Rayyane Tabet: Exquisite Corpse brings together newly commissioned and reconceived presentations from FRAGMENTS (2016–ongoing), the artist’s most ambitious project to date, and marks its first in-depth presentation in the region. Drawing on personal insight and historical records to stage encounters between audiences and matters of geopolitical consequence, the body of work explores an archaeological excavation led by German diplomat Baron Max von Oppenheim in Tell Halaf, northeast Syria, at the turn of the twentieth century. The artist’s great-grandfather Faek Borkhoche worked as von Oppenheim’s secretary for six months in 1929, a few years after Western powers had carved up the region. Following this familial connection, Tabet has developed works that engages with family heirlooms and archaeological artefacts through accidents of history—across time, generations and continents. Taken together, this project intimates the wide-ranging fallout of an era that looms large over current discussions of cultural appropriation, museological practice and freedom of movement.
Curated by Ryan Inouye, Exquisite Corpse conveys the story of the Tell Halaf excavation while also foregrounding ethical questions further afield. Basalt Shards (2017), an expansive installation of 1,000 charcoal rubbings made from the shattered remains of the Tell Halaf artefacts, reveals their violent separation from their original context and suggests a confrontation with potential energy and raw, undifferentiated matter. Similarly, in Ah, my beautiful Venus! (2017), Tabet has made foil pressings from an archaeological cast of a carved stone figure. These delicate impressions of face and hands, sitting atop basalt tiles quarried in southern Syria, are shown with the shipping records for the construction material, charting a journey via Beirut into Europe and now the United Arab Emirates.
In Exquisite Coprse (2017), the work from which the exhibition takes its title, military tents used in Western ground offensives in the Levant, North Africa and the Arabian Gulf recall a traditional Bedouin jacket that could double as both personal garment and provisional shelter. The work juxtaposes life defined by settlement and expanding territorial borders with life that moves across land according to seasons. In a new commission, Portrait of Faek Borkhoche(2021), Tabet liberates material from numerous physical archives, including his great-grandfather’s never-before-seen field notes from the Tell Halaf expedition, as an intervention into this history. Finally, Digital Surrogates (2021), a new web project that houses images of artefacts, associated material and Tabet’s own artwork, explores the possibilities offered by digital preservation and circulation while reinforcing the need to treat such representations as extensions of their physical counterparts, particularly within debates around ownership, copyright and intellectual property today.
An exhibition booklet will feature a curatorial essay, discussing the evolution of the project and the development of the Sharjah Art Foundation presentation. This text will be accompanied by commissioned writing by Omar Dewachi, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick; Uzma Rizvi, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn; and Andrea Wallace, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Exeter.