Pieces of paper laid out on the floor on top of each other.

Enter the intriguing world of artists' books

By Venetia Porter, Curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East art

Publication date: 19 December 2022

An arresting display of more than 40 artists' books, some sculptural, others exploding out of their bindings, is now on show in Room 43a in The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world. Here, curator Venetia Porter considers the history and nature of this unique medium.


In the hands of an artist, books can take all manner of shapes and forms – they can be unique and handcrafted or produced in a small printed edition. Accompanying words might be handwritten or printed. Defying conventional notions of what we consider to be a book, the display showcases the growing number of such books being acquired by the Museum as part of the collection of modern and contemporary art associated with the Middle East. Works from this collection, more broadly, were the subject of the 2021 exhibition Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa. This display, however, zones in on the books to explore the subjects they encompass and to place them within the context of the growing global collection of artists' books at the Museum – from American artist Jim Dine's edition of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray to the glorious books of the Chinese artist Zao Wou-ki.

Parisian beginnings

It was in Paris in the early 20th century that the idea of the livre d'artiste, or artist's book, first emerged. It started with publishers and art dealers, who began working with artists to create small illustrated editions of poetry. One of these, made in 1912 by the French painter André Derain, is in the exhibition. These Parisian connections are evident in the works of the Lebanese painter Shafic Abboud, who went to Paris to study in the late 1940s. His books from the 1950s, which include La Souris (an illustration of a French folktale) combine silkscreen prints with handwritten text in French. His are the first artist's books made by a Middle Eastern artist.

The power of words

A long piece of paper in concertina form, covered with writing and drawings in ink graphite and collage.
Christine Khonjie, (b. 1947) (after Hafez), The poet's coat. Book (unique), ink, graphite and collage, 2011. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Literature is a powerful theme in the display, from the tales of The Arabian Nights, evoked by Nja Mahdaoui and Yasmine Seale to the writings of Amélie Nothomb illustrated by Lassaâd Métoui, and the Persian lyric poetry of Hafez (1315–90), as evoked by Christine Khonjie. It was through Hafez that Khonjie learnt Persian, while living in London, and she often recites his poetry to herself. Among these are the verses:

'I said I long for thee, you said your sorrows will end. Be my moon, rise up for me, only if it will ascend'. 

The text on the other side of the book is French 'automatic' writing – words written spontaneously, often without obvious meaning. 

An open book with the a drawing of two figures on the left-hand page and writing on the right-hand page.
Fadi Yazigi (b. 1966), Untitled. Ink and watercolour, 2021. Original book edited by Shibi Mallat, Beirut 2009. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Syrian artist Fadi Yazigi paints delicate figures over a facsimile edition of the poems of 19th-century judge and poet, Tamer Mallat (1856–1914) written in the Ottoman diwani script in brown ink. Mallat was a Lebanese judge and poet known for taking a stand against corruption. Yazigi's anonymous figures echo the people he sees on the streets of Damascus. Ala Ebtekar is inspired by the famous book, Nightfall, of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1939–92). In a process known as cyanotype, he paints iron-based chemicals over the surface of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson and several pages of Nightfall and exposes the pages to the UV light emitted by stars from dusk to dawn. In this way, he directly evokes the Asimov story, in which an eclipse brings darkness to the planet once every 2,000 years, revealing only the stars. Upon realising their insignificance, the inhabitants lose their senses. 


Inspired by Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish

Two Arab poets, Adonis (b. 1930) and Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008), have proven especially inspirational to artists, who respond to the poets' sentiments on the human condition and the state of exile. Adonis has worked with artists since his time at the University of Damascus in the late 1950s and formed close relationships many artists such as Dia al-Azzawi, a master of the art of the book, or a painter and printmaker, Ziad Dalloul. Each engage directly with Adonis' work with different results: Azzawi, in a book created for the poet's 60th birthday, created brilliantly-coloured prints, covered with the text written in his own hand, which runs in all directions. Azzawi has chosen poems such as This is my Name written in 1968:

'The city is arcs of madness I saw that the revolution bore its children, I buried millions of songs and I came (are you in my grave)? Come that I may touch your hands…'

Dalloul, in his Book of Cities, creates earthy etchings with no text, evoking the spirit of cities that Adonis writes about, from Marrakesh to New York. Beginnings (1992) is Kamal Boullata's (1942–2019) first artist's book. The work draws together eight of Adonis' poems in Arabic, with an English translation by Kamal Boullata and Mirène Ghossein. The Beginning of the Poem starts:

'It is the nakedness that uncovers the corpses of words. It is existence that disappears. I lost my fire. My language is another one. My footsteps are no longer my footsteps…'

Boullata describes how his 'main concern was how to design a graphic space that would reflect the poetry's formal elements and serve as a tangible representation of Adonis' poetic voice.' 

A long piece of paper in concertina form, covered with writing and colourful ink.
Himat Mohammed Ali (b. 1960), In the forest of love. Book within hard cover, edition 3/20, 2021. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Himat Mohammed Ali and Adonis collaborated to create In the forest of love (2021). The pages of Arabic text, written in Adonis' distinct hand, alternate with the richness of Himat's abstract paintings. On his friendship with Adonis, Himat comments: 'We work with each other as though we are talking to one another.' As a result of his close interaction with artists, Adonis began himself to make art and his abstract collage is inscribed with verses from one of the most important early Arabic poets, Umar Ibn Abi Rabia (AD 644–719), whose poetry celebrates battles, tribal lore and his love affairs with the noble Arab women who came to Mecca on pilgrimage.

The poetry of the late Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008) has also generated dozens of artists' books. In this exhibition we see Rafa Nasiri's rendition of To describe an almond blossom, in his characteristic style of calligraphic abstraction overlain with calligraphed text. 

'To describe an almond blossom no encyclopedia of flowers is any help to me, no dictionary. 
Words carry me off to snares of rhetoric that wound the sense, and praise the wound they've made.
Like a man telling a woman her own feeling.'

While Issam Kourbaj uses Darwish's ode to Damascus, The Damascene Collar of the Dove, as a framework to explore the devasting effects of the civil war in Syria, which began in 2011 and still continues. Inscribing the words of the poem over the pages of a found diary, his crayoned red text of each verse is placed alongside images of destruction and human suffering in the country. The poem begins: 

'In Damascus
the doves fly
behind the silk fence
two . . .by two . . . 
In Damascus
I see all of my language
written with a woman's needle
on a grain of wheat,
refined by the partridge of the Mesopotamian rivers.'

(translated by Fady Joudah)

Reflecting politics

Other artists also find powerful ways to evoke the politics of today, asking us to enter worlds of conflict, violence, displacement and exile. Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi takes us to the Algerian war of independence from France, which ended in 1962, as well as the assassination of seven monks at the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria, in 1996. The murderous events and destruction of heritage following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, are seen in several works including Baghdad (2006) by Mohammed al-Shammary and Kareem Risan's Every Day (2005), with broken eye-glasses, tyre marks, fragments of a passport, hospital gauze and clothing are pasted onto a blood-red ground.

Worlds within books

Personal and global stories inflect many of the books in this display and painful narratives are made powerful in their lyrical, gentle rendering. The continued stereotyping of women in so many societies today is highlighted in a book of painted cloth by Iranian artist Farkhondeh Shahroudi, while stories of displacement and exile are evoked through Ipek Duben's Refugee (2010).

A ring-bound book with 'Refugee' written on the cover in green ink.
Ipek Duben (b. 1941), Refugee. Book (unique) mixed media, 2010. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Sadik Alfraji's Ali's Boat Diary, and its accompanying dreamlike animation take us into dreams and longing for home echoed in Mahmoud Obaidi's simple suitcase, Compact Home 7 (2005-2015). In a further imaginative use of the book, a group of Iranian artists working together – Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rehmanian and Vahid Davar – re-ordered and re-bound a copy of Philip's Atlas of the World according to the movement and migration of refugees from around the world. 

'Carriers of experience' is how Nalini Malani – who was born in Karachi in pre-partition India and experienced the devastating impact of Partition in 1947 – describes the books she makes. Whole worlds are encompassed in these books, which is just one aspect of what makes them so fascinating. 

Artists making books: poetry to politics is on free display in Room 43a in The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world until 17 September 2023, and you can purchase the accompanying book in our online shop.  

For a full list of artists see the large print guide