Invoking his own great-grandfather, an artist considers the fragmented history of Syrian artefacts

The artist Rayyane Tabet's great-grandfather, Faek Borkhoche, holding a snake in Tell Halaf The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Casting a spotlight on the fraught nature of antiquities acquisitions, the exhibition Rayyane Tabet/Alien Property at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 18 January 2021) tells the intertwined story of four Neolithic reliefs excavated in Tell Halaf, an archaeological site in present-day Syria, and an ancestor of the Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet. The show aims to “encourage conversations around acquisitions, provenance, and who benefits, suffers or is allowed to own antiquities”, says Kim Benzel, the museums curator in charge of ancient Near Eastern art, who teamed with Clare Davies, the assistant curator of Modern and contemporary art, to organise the show.

Tabet first approached the museum in 2016 to request permission to produce charcoal rubbings of four ninth-century BC stone reliefs from Tell Halaf. His goal was to conceptually “resuscitate” an extant frieze from the site that was excavated in the early 20th century by the German archaeologist Baron Max von Oppenheim. Tabet was inspired by his great-grandfather, Faek Borkhoche, who worked incognito as a translator alongside von Oppenheim in Tell Halaf while serving as an informer for the French government. Borkhoche suspected Oppenheim of using the dig as a cover-up for mapmaking activity in areas under French and British rule.

“There were always myths about my great-grandfather, von Oppenheim and this excavation,” Tabet says. “There was a photograph of Oppenheim—who looked nothing like us—hanging on the wall of my grandparents house, and there was an archaeological book written in German, a language none of us spoke. I was intrigued enough by the story to pursue it, and eventually learned that artefacts from the excavation had ended up in museums around the world, including the Met. At that point, what started as a personal project became something much bigger.”

Starting in 1911, von Oppenheim oversaw the excavation of around 200 reliefs from the ancient site. Borkhoches spy mission ended with no evidence against the archaeologist, and he returned to Beirut after six months with some mementos from the dig, including photographs and a copy of von Oppenheims book about the expedition, Der Tell Halaf. Borkhoches copy of the book is exhibited along with the museums own version, in which von Oppenheim has inscribed a dedication to Herbert Winlock, who was the director of the Met when von Oppenheim visited the museum in 1932.

Around 1931-32, von Oppenheim brought eight fragmented reliefs from Tell Halaf to the US but placed the artefacts in storage after he failed to sell them. In 1943, US authorities seized the reliefs under the Alien Property Custodian, a mandate launched during the First World War and reactivated during the Second World War stating that the US government had the power to search, investigate and seize the belongings of enemies, which included German nationals such as von Oppenheim.

The reliefs were offered at public auction that same year; the Met bought all eight for $4,000 and immediately sold four of them to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The exhibition displays the original acquisition documents, which marks a “big gesture and shift for the institution, which usually never discloses these types of documents”, Tabet says.

One of the four reliefs from Tell Halaf in the Met's collection depicts a seated figure holding a lotus flower The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The rubbings Tabet made from the reliefs in the Met are displayed in the exhibition with those he made from fragments from Tell Halaf held in the Walters Museum and at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. (There are 32 rubbings altogether.) Other existing fragments from the site, which are not included in the show, can be found in the National Museum of Aleppo and the British Museum; still others are missing or were destroyed during the Second World War.

“This mirror between our stories—between the ancient site, the museum and these personal stories I grew up with—can maybe provide a platform to confront things like war and colonialism as it relates to the acquisition of antiquities,” Tabet says. “The reliefs, shown in this context, can be an opportunity for the institution to lead the conversation, rather than follow it whenever theres a scandal.”

A rubbing by Rayanne Tabet of the aforementioned relief The Metropolitan Museum of Art Read More – Source