Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 December 2007
Issue No. 875
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Institut at 20

France's Institut du monde arabe is 20 years old this year and the whole country is celebrating, writes David Tresilian in Paris

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Housed in a landmark building by architect Jean Nouvel on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, the Institut du monde arabe was opened 20 years ago by the then French president François Mitterand.

The building made Nouvel's reputation, and the ingenious sun-screen system recalling traditional Arab mashrabiyya that he designed for the building's main façade has since made it into architecture textbooks worldwide.

Yet, judging by the crowds that turned out for the Institut's official birthday celebrations last weekend, it is not only Nouvel's building that has captured the French public's imagination.

Presenting a menu of activities including film projections, musical performances and various activities for children, the Institut threw open its doors to the Paris public for its 20th birthday, while at the same time reaching a wider audience through live broadcasts from the top-floor meeting rooms on the radio station France Culture.

One of Mitterand's grands travaux -- the series of major projects that livened up the Paris cultural scene in the 1980s, including the opera house at Bastille, Chinese- American architect I.M. Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre, the new Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Musée d'Orsay -- the Institut's aim is to present Arab culture and societies to the French and European public.

It has a permanent collection of objects retracing the historical development of Arab cultures, as well as a library, language centre and cinema. A total of 22 Arab countries are partners in the Institut's management and funding, and its activities, including major exhibitions on aspects of Arab culture, have a secure place on many visitors' itineraries in the French capital.

The most recent of the Institut's major shows, an exploration of the history and culture of the ancient Phoenicians, was free to visitors last weekend as part of the Institut's anniversary celebrations (reviewed in the Weekly on 15 November).

At the same time, a new show, presenting works from the Institut's collection of modern and contemporary Arab art, was also inaugurated for the occasion, and this exhibition, Modernité Plurielle, attracted much appreciative comment last weekend and will run until 9 March next year.

The show presents some 120 works, mostly paintings, by around 80 artists from 15 Arab countries, all of them drawn from the Institut's permanent collection built up from the 1980s onwards. Most of these works are rarely seen by the public, and while many of them are by contemporary artists, mostly still working in their countries of origin, there are also works from earlier decades.

This is an exhibition that comes with little framing material, differing in this respect from a similar one held at the British Museum in London last summer (reviewed in the Weekly in August 2006). The London show, like the one now in Paris, presented works from a collection of modern and contemporary Arab art built up over several decades, this time belonging to the British Museum itself.

However, whereas the London show had an argument to make, arranging works according to artists' attitudes towards the Arabic language and particularly towards the Arabic script, the Institut du monde arabe seems to have decided not to impose any particular programme on the works it has chosen to show.

While curator Venetia Porter, writing in the catalogue to last year's London show, recalled a decision, made by the British Museum when it began acquiring Middle Eastern art in the 1980s, to "choose work which somehow 'spoke' of the region and showed continuity with 'Islamic' art," particularly works that "deal with the Arabic language, letter or text, as a visual element of composing," those in charge of the Paris collection have been less obvious about their intentions.

Instead, "Arab artists' appropriation of modernity," the notes to Modernité Plurielle read, involved "what had [previously] been the essence of Arab art: the use of cut-out forms, the flattened colours, the refusal of realist illusion and the translation of rhythm" into visual terms.

The show that follows includes paintings by many familiar names, each artist represented by sometimes as few as one work. Thus, well- known Egyptian artists like Abdel-Hadi al-Gazzar and Gazbiyya Sirry are represented by one, or perhaps a couple, of paintings (Sirry's painting Sur la plage, 1995, is used as the poster image for the show). Anna Boghiguian is represented by an unfolded set of papyrus leaves, together with a small book containing drawings made with coloured crayons.

The show also includes works by Adel al-Siwi, Mohamed Hamed Nada, Georges Bahgory (represented by a work in oils entitled Maternité, 1984) and Awad al-Shimi (a series of prints entitled Odalisques, 1984-5).

It is interesting to see these artists represented in what may be unusual company: while Egyptian art, both contemporary and modern, is well established in the Institut's collection, so is work by artists from the Maghreb, from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

Egyptian artists such as Ramses Younan (1913-1966), Said al-Adawi (1937-1973) and Sami Rafi (1926-2004), are represented by works dating from the 1940s, or, in al-Adawi's case, the early 1970s (a series of works in ink on Chinese paper), these rubbing shoulders with contemporary or later work from other Arab countries and from the region as a whole.

I was particularly drawn to the work of the Iraqi artists presented, among them Shakir Hassan al-Said (1925-2004), displaying two rough-hewn works in acrylic from the 1980s, and Dia Azzawi (b. 1939), represented by prints of illustrations to poems by Mahmoud Darwish and Youssef al-Sayegh.

A collection of works by al-Said was also exhibited at UNESCO in Paris in November this year, as part of a tribute to this important artist, founder with Jawad Salim (1920-1961) of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in 1950, together with a framing exhibition of contemporary paintings by various hands drawn from the Baghdad Museum of Fine Arts.

While the Institut du monde arabe's Arab art show seems set to garner much appreciative interest over the months to come, it was nevertheless true that last weekend most visitors were drawn to the special events mounted for its 20th birthday. The Institut seemed to be having a good old clear-out, and catalogues to previous exhibitions, remaindered books and other materials were being sold off at bargain prices in the bookstore, if they were not being simply given away.

There seemed no time to take in the radio shows being broadcast from the Institut's top-floor area, though one of them at least, a discussion with Youssef Seddik, author of a new French translation of the Qur'an and of various works on Islam, seemed well worth tuning in for.

Instead, on the way out from the Institut proper, the government of Qatar had taken over the large "medina" building in the square in front, hosting a trade, culture and arts event for which many visitors had made a special detour. This event included performances by Qatari musicians, a display of Qatari fashion and demonstrations of Qatari handicrafts, including craftsman making exquisite wooden models of the traditional pearl-fishing dhows once used in the Gulf.

A highlight here was an artwork, apparently untitled, by Qatari artist Huda al-Saadi that consisted of a row of 12 clear display cases containing a layer of sand and a single, carefully placed object speaking of traditional Qatari culture.

These objects included a shell with pearls, some items of traditional jewelry and a kind of decorated small drum.

Modernité Plurielle, exposition d'art contemporain arabe, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, from 8 December 2007 to 9 March 2008.

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