Words into art
Those in London this summer could do worse than take the tube to Russell Square, where the British Museum is hosting a season of events on the contemporary Middle East, writes David Tresilian
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From left: Sahar Naim (Egypt), Cairo Faces, 2006. Painted photograph on canvas and newspaper, British Museum collection; Etel Adnan (Lebanon/USA), Nahar Mubarak (Blessed Day), 1990. Japanese-style fold-book, text by Nelly Salameh Amri
The British Museum's "Middle East Now" season, which includes lectures, panel discussions and staged events on aspects of the Middle East and its history and culture, runs until September this year. Since its opening in June it has featured well-attended sessions on the work of the late Palestinian-American critic Edward Said and on Middle Eastern food and archaeology, both in July. Daily workshops billed as part of a "Middle East Family Summer" are planned for August.
However, the season's main attraction is the exhibition Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, which brings together the work of some 70 mainly Arab Middle Eastern artists, focusing on works that draw on the tradition of Arabic calligraphy and sponsored by Dubai Holdings in the United Arab Emirates.
Billed as being the largest exhibition of Middle Eastern art ever mounted in London, many of the works in the exhibition are drawn from the British Museum's own collection built up from the 1980s onwards. They include works by several well-known Egyptian artists, including Mohamed Abla and Chant Avedissian, with the younger generations being represented by works by Youssef Nabil (born 1972) and Sabah Naim (born 1967), among others.
However, the exhibition's interpretation of its subject matter is wide-ranging, and Egypt's traditional dominance of Middle Eastern art does not overshadow the contributions of other countries in which the art market is perhaps less well-established.
The "Middle Eastern" of the show's title also allows contributions from North Africa and from the Arab Maghreb, as well as from Iran, though not from Turkey. Reading through the short biographies included in the exhibition catalogue for each artist, it is striking how many of these artists live and work outside their countries of origin, usually in the United States, with France coming in a close second.
Divided into four main parts corresponding to the generous four-roomed space the museum has been able to give the show in the new galleries above the former reading room in its central courtyard, the exhibition looks first at contemporary re-interpretations of Arabic script by artists such as Kamal Boullata (Palestine/France), Hassan Massoudy (Iraq/France) and Parviz Tanavoli (Iran), the latter contributing a series of sculptures of Arabic letters that leads the visitor into the show.
Subsequent sections bring together works under the headings of "literature and art", "deconstructing the word" and "history, politics and identity", this final section departing rather from the show's theme of formal experiment to introduce sometimes outspoken contemporary political content.
The show's second section is notable for its inclusion of striking calligraphic illustrations of various Arabic texts, including illustrations by Hassan Massoudy of classical literary works, and illustrations by Kamal Boullata and Dia Al-Azzawi (Iraq/ UK) of poems by the contemporary Syrian poet Adonis. Continuing the literary theme, Abdullah Benanteur (Algeria/France) has provided ink and watercolour illustrations of poems by Mahmoud Darwish, and there is a print by Mohamed Omar Khalil (Sudan/USA) illustrating a work by the late Salah Abdel-Sabour. Most of these works are from the British Museum's own collection.
In the exhibition's third section, "deconstructing the word", attention turns to what the catalogue suggests are the abstract possibilities of the Arabic script, or the use of this script by predominantly abstract artists, with works by the Iraqi artists Madiha Omar (d. 2005) and Shakir Hassan Al-Said (d. 2004) focusing rather intensely on the shapes of the letters themselves. Omar trained and worked in England and the United States, and Al-Said trained in Paris, working in Baghdad. Elsewhere in this section of the exhibition there are intriguing works on paper and on canvas by Iranian artists Maliheh Afnan, Golnaz Fathi and Massoud Arabshahi, all of whom work in Iran, raising the question of how Iranian contemporary art, on the evidence of this show part of a thriving art scene, might be connected to contemporary Arab art.
According to curator Venetia Porter, writing in the exhibition catalogue, when the British Museum decided to begin acquiring contemporary Middle Eastern art in the 1980s, a decision was made to "choose work which somehow 'spoke' of the region and showed continuity with 'Islamic' art." This decision, she writes, led to a concentration on hurafiyya, works that "deal with the Arabic language, letter or text, as a visual element of composing," and these form the core of the present exhibition.
However, Porter is not very clear about the museum's aim in building up this collection, and this lack of clarity might be thought to extend to the exhibition as a whole, despite the many excellent things in it. Was the aim to build up an authoritative, or representative, collection of contemporary Middle Eastern art, "part of a broader initiative across the museum to return to the guiding principles of its eighteenth-century founders and actively collect contemporary artifacts from around the world", as the catalogue has it? Or was it to construct a more limited collection of contemporary works from mostly Arab countries inspired by Arabic calligraphy or hurafiyya ?
While the catalogue seems to suggest that calligraphy represents the mainstream in contemporary Middle Eastern art, being important enough to warrant the largest-ever London show, it nevertheless does not seem very sure about the broader significance of the works on display.
"Can this now ubiquitous use of script be described as a movement? Are the reasons for including script always the same? To what extent does it still consciously connect with Arab / Iranian / Muslim identities, or in some cases with the rejection of western representational art," Porter asks in her catalogue essay. Coming out of this exhibition, the visitor is none the wiser about the answers to these questions.
One has only to go round the Cairo galleries during an average season to notice that calligraphy is only one strand, and by no means the most important one, in the works on display. Similarly, works inspired by Arabic calligraphy make up only one strand in the careers described, for example, in well-known works on modern and contemporary Egyptian art, such as those by Aimé Azar ( La Peinture moderne en Egypte, 1961, recently translated into Arabic as Al-taswir al-hadith fi misr ) and Liliane Karnouk ( Modern Egyptian Art, 1995), the latter mentioned in Porter's bibliography.
These books describe the full range of 20th- century work in Egypt, one of the most important artistic centres in the region. If the aim of the present British Museum show is to present the range and variety of contemporary Middle Eastern art, even without considering the question of its modern history, then the emphasis on calligraphy may be too constraining.
Doubts about the exhibition's exclusive focus on calligraphy also register in the show's final section, in which works making reference to matters of "history, politics and identity" are on display, many of which make little if any use of calligraphy.
While the British Museum is to be congratulated on this exhibition, the first time that much of this work has been exhibited together in London, or on such a scale, one cannot help wishing that instead of focusing exclusively on calligraphy it had tried to represent something of the full range and history of Middle Eastern art.
That really would have been a show to impress London audiences.
Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East , part of the Middle East Now season at the British Museum, London, until 3 September 2006, www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/middleeastnow