Portrait of Faek Borkhoche, installation view Sharjah Art Foundation, 2021. Photo by Shanavas Jamaluddin.
Faek Borkhoche (1895–1981) was a schoolteacher, translator and Tabet’s great-grandfather, who was appointed by the governing authorities of the French Mandate in Beirut to serve as Max von Oppenheim’s secretary during the 1929 excavation at Tell Halaf. The installation puzzles together history through one man’s personal belongings, intellectual work, correspondence and the published works later produced from his six-month trip in 1929. Although Tabet grew up with knowledge of his great grandfather’s involvement in the dig, the artist only learned of Borkhoche’s field notes from a visit to the Max von Oppenheim Foundation Archive in Cologne in 2016. These documents that serve as the formal and conceptual spine of this work, reveal much about the entanglement between the early practice of archaeology, ethnographic study of local peoples and colonial exploitation.
In addition to providing an account of the excavation, Borkhoche’s writing recalls his travels to nearby villages of Djeblet el Beda, Deir ez-Zor, Ras al Ayn, Mardin and Urfa and his interviews with Bedouin elders. Standard questions give insight into oral history, mythology, survival strategies, locations of water sources and description of flora and fauna. He was also able to chart family trees and seasonal migration routes of local tribes. This knowledge would later be published in von Oppenheim’s famous, four-volume study "Die Beduinen" (part of the work Exquisite Corpse) and was weaponized by later Western military campaigns.
Questions of power, knowledge, ethics and intellectual pursuit are posed in this installation’s irreverent adaptation of classical museum display strategy. All 230 pages of field notes are presented on a shelf running the gallery’s perimeter and are punctuated by vitrines holding Borkhoche’s suitcase, the skin of a snake from the dig site and a copy of von Oppenheim’s book Der Tell Halaf, which was sent by the diplomat in 1932. Other photographs and personal effects from the artist’s family collection, including a postcard and pamphlet from the Tell Halaf Museum in Berlin dated 1937 suggest the two men stayed in touch years after the expedition.
Medium NotesSuitcase, snakeskin, book, field notes, photographs, and various document