Documents and photographs from Tabet’s family provided the first impetus to this research—his great-grandfather, Faek Borkhoche, was secretary and translator to Max von Oppenheim (2) during his third expedition to northeastern Syria in 1929.
Beginning in 1911, excavations were conducted there unveiling spectacular palaces, tombs, and crypts from the Aramaic and Neo-Assyrian period. However, after dividing the finds up with the Syrian directorate of antiquities in 1927, Oppenheim was unsuccessful in securing a location for his portion of the finds in the second Pergamon Museum, which was under construction at the time. As a result, he then founded his own private Tell Halaf Museum in a former factory building on Franklinstraße in Charlottenburg, which opened in 1930 but was destroyed in 1943 by an incendiary bomb. The exhibits were burned or were shattered during fire-fighting operations. The remnants of the basalt sculptures and reliefs, a total of around 27,000 fragments, were brought to the cellar of the Pergamon Museum during the war and only reconstructed seventy years later after nearly ten years of painstaking work by archaeologists and conservators from the Museum for Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. In 2011, they were shown publicly for the first time in an exhibition at the Pergamon Museum.
Dr. Nadja Cholidis and Dr. Lutz Martin, two of the main researchers involved in the conservation work at the time, allowed Rayyane Tabet access to the sculptures, now stored in an off-site depository. The approximately 1,000 charcoal rubbings produced during these visits represent the remnants that could no longer be definitively identified during conservation efforts. Inspired by photographs of the fragments that were laid out on pallets during the conservation work, Tabet developed a specific form of hanging that is presented at the daadgalerie in a full-scale installation. Twenty-four relief plates, initially mounted at the base of the palace terrace, are currently still on view at the Pergamon Museum and have also been reproduced by Tabet using the rubbing technique.
The exhibition title, displayed across the glass façade of the daadgalerie as a monumental inscription, is a quotation from Oppenheim who made it his life’s maxim—unbroken optimism in the face of the truly desperate reality of seeing his life’s work destroyed.
In addition to the multilayered narrative strands of historical facts and personal memories that Tabet addresses here, the exhibition is also dedicated to the material traces and loss of cultural heritage.
The bitter irony of the history—that the sculptures from Tell Halaf survived numerous wars and changes in rulers for 3,000 years only to be destroyed inside a Berlin museum during the Second World War and then reconstructed seventy years later—culminates in the devastating present-day situation of war in Syria now in its sixth year. The German-Syrian archaeological team at Tell Halaf has been unable to continue its research work since this time. The National Museum of Aleppo, whose collection houses part of Oppenheim’s findings, was badly damaged in July 2016.
Rayyane Tabet, born 1983 in Ashqout, Lebanon, lives and works in Beirut.
In 2016 he was a guest of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program.