Venetia Porter, Curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East Art, looks at how artists of the Middle East and North Africa respond to, and reflect on, issues of gender, identity, politics, history and cultural tradition, through the prism of contemporary art.
Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa
If you want to understand more about the past and present of a country, there is no better place to start than contemporary art. The Middle East and North Africa saw the birth and flourishing of ancient civilisations and religions, literature, music and art. Yet in recent memory, there has also been revolution, conflict, the destruction of cultural heritage and mass migration that is still ongoing and remains one of the most troubling and defining features of our time. The stories behind the artworks in this display echo that great sweep of history, expressing reflections on the past and considering the relationship between past and present. While some artists allude to artistic or literary heritage, others speak of taboos, history and current politics and reflect on their own societies, all of which have experienced extraordinary changes in living memory.
Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa comprises over 100 works on paper from the British Museum's own collection: drawings, etchings, posters, photographs and artists' books, by artists who either live in the countries of their birth, or have left for a variety of reasons, including war and persecution. The Museum began collecting works on paper by artists from the Middle East and North Africa in the 1980s. In 2006, the Museum showcased works from the collection in Word into Art and the success of this exhibition led to the formation of a patrons' group in 2009, known as CaMMEA (Contemporary and Modern Middle East Art) dedicated to expanding the collection. There are now about 300 artists from across the region represented in the British Museum collection.
As the collection has grown, I have become increasingly fascinated by the stories artists tell through the work they make. Collected through the prism of the British Museum as a museum of history, I see these works both as art as well as documents that speak of their time. This display invites you to delve deep into the worlds of the artists, and these are just some of the fascinating themes and works that visitors will discover.
People often think that within the cultures of Islam, the depiction of the human figure is completely forbidden. Although the Qur'an opposes the worship of images, it does not reject representational art. The Prophet's hadiths (sayings), compiled a century after his death, provide evidence both in favour of and against figural imagery. Figural representation is never found in copies of the Qur'an and other holy texts, nor in religious spaces such as mosques and shrines. However, the ban did not extend to non-religious contexts and there is a rich tradition of illustrating manuscripts such as the Persian Shahnama (Book of Kings) in which the figure is freely depicted. Nevertheless, across the centuries and in different countries and times, unease over figural representation has continued. For the first modern artists in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) of the early 20th century, whose works are found in the first section of the display, it was not always possible to study the figure in their own countries as their contemporaries could in the art schools of Europe.
The first section of the display focuses on the different ways that artists use the figure from the early 20th century, when art schools were being established across the region, up to the present day. Among the early works are those by artists sent on scholarships to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris or the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. There, away from the conservatism of home, they would learn life drawing alongside landscape and perspective and were also exposed to European art movements.
The sculptor Michel Basbous (1921–1981) had begun his studies at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts in Beirut and went from there to the Beaux Arts in Paris in 1949. During a second stay, in 1954, he joined the studio of the Russian artist and sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1888–1967). Basbous's drawings (1) were often sketches that would be transformed into glorious sculptures. Figurative as well as abstract, these fill the garden (2) of his house in the village of Rachana, which he turned into an open-air museum and artistic and cultural centre which flourished in the years before the Civil War that engulfed Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. I was fortunate enough to have visited Rachana some years ago and was amazed at the beautiful white sculptures that began to appear on the main road as we neared the village.
For Syrian artist Fadi Yazigi (born 1966), although like Basbous a painter and a sculptor, his figures are from another time and tell a different story (3). A graduate of Damascus University, he still lives in the city and his studio is in one of the old quarters, where he goes to work every day. The figures he draws on delicate rice paper, tumble in all directions wide-eyed and contorted, their features and expressions inspired by the people he sees around him. Drawn to the ancient past, and to the art of the Babylonians, whose empire extended from Iraq into Syria, he writes: 'The Babylonians were depicting the human form 6000 years ago and I, along with others, am simply continuing what they began.'
The figures of Hayv Kahraman (born Baghdad 1981) are more unsettling (4). They are women in traditional hijab who hang in ever-diminishing sizes from the branches of a tree, the thick trunk of which recalls the brush strokes of a calligrapher. The artist's intention is to shine a spotlight on what is known as honour killing, which refers to the murder (often by family members) of women accused of breaking social conventions governing gender relations.
Abstraction, along with the use of geometry and script, is the second major theme within the works on display. An important feature of Islamic art, together with geometry and calligraphy, abstraction is also an influential strand in international modern art. The artists straddle these different worlds adapting shape, pattern, script, line and colour to represent complex, personal or conceptual subjects as can be seen in the following examples.
Susan Hefuna (born 1962) spent the first ten years of her life in Egypt, mostly in the Nile Delta and Alexandria. She now lives and works between Cairo, Berlin and New York. From 2004 she began working with Cairene craftsmen who make the wooden screens known as mashrabiya that filter the light and create privacy in traditional houses. In her versions, Hefuna places within them words or short texts in Arabic or English. One beautiful example is on display in the Sainsbury Africa Galleries at the Museum (Room 25) into which she has inserted the words in Arabic, 'Knowledge is Sweeter than Honey' (5). The designs of the wooden screens inspired the delicate abstract drawings displayed in the exhibition (6). Created from ink and layers of tracing and cartridge paper, Hefuna works in one sitting for many hours and compares her method to writing calligraphy, which also requires that intensive meditative process.
Arabic calligraphy is a key element of the hallmark style of Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi (born 1947). He writes his texts in all directions, lines are repeated and combined with mystical signs and symbols which appear in other media such as his Path of Roses installation (7) which was conceived as a tribute to the Sufi mystic Rumi (1207–73).
His etching included in Reflections, (8) is one of a series of prints entitled A Nation in Exile, a collaboration between Koraïchi and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008) whom he met in Tunis in 1982. 'It was not a question for me of illustrating his poems' described Koraïchi, 'I loved his texts and he appreciated my work. I wanted to seize aesthetically the emotion that was the essence of the poem.' The poem 'It was what it will become', (the title is inscribed at the top of the etching), was written by Mahmoud Darwish as a tribute to his friend and poet Rashed Hassan who died tragically in a fire in New York.
Mehdi Farhadian (born Tehran, 1980) is fascinated by the monumental triumphal arches that are found all over Iran. Many of these impressive, richly ornamented structures were built to commemorate key moments in Iran's history, from revolutions to coronations and military victories. The inspiration for this particular work (9) is a temporary structure set up in late 19th-century Tabriz, in western Iran. In Farhadian's rendering, the space becomes a stage set with ballet dancers emerging delicately through pink washes of paint. There is a darker side to this fantasy however, as on either side of the arch are cannons and military flags hinting at violence beneath the seemingly dreamy scene.
The 'Arab Spring', the name given to uprisings against established regimes that took place across the Middle East, began in Tunisia in 2011. Since then, a number of Tunisian artists have made work that re-examines the complex history of their country. Nidhal Chamekh (born 1985), for example, has focused on neglected histories and often uses newspaper cuttings which he repurposes to act as a reminder. In Nos visages no. XI (10) he tells the story of the many troops from the French colonies who helped to liberate France during the Second World War (1939-45) but who were afterwards cast aside and forgotten. The two contradictory half faces, taken from the newspaper Le Miroir, serve to emphasise the denial of their existence.
In Syria, the uprisings that began in the town of Deraa in the south in 2011 saw activism on the streets, brutal repression by the government, and a surge of graffiti in towns and cities all over the country. Monif Ajjaj (born 1968) uses the graffiti style to inscribe in spray paint the words in Arabic Haya li'l abad (Life to the end) on the back of a kneeling figure (11).
There are thousands of Syrians now in refugee camps, and in her photograph from the series Natreen (We are waiting), (12) Leila Alaoui (1982–2016) captures the state of limbo and despair as the central figure, with her compatriots, literally waits for someone else to decide their fate.
The desperate story of fleeing and migration is seen further in an installation of little boats made out of bicycle mudguards filled with spent matches (13) which is displayed in the Albukhary gallery, alongside other works relating to the themes of Reflections. The boats were made by Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj (born 1963) and are part of a project with poet Ruth Padel (born 1940) called Dark Water, Burning World.
For both, it was seeing for themselves, on Lesbos, the tragedy of Syrians making these dangerous voyages, so many dying in the attempt, that began this collaboration which has resulted in installations of boats and readings around the world. Kourbaj and Padel are willing us not to forget the tragedy of Syria that is now 10 years old:
‘...and their stories our stories,
steered by the small
star-light of cell phones
waves like rings of a tree
rings of the centuries
rocking and spilling
on the windy sea…’
(Lesbos 2015) Ruth Padel 'Dark Water, Burning World' from We are All from Somewhere Else, Vintage (2020).
The universality of mass migration is defining of our time, and because of this the installation of boats was chosen as Object 101 on the 10th anniversary of A History of the World in 100 Objects. And as Neil MacGregor describes; 'Kourbaj's little convoy of matchstick figures stand for all migrants, anywhere, driven by fear, guided by hope.'
Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa ran from 17 May to 15 August 2021 in Room 90, and further works could be seen in the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World. Watch the curator's tour of the show.
The display was supported by the CaMMEA acquisition group.
Many of the works in the exhibition are published in the accompanying book Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa by Venetia Porter with Natasha Morris and Charles Tripp (£25, British Museum Press 2020).