Iraq has resulted in the destruction of thousands of historical and archaeological treasures, many which date back as far as 6,000 years. One such example is the the ziggurat (the first building structures of the Sumerians) at Ur, built in 2100 B.C., which was damaged during the first Gulf War. Other ancient treasures that took a hit include a thousand-year-old bridge in Baghdad, a 10th century church in Mosul that was partially destroyed, and Iraq's National Library (which contained historical documents from the Ottomans and Qur'ans from the early Islamic period), which looters ransacked and burned while U.S. forces watched.
Ancient ruins like these that take the hit as a result of war is a stark reality that we're largely shielded from in the West. Painter Armita Raafat, born in Chicago, but having lived in Tehran in the 1980s during the Iraq-Iran war, brings her perspective of occupying a space between two worlds to her exhibition at threewalls, on view until February 13.
Raafat combines influences from ancient art with a message about the cultural carnage of war in a profound and startling manner. Fresh from her first Museum of Contemporary Art show (May 2009), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate with an MFA in painting shows in her first threewalls exhibition that she can combine painting and sculpture, and tackle architectural replication with admirable skill.
At once sparse and evocative, Raafat's replicas of destroyed muqarnas, a three-dimensional decorative element found in Islamic architecture, speak at once of beauty and disappearance. The structures, which the artist studied on a recent trip to the Iranian city Isfahan, have been constructed from papier-mâché, turmeric and turquoise paint to create a haunting meditation on destruction and life force. Appearing like spider webs that are both ugly and beautiful, the structures have neither title nor explanation.
This exhibition is remarkable in the way the artist transforms the space from gallery to a memorial and yet at the same time it's a living, breathing testament to the preservation of ancient ruins. Raafat's structures may be present in half-gone fashion, but their display says much about the power of their resilience.
And what are we Americans, in the middle of the Midwest supposed to do with this information? We may know little of Islamic architecture, of mosques and muqarnas, and certainly don't live with ancient history everyday. But by bringing pieces of her culture to an audience unfamiliar with seeing ancient art in the everyday, Raafat reminds us that the treasures of the ancient world belong to all of us.