PRINT February 2020


View of “Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property,” 2019–21, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

TWO COLOSSAL STONE BEASTS guard the archway over the threshold of gallery 401, on the second floor of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, just south of the grand balcony overlooking the architectural splendor of the institution’s great hall. The alabaster figures are about three thousand years old and weigh some sixteen thousand pounds each. Known as lamassu, they represent supernatural creatures, protective spirits, hybrid deities with human heads and animal bodies. Impressive feathered wings extend backward from their shoulders. Long geometric beards hang from their faces. They wear horned caps to signal divinity and belts symbolizing power. Each of the figures has five legs, so that from the front they appear to be standing firm, but from the side they look as though they are striding purposefully forward. At a glance, the creatures register as twins, doubles—but in fact they are very different. One has claws and the body of a lion, the other hooves and the body of a bull.

View of “Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property,” 2019–21, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

Together, the lamassu once guarded the entrance to a similarly proportioned hall in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, the Assyrian king who in the ninth century bce built a new capital on the ruins of the ancient city of Kalhu, thought to have been the site of the even older biblical city of Nimrud, located southeast of Mosul in modern-day Iraq. Ashurnasirpal II was so proud of himself and his city that he organized a festival for nearly seventy thousand guests to celebrate his achievements.

 Seated figure reconstructed, Neo-Hittite, Tell Halaf, Syria, 10th–9th century BCE, basalt, 75 5⁄8 × 32 3⁄8 × 39 3⁄8".

Facing a gallery lined with ornate, cuneiform-covered relief sculptures from the same palace, the lamassu exemplify Assyrian art at its most refined and imperial. The stone beasts, like the reliefs, began their journey to New York in 1927 and entered the museum’s collection in 1932. They were excavated in the 1840s by the British archaeologist and traveler Austen Henry Layard, who led numerous expeditions to Nimrud, Babylon, and Nineveh. His finds were typically extracted from these sites and shipped off to England. Some of them ended up in the British Museum. But Layard gave others away, including the lamassu and reliefs, which he bestowed on his mother-in-law, Lady Charlotte Guest. In 1919, the Armenian antiquities dealer Dikran Kelekian, known for his expertise in Islamic art, bought the lamassu and reliefs from one of Guest’s grandsons. Kelekian sold them eight years later to John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller, in turn, donated them to the Met.

Excavation of seated figure, Tell Halaf, Syria, 1912.

From the mid-1980s until late last year, gallery 401 was empty except for the lamassu, the reliefs, and a single bench in the middle of the room. Visitors standing inside the gallery and looking out past the guardians saw an outdated map of the region known today as the Middle East. The adjoining galleries, 400 and 402, were filled with hundreds of artifacts arranged in large cases. The display style was methodical and scientific, emphasizing clear-cut, standardized information (time, place, period) over deep context and storytelling. The look was state-of-the-art thirty years ago.

The figure’s checkered history, ambiguous gender, and contested aesthetic value make her a generative object for poetic metaphor, political allegory, and institutional critique.

Gallery 401 actually has several names. Its numerical designation is both practical and neutral. “The Assyrian Royal Court” is more colorful and descriptive. But, officially, this room is named for the late Beverly and Raymond Sackler. The storage closet that runs behind one of its walls is named for Raymond Sackler’s sons, Jonathan and Richard. Thanks largely to an activist campaign spearheaded by the artist Nan Goldin, it is now almost universally known that much of the Sackler family’s wealth came from opioid sales, but the individual members of the family can be difficult to keep straight. Raymond, with his brother Mortimer, developed OxyContin. Richard is the one who, according to court filings, sent emails to Purdue Pharma sales reps urging them to push doctors to prescribe higher doses of it and to blame addicts for the ensuing crisis.

Orthostat relief of a seated figure holding a lotus flower, Neo-Hittite, Tell Halaf, Syria, ca. 10th–9th century BCE, basalt, 26 3⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 × 20 1⁄8".

The Sacklers have since been struck from the Met’s list of potential future donors. But while that one family’s toxic philanthropy has now been rejected by the Met, theirs are by no means the only dubious names on the institution’s walls and in its annual reports. The museum recently welcomed Nita Ambani, wife of Reliance Industries’ Mukesh Ambani, as an honorary member of its board of trustees. Mukesh Ambani is the richest man in Asia and a strong supporter of the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The Economist called him an “unloved billionaire” and highlighted his poor record on corporate governance. The writer Arundhati Roy used Ambani’s appalling mansion in Mumbai (“the twenty-seven floors, three helipads, nine lifts, hanging gardens, ballrooms, weather rooms, gymnasiums, six floors of parking, and six-hundred servants”) as the opening set in her book Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014). Henry Kissinger is still an emeritus trustee. But those are beasts of a different order.

Sculpture fragments after bombing, Tell Halaf Museum, Berlin, November 22, 1943.

LATE LAST YEAR, the Met removed all of the archaeological objects from the rooms on either side of gallery 401. Only a small group of carved basalt and limestone orthostats (rectangular architectural blocks usually positioned side by side along the bottom edge of a structure’s walls) were left in place, in a corner of gallery 402, exactly where they had been for decades. The cases were dismantled as well. Under the direction of the curator in charge, Kim Benzel, the staff of the Met’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art took down the map in gallery 400 and tore it up. This may very well prefigure a major rethinking of the department’s approach and provide a test case for installing the collection differently. But, for now, the vacant galleries serve another purpose: They set the stage for a spare and subtle exhibition of contemporary art.

Tell Halaf Museum, Berlin, ca. 1930s.

Until January 2021—which is to say, throughout the twelve-month period when the Met will be celebrating its 150th anniversary with all manner of historical adventures and experimental revisions—the lamassu and reliefs in gallery 401 will be keeping some very strange company. Facing them, in their own room, is a wrecked and shattered creature who comes from Berlin. A seated basalt figure, she has weird pigtails, a prominent, beak-like nose, and a bowl in one hand. Clearly, she’s been smashed into hundreds of pieces and painstakingly reconstructed, but with all of her brutal cracks and seams still showing. Although she travels the world on long-term loan from a family foundation, her usual home is Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. The figure’s gender, if any, is indeterminate; I say her because, according to the great crime novelist Agatha Christie, Max von Oppenheim, the amateur archaeologist who first excavated this large and, at the time, wholly intact relic, eventually brought her to his own private museum in the city’s Charlottenburg neighborhood, where he would stand by her side and sigh, “My beautiful Venus!”

Faik Borkhoche holding a snake, Tell Halaf, Syria, June 5, 1929. Photo: Max von Oppenheim

The seated figure, like the orthostats, came from a temple at the Syrian archaeological site known as Tell Halaf, location of the ancient city of Guzana. Oppenheim, rogue son of a famous banking family, fashioned himself a diplomat and explorer in the late nineteenth century. Mischievous and sometimes reckless, he was a figure as colorful as he was controversial. In 1899, while he was based in Cairo and traveling the region, scoping out routes for the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, Oppenheim stumbled on the ruins of an ancient kingdom dating from the Neo-Hittite era. Although eventually conquered by the Assyrians, the Neo-Hittites thrived for a time as a loose and fractious association of largely independent city-states.

Envelope sent to Faik Borkhoche from Max von Oppenheim, ca. 1937, ink stamp and typewriter ink on paper envelope, 6 1⁄2 × 6 3⁄4".

Oppenheim returned to Tell Halaf again and again, unearthing numerous objects, including the seated figure and a collection of just under two hundred orthostats. The latter, intricately adorned with real and fantastical beings, hunting scenes, and leisure activities, once lined the outer walls of a temple and were excavated in 1911 with permission from the Ottoman Empire. In the late 1920s, during the French Mandate in Syria, they were divvied up among the local authorities, their colonial overlords, and the excavating team. Thirty-four of the orthostats became part of the foundational collection of the National Museum of Aleppo, two went to the Louvre in Paris, and the rest were taken by Oppenheim back to Berlin, where he opened the Tell Halaf Museum in an old iron foundry. On display along with the orthostats was a collection of thirty larger stone sculptures, including griffins and hybrid creatures with the bodies of men, the heads of birds, and the tails of scorpions. The most beloved among them was the seated figure, known as the enthroned goddess, whom Oppenheim revered for her beauty. But even when she was in one piece, art historians (as well as auction-house appraisers) found Oppenheim’s goddess rather ugly and coarse. Compared to the grand Assyrian artworks of Ashurnasirpal II, she was considered inferior, the creation of a lesser culture. In fact, her checkered history, ambiguous gender, and contested aesthetic value make her a generative object for poetic metaphor, political allegory, and institutional critique.

Max von Oppenheim, ca. 1929.

The figure has been placed in front of the Met’s two lamassu as if for a chat, the conversational dynamic among the three sculptures serving to underscore their silence. The Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet, working in close collaboration with Benzel and the Met’s Modern and Contemporary assistant curator Clare Davies, brought the figure here to mutely bear witness to twentieth-century violence—specifically, the European and American violence of the Western theater of World War II, when Allied powers attacked Berlin and a bomb reduced Oppenheim’s museum to rubble. The limestone objects from Tell Halaf were immediately destroyed. The basalt objects, including the figure, survived the smoldering heat but not the deluge that put out the fire. They shattered into nearly thirty thousand pieces. Bereft and nearing the end of his life, Oppenheim sent the debris in nine truckloads to the Pergamon Museum, where it remained in storage until 1999, when a small team of curators and conservators began the heroic, decade-long process of putting the shards back together again.

Max von Oppenheim, Der Tell Halaf (F. A. Brockhaus, 1931).

GIVEN THE EXCEPTIONAL DEPTH AND RICHNESS of the archaeological record in this region, it’s not surprising that conceptual artists with connections to the Middle East have made the tools, language, and methods of archaeology a vital part of their practice for decades. Consider Michael Rakowitz’s heartbreaking lamassu on the Fourth Plinth in London, on view through March 2020, a key part of The invisible enemy should not exist, 2007–, the Iraqi American artist’s powerful long-term project on the looting of ancient cultural heritage since the US-led invasion of Iraq. Or think of the work of the Paris- and Beirut-based artist Ali Cherri, notably the video Somniculus, 2017, and installation Fragments, 2016, which explore the market for archaeological relics—not only the most valuable items stolen or spectacularly demolished by isis and other militant groups but also the relatively modest objects that turn up all the time in lower-tier auction houses. Artists such as Kader Attia and Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme (the latter two work together as a pair) have also made highly relevant and illuminating works in this vein. In terms of using the presentation of archaeological objects as an occasion for a dialogue with contemporary art and a critique of institutional practice, Fareed Armaly, whose multifaceted 2007 project “Shar(e)d Domains” staged a riveting intervention into a display of archaeological effects from Gaza, may be an important (and all too often unacknowledged) forerunner here.

View of statue fragments from Tell Halaf in a sorting facility, Friedrichshagen, Berlin, 2003.

Archaeology figures prominently in Tabet’s own history. His great-grandfather Faik Borkhoche was employed as Oppenheim’s secretary in the late 1920s, at the time of the Tell Halaf dig and the dispersal of the orthostats. According to family lore, Oppenheim was very likely spying on the French, while Borkhoche had been hired by the French to report on what his boss was digging up. More prosaically, during his time in Tell Halaf, Borkhoche received a precious gift from the bedouin who lived in the area, a beautifully patterned goat-hair rug that became extremely valuable to the family. The rug has been divided into smaller and smaller sections among the heirs of each generation. According to Benzel, when Tabet first contacted the Met to ask if he could make rubbings of the museum’s Tell Halaf orthostats—a phone call that initiated the three-year process of realizing his current show, “Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property”—he didn’t introduce himself as a contemporary artist of possible interest to the museum, but rather as a descendant of Borkhoche, a great-grandson investigating the material intimacies of inheritance and the strangely personal details of colonial encounter.

Rayyane Tabet, Genealogy, 2016–, goat hair. Installation view, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2019. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

Tabet always knew about his family connection to Oppenheim and Tell Halaf—it was a frequent topic of conversation over Sunday lunches with his grandparents—but he didn’t broach the subject in his art until relatively recently. Since he began showing his work in 2006, Tabet has set three major projects in motion. The first, “Five Distant Memories: The Suitcase, the Room, the Toys, the Boat and Maradona,” 2006–2016, charted his search for sculptural forms capable of carrying, like vessels, his own childhood memories of Lebanon’s long civil war, which lasted from 1975 through 1990 (Tabet was born in 1983), while also recalling aspects of everyday life during the conflict that could resonate more broadly as collective memory. The second, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” 2007–, a multilayered investigation of the period preceding the civil war, traces the construction of an oil pipeline that passed through Lebanon, bringing the country massive revenues and catalyzing Beirut’s so-called Golden Age, but also fueling corruption and exacerbating class conflict in the region. The third is “Fragments,” 2016–, a long-term undertaking in which Tabet has told the story of the Tell Halaf orthostats in several different ways, delving into the colonial era so instrumental in defining (if also deforming) the modern Middle East.

Tabet’s exhibition is complex, polyvocal, and deeply striated, like history itself.

Tabet has assembled a list and made a visual index of all the Tell Halaf orthostats discovered and dispersed by Oppenheim in the first half of the twentieth century, including those that were lost, stolen, and destroyed. He has gathered and reproduced the catalogue cards that Oppenheim had made of the orthostats for his museum, each a sort of portrait of a relief, showing lions, chariots, lotus flowers, and smaller crouching lamassu. Tabet has identified all of the extant orthostats, visited many of them, and made rubbings of thirty-two, part of a growing series of works on paper, “Orthostates,” 2017–, which Davies ties to the Surrealist practice of frottage. He has also borrowed from living (and willing) family members their portions of the great bedouin rug inherited from Borkhoche and arranged them into a massive wall work titled Genealogy, 2016–, which translates into literal terms the fragmentation of cultural transmission through time. He has told the story of the orthostats, the rug, Tell Halaf, Oppenheim, his grandfather, and himself in a book, Fragments (2018), and a performance, Dear Victoria, 2016–.

View of “Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property,” 2019–21, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rayyane Tabet, “Orthostates,” 2017–. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

Tabet, who studied in New York and San Diego but is still nominally based in Beirut, turned his attention to untangling the family connection to Oppenheim during a residency in Berlin in 2016 and has since shown elements of the “Fragments” project at Witte de With in Rotterdam, the Sixth Marrakech Biennale in Morocco, and Sharjah Biennial 13, among other venues. “Alien Property,” which opened at the end of October, includes Genealogy and “Orthostates,” each spaciously installed in one of the emptied-out galleries (400 and 402, respectively) of Ancient Near Eastern Art, together framing the dialogue between the lamassu and the seated figure. The inclusion of this figure accounts for the exhibition’s exceptionally long run—a year and three months. It is also, perhaps, the most profound gesture and unexpected turn in Tabet’s practice. In one sense, “Alien Property” represents the fullest expression to date of “Fragments.” In another, it opens up that project to larger questions of how museums have amassed their collections and how they continue to run their institutions in relation to a wider world of formerly colonized territories and repeatedly traumatized peoples.

View of “Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property,” 2019–21, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rayane Tabet, “Orthostates,” 2017–. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

Over the course of his career, Tabet has moved slowly back in time, from his own life to the earlier twentieth-century upheavals caused by the discovery of oil in the Middle East to the late-nineteenth-century arrival of imperial powers in the region. And yet “Alien Property” is very much about now. In many ways, by acknowledging such long histories of cultural production occurring amid, despite, and in connection with political destruction, Tabet’s show seems to speak far more respectfully and meaningfully to the recent experiences of Syria and Iraq than does MoMA PS1’s bombastic “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011,” which, in addressing the events of the Gulf wars directly with more than three hundred works selected and contextualized with all the curatorial sensitivity of an industrial fishing trawler, may actually have failed to say anything coherent at all.

Rayyane Tabet, Orthostat #170a, 2017, charcoal rubbing on paper, framed, 30 3⁄8 × 42 1⁄8" From the series “Orthostates,” 2017–.

With its intimations of an ancient-to-contemporary dialogue; its continual movements from flat to relief to fully sculptural work; and its many doubles, decoys, red herrings, and temptations to jump to the wrong conclusions (no, that seated figure wasn’t blown up in the Syrian civil war; no, “Alien Property” isn’t about immigration or the migrant crisis per se), Tabet’s exhibition, while cogent, is also complex, polyvocal, and deeply striated, like history itself. Both literally and conceptually, there are numerous ways into the exhibition. Many of the interconnections among objects and narratives are up to viewers to discover on their own. A few days after the opening, I walked through the show with Tabet, who told me frankly that some museum staff and audience members were alarmed or dismayed about this intrusion of contemporary art into the galleries. But to the great credit of Tabet, Benzel, and Davies, “Alien Property” does not shy away from proposing ideas, pursuing arguments, or taking positions. The notion that archaeological objects are safer in Western museums is false, as it was for the seated figure and several of the orthostats. Art history must be reconfigured, treated not as a fixed body of knowledge but as a set of narratives in flux. In considering the histories of museums, we should be more critical of wealth and power, even if doing so means risking the support of the museum’s traditional constituents. These ideas are finding increasing acceptance within the art world, but it’s bracing to see them articulated so powerfully within the space of the museum.

What Tabet’s work does so well is highlight the ways in which figures such as the Sacklers or Ambanis are only the latest in a long line of individuals who have made encyclopedic museums possible while doing considerable damage in the world.

Ancient Near Eastern Art is one of the smallest of the Met’s seventeen curatorial departments, in terms of the number of objects in its care and the footprint of its real estate. The department’s seven galleries—including 400, 401, and 402—are clustered into a kind of neighborhood. To one side are the vast and robust galleries that hold what was formerly known as Islamic art; they were renovated and reopened nine years ago under the cumbersome new name of the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. Across the balcony are the even more expansive quarters of Asian art. And just around the corner, in an upper-story outpost of the regal Greek and Roman Art Department, are four relatively small spaces filled with Cypriot objects from the collection of Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who, because of his gift, was named the Met’s first director in 1879.

1943 catalogue card of Neo-Hittite orthostats from Tell Halaf, Syria, 10th–9th century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Cesnola is another colorful and controversial character. “With his great cape, pince-nez and walrus mustache, Cesnola had the bearing and breeding of a soldier of fortune,” the New York Times informed its readers in 2000, when the Met brought Cesnola’s collection out of the proverbial attic. “Born of lesser nobility in the Italian Piedmont in 1832 and trained as a Sardinian cavalry officer, he fought briefly in the Crimea and Italy’s wars of independence before immigrating to the United States around 1858.” He also fought in the American Civil War and was eventually named the US consul to Cyprus, where he amassed an enormous collection of valuable antiquities and garnered a reputation for giving them makeovers with a chisel and glue if he thought it would raise their price. Say Cesnola’s name in the presence of the Met’s communication staff today and they are likely to avert their eyes with an almost perceptible shudder. And yet, he’s relevant to “Alien Property.” Cesnola’s complicated and periodically suppressed biography echoes in nearly all of the questions that Tabet’s project raises about the politics, large and small, of acquisitions of cultural heritage.

“Alien Property” has introduced a number of firsts. The Met hasn’t been conventionally forthcoming about sharing its acquisitions documents, but everything related to the museum’s peculiar and fortuitous purchase of Oppenheim’s orthostats is included in Tabet’s show, mirroring the related documents the artist found among his own family’s effects. It’s the first time the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art has collaborated on a public project with the Modern and Contemporary Art Department. It’s also the first time the two departments have made a joint acquisition, not to mention the first time Ancient Near Eastern Art has acquired the work of a living artist. Together, they have purchased the thirty-two works on paper that constitute Tabet’s “Orthostates” series, and they have also acquired the shared right of first refusal if the artist is ever able to complete it. Administrators at the Bristish Museum have so far denied his request to make rubbings of their Tell Halaf orthostats, and because of the ongoing conflict in Syria, he hasn’t been able to visit the museum in Aleppo to have a go at theirs.

1943 catalogue card of Neo-Hittite orthostats from Tell Halaf, Syria, 10th–9th century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The purchase of any ancient object is a daunting wager these days, which is a positive development insofar as it reflects both an increasing recognition that colonial powers pillaged the heritage of cultures around the world and a growing acceptance of the fact that redress is both possible and necessary. In no small part, this new understanding is due to the admirable restitution and repatriation efforts emanating from Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy’s groundbreaking proposals in France. In a 2018 report addressing artifacts in French museums plundered from sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial era, Sarr and Savoy turned the notion of French cultural patrimony on its head, arguing that these objects belonged to the lands from which they were stolen. They insisted that returning these objects was necessary, above all, to enable young people in sub-Saharan African to forge a connection to their own cultural heritage. Sarr and Savoy’s persuasive argument for the moral and political stakes of cultural heritage seems even more urgent in an era when an American president has openly threatened a nation’s material history (in January, after the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Trump declared that if Iran retaliated, the US would bomb fifty-two sites, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”). The authors of the report laid out crucial frameworks and apparatuses for the definitive restitution of cultural artifacts, citing a shift in public opinion and calling for greater scrutiny of the illegal acquisitions that museums in Europe and the United States continue to make, or did until very recently.

In September 2019, the Met’s own Department of Egyptian Art, for example, had to return a coffin that had been looted from Egypt as late as 2011, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As Benzel points out, her department has been steadily slowing down its rate of acquisitions since 2000. Between 2000 and 2015, only thirty-four new objects entered the collection, and the majority of them were gifts. Since 2016, when Benzel took over, there have been only two new acquisitions, neither of them ancient. One is Tabet’s work, and the other is a nineteenth-century Persian travelogue depicting pre-Islamic sites. Benzel likens the current market for antiquities in her area of specialization to a hunt for unicorns—fueled by fantasy and inevitably disappointing—and argues that the continued quest for ancient objects might be a poor allocation of resources and a distraction from the six thousand or so objects already in the museum’s care that have never made it out of storage to have their stories told.

1943 catalogue card of Neo-Hittite orthostats from Tell Halaf, Syria, 10th–9th century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The “alien property” of Tabet’s title is in fact something else. Around the time that Oppenheim opened his private museum, he needed to fundraise for it, and so he brought eight of the Tell Halaf orthostats to New York to sell. His timing was bad. It was 1931, the start of the Great Depression. He failed to find a buyer and left his collection in storage. Then, with the outbreak of World War II, the US reactivated its Office of Alien Property Custodian, or APC, part of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917. This executive order allowed the authorities to seize and liquidate items belonging to enemies or the allies of enemies if it was in the interest of the US to do so. Customs officials took possession of Oppenheim’s orthostats and put them up for sale. The Met was the highest bidder. It bought all eight of them for $4,000, then promptly resold four to what is now the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. It wasn’t exactly the sale of the century, but it was surely a good deal, and it gave the Met a font for future storytelling.

What Tabet’s work does so well, not only amid the grandeur of the Met as an exhibition venue but also in the more focused light of the institution’s current anniversary, is highlight the ways in which figures such as the Sacklers or Ambanis are only the latest in a long line of individuals who have made encyclopedic museums possible while doing considerable damage in the world. That lineage includes people like Kissinger, Oppenheim, Layard, Cesnola, and even Ashurnasirpal II. Tabet’s work on fragmentation and dispersal calls new attention both to the implications of such acts and to the actors. In this context, the toxic philanthropy of the Sacklers seems not a totally separate phenomenon but rather part of a difficult, painful, and often highly contradictory continuum of museum politics and policies. A decade ago, Chantal Mouffe argued in the pages of this magazine for transforming the institution of museums from within; for turning them into sites of political contestation; for engaging and acknowledging their weary, often ugly, and sometimes destructive histories rather than withdrawing from them completely. Tabet’s exhibition at the Met offers one careful, agile, and nimble example of how that might be done.

And that example will continue to unfold in real time. Later this year, two of the Tell Halaf orthostats, true to their peripatetic history, will have to migrate to another gallery. They are the Ancient Near Eastern Art Department’s contribution to the museum’s forthcoming exhibition “Making the Met, 1870–2020,” opening in March and running through August. After that, they will return home, albeit temporarily, to Tabet’s show. A year or a decade from now, who knows where they will go? On loan to the National Museum in Aleppo, in a more peaceful, post-Assad Syria? Their imagery is certainly conducive to dreaming. For now, the Met’s four remaining orthostats have become works of contemporary art, anchoring an exhibition filled with artifacts that suddenly seem to be of a more tentative and conditional nature than their adamantine materials would suggest, their status ever changing and open to debate. 

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in New York and Beirut.