A British Museum exhibition challenges misconceptions about ‘Islamic art’

Huda Lutfi's 'Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses,' a portrait of the singer Umm Kulthum. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Huda Lutfi's 'Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses,' a portrait of the singer UmmHuda Lutfi's 'Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses,' a portrait of the singer Umm Kulthum. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied) Kulthum. (Supplied)
Shafic Abboud (b. 1926 – d. 2004), Nu. Gouache and charcoal on paper, c. 1969. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Shafic Abboud (b. 1926 – d. 2004), Nu. Gouache and charcoal on paper, c. 1969. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
Sulafa Hijazi (b. 1977), Untitled. Digital print on archival paper, 2012. (Supplied)
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Sulafa Hijazi (b. 1977), Untitled. Digital print on archival paper, 2012. (Supplied)
Nicky Nodjoumi (b. 1942), The Accident. Ink on paper, 2013. Funded by Maryam and Edward Eisler. (Supplied)
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Nicky Nodjoumi (b. 1942), The Accident. Ink on paper, 2013. Funded by Maryam and Edward Eisler. (Supplied)
Marwan Kassab-Bachi (known as Marwan) (b. 1934 – d. 2016), Gesichtslandschaft (Face Landscape). Etching and drypoint, 1973. (Supplied)
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Marwan Kassab-Bachi (known as Marwan) (b. 1934 – d. 2016), Gesichtslandschaft (Face Landscape). Etching and drypoint, 1973. (Supplied)
Yehuda Bacon (b. 1929), Four figures. Etching, aquatint and drypoint, 1957. (Supplied)
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Yehuda Bacon (b. 1929), Four figures. Etching, aquatint and drypoint, 1957. (Supplied)
Hayv Kahraman (b. 1981), Honor Killing. Sumi ink and acrylic on paper, 2006. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Hayv Kahraman (b. 1981), Honor Killing. Sumi ink and acrylic on paper, 2006. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (known as Monir) (b. 1922 – d. 2019), Untitled. Coloured markers and mirror on paper, 2005. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (known as Monir) (b. 1922 – d. 2019), Untitled. Coloured markers and mirror on paper, 2005. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
Burhan Doğançay (b. 1929 – d. 2013), A Look at the Bright Side. Gouache on paper, 1970. Gift of Joanna G. Freistadt in honor of Alice Schwarz-Gardos. (Supplied)
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Burhan Doğançay (b. 1929 – d. 2013), A Look at the Bright Side. Gouache on paper, 1970. Gift of Joanna G. Freistadt in honor of Alice Schwarz-Gardos. (Supplied)
Rafa Nasiri (b. 1940 – d. 2013), A Library Set On Fire. One of six silkscreens in portfolio, 2008. Gift of May Muzaffar. (Supplied)
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Rafa Nasiri (b. 1940 – d. 2013), A Library Set On Fire. One of six silkscreens in portfolio, 2008. Gift of May Muzaffar. (Supplied)
Hengameh Golestan (b. 1952), Untitled. Black and white photograph printed on Epsom Exhibition fibre paper, 1979, printed 2015. Funded by Art Fund. (Supplied)
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Hengameh Golestan (b. 1952), Untitled. Black and white photograph printed on Epsom Exhibition fibre paper, 1979, printed 2015. Funded by Art Fund. (Supplied)
Taysir Batniji (b. 1966), Untitled. Aquarelle on paper, 2016. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Taysir Batniji (b. 1966), Untitled. Aquarelle on paper, 2016. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
Khalil Joreije and Joana Hadjithomas (b. 1969), Faces. Photography and drawing, From a series of forty-two images, 2009. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Khalil Joreije and Joana Hadjithomas (b. 1969), Faces. Photography and drawing, From a series of forty-two images, 2009. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)
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Updated 13 February 2021

A British Museum exhibition challenges misconceptions about ‘Islamic art’

A British Museum exhibition challenges misconceptions about ‘Islamic art’
  • A new exhibition at the British Museum reveals the diverse experiences of a region that cannot be defined solely as “Islamic”
  • Beyond religion, artists in the collection narrate personal stories, highlight taboos, convey expressions of nostalgia and evoke exile 

LONDON: At first glance, the description of a new exhibition and accompanying book celebrating a decade of the British Museum collecting contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa appears unnecessarily cumbersome, if not evasive.

The exhibition “Reflections: Contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa,” writes Venetia Porter, the museum’s curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East art, is “about a collection of works in the British Museum … made by artists born in or connected to countries that include Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia, states that belong within the region known today as the Middle East and North Africa.”

In fact, far from being evasive, Porter is exercising precision, and mounting a challenge to what she sees as the frequently misused term “Islamic art,” and the perception in the West that there is only a single narrative at play in a region rich with a vast diversity of cultures, histories and current concerns.




Visitors are seen in the Great Court after the British Museum reopened in London on December 3, 2020 after England emerged from a month-long lockdown to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. (AFP/File Photo)

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what this material from the modern and contemporary era is,” said Porter as the museum put the finishing touches to an exhibition that was due to open on Feb. 11 but which, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, will now be launched only virtually.

“Some people will call it contemporary or modern Islamic art and I have issues about that. For a start the term ‘Islamic art’ is very complicated. It was created by western scholars and to a certain extent we are stuck with that now.”

But it is, she says, a “very reductive,” or simplistic term, and “the modern and contemporary art from this wide region is something that is so far removed from that description.”

Talking about Middle Eastern or North African art, she admits, “isn’t perfect either, although I feel it just gives it a bit more flexibility.”




Taysir Batniji (b. 1966), Untitled. Aquarelle on paper, 2016. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)

But in the future, she says, “perhaps we shan’t have to use these terms at all.” One day, perhaps, “we will be able to talk just about ‘art’.”

This is not the first time the concept of modern and contemporary “Islamic art” has come in for robust scrutiny. In 2006 New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking,” an exhibition of 17 artists of diverse nationalities “who explore contemporary responses to Islamic art while also posing questions about issues of identity and spirituality” and who “work outside the expectations suggested by the term ‘Islamic art’.” 

For MOMA curator Fereshteh Daftari, to describe the creativity of a region that stretched from the west coast of Africa to Indonesia as “Islamic art” was equivalent to “calling the art of the entire Western hemisphere ‘contemporary Christian art’.”

Porter could not agree more. The problem with the term “Islamic art,” as she writes in the foreword to the book accompanying the exhibition, is that it “perpetuates notions of a single identity, implying a unity within the vast output of production from across this slice of geography.”




Hengameh Golestan (b. 1952), Untitled. Black and white photograph printed on Epsom Exhibition fibre paper, 1979, printed 2015. Funded by Art Fund. (Supplied)

In fact, she says, there are multiple narratives at play, as both the book and the collection of art from the region that she and the British Museum have built up over the past ten years demonstrate graphically.

A great deal of the importance and veracity of the British Museum’s collection stems from the guidance offered by the members of its Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art group (CaMMEA), a body of patrons and art collectors whose views — and donations — have played a key part in the selection of works collected by Dr Porter and the museum since 2009.

The book’s preface is written by London-based art collector and philanthropist Dounia Nadar, whose husband Sherif Nadar, the founder and CEO of asset management company Horizon Asset, is also a member of CaMMEA. It was Mrs. Nadar’s meeting with Porter at the British Museum’s 2006 exhibition “Word into Art: Artists of The Middle East” that led to the formation of the group in 2009.

The list of members who have supported CaMMEA since 2009, recorded in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, reads like a Who’s Who of wealthy art lovers from or connected to the region. They include Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al-Nahyan, grandson of Sheikh Khalifa, the president of the UAE; arts patron Sara Alireza, a member of the Saudi Art Council; and the British-Iranian art collector Mohammed Afkhami, the founder of Dubai-based financial consultancy MA Partners DMCC.




Rafa Nasiri (b. 1940 – d. 2013), A Library Set On Fire. One of six silkscreens in portfolio, 2008. Gift of May Muzaffar. (Supplied)

The works going on show, most of which have been acquired with the collaboration of the museum’s CaMMEA supporters, demonstrate that the art from or related to the region, and the experiences of the people who call it home or whose lives are rooted there, are hugely diverse.

There are, says Porter, “ideas about poetry, music and war. Some of these works also examine traditions of Islamic art — such as calligraphy or miniature painting – or even turn them on their head,” while “others narrate personal stories, highlight taboos, convey expressions of faith or nostalgia, and evoke exile.”

But “as we dig deep into what lies behind the image, however, and as the multiple histories of the region are seen through the prism of personal experience, that reflection becomes refracted: there is no one narrative but a multiplicity of stories.”

Porter has made enough contemporary artists from the region to know that few choose to be “pigeonholed” by the term “Islamic art … which is why I don’t use it at all in the book or the exhibition, except to set out the argument.




Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (known as Monir) (b. 1922 – d. 2019), Untitled. Coloured markers and mirror on paper, 2005. Funded by CaMMEA. (Supplied)

“You will have some artists who may consider themselves to be deeply religious and continuing an Islamic art tradition, but I want to hear it from them first before I actually put that label on them.”

The exhibition testifies to the right of any artist to represent any aspect of the human condition as they see fit, without having their art stifled by the expectations of artificial categorization.

For example, “Nu,” a gouache and charcoal drawn in 1969 work by the Lebanese artist Shafic Abboud, who died in 2004, is a figurative work that owes more to his training and life in Paris than it does to any overt Islamic influence.

By contrast “Le Bouna,” an earlier work by the same artist, evokes a folk tale told to him by his grandmother in the village of Mhaidse, northeast of Beirut, where Abboud spent much of his childhood.




Marwan Kassab-Bachi (known as Marwan) (b. 1934 – d. 2016), Gesichtslandschaft (Face Landscape). Etching and drypoint, 1973. (Supplied)

The exhibition opens with “The Accident,” a 2013 ink drawing by the Iranian-born artist Nicky Nodjoumi, which draws on his own experience of being interrogated by Iran’s secret police in the 1970s upon his return to the country from studying in New York. This work, says the British Museum, “challenges preconceptions about Middle Eastern art and highlights the complexities of being an artist in diaspora.”

The Cairo-born Huda Lutfi’s striking “Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses,” on one level a paint-and-collage portrait of the singer Umm Kulthum, includes a handwritten verse from Al-Atlal (The Ruins), by the Egyptian poet Ibrahim Naji, and is part of a body of work that is “rich in allusions to, as well as criticism of, the cultural and political concerns of contemporary Egyptian society.”

Perhaps the most resonant work in the exhibition, highlighting “one of the defining issues of our time,” is “Natreen” (We Are Waiting), a 2013 portrait by the Moroccan-French photographer Leila Alaoui of Syrian refugees attempting to flee the terror of their bitterly divided home country.

To Alaoui, who was brought up in Marrakesh, “the subject of migration and its humanitarian consequences was of paramount interest.” She was killed in 2016, aged 23, in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso while working on a photographic project about women’s rights for the charity Amnesty International.

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Twitter: @JonathanGornall


Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’
Updated 28 February 2021

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’
  • He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”

ISTANBUL: Mujdat Gezen’s half-century career as an acclaimed Turkish writer and actor has included awards, a stint as a UN goodwill ambassador and a taste of prison after a 1980 putsch.
Now aged 77, the wry-witted comedian and poet with an easy smile and a bad back risks returning to jail on charges of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”
“I am even banned from appearing in crossword puzzles,” Gezen quipped.
Gezen landed in court with fellow comedian Metin Akpinar, 79, over comments the pair made during a television show they starred in on opposition Halk TV in 2018.
In the broadcast, Gezen told Erdogan to “know your place.”
“Look Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you cannot test our patriotism. Know your place,” Gezen said on air.
His parter Akpinar went one step further, saying that “if we don’t become a (democracy)... the leader might end up getting strung up by his legs or poisoned in the cellar.”
These are risky comments to make in a country still reeling from a sweeping crackdown Erdogan unleashed after surviving a failed coup in 2016.
Their trial is coming with Erdogan rattled by a burst of student protests that hint at Turks’ impatience with his commanding rule as prime minister and president since 2003.
Prosecutors want to put the two veteran celebrities behind bars for up to four years and eight months. The verdict is expected on Monday.

Jailed over book
Thousands of Turks, from a former Miss Turkey to school children, have been prosecuted for insulting Erdogan on social media and television.
Bristling at the jokes and comments, Erdogan warned in 2018 that his critics “will pay the price.”
“The next day,” Gezen told AFP in an interview by telephone, “police turned up and I was summoned to give a statement to prosecutors.”
The knock on the door reminded Gezen of how he ended up being dragged before the courts after spending 20 days in jail when a military junta overthrew Turkey’s civilian government at the height of the Cold War in 1980.
Gezen’s book about Nazim Hikmet — perhaps Turkey’s most famous 20th century poet, who happened to be a communist who died in exile in Moscow in 1963 — was taken off the shelves after that coup.
“I was chained up while being taken from prison to court with a gang of 50 criminals, including murderers and smugglers,” he recalled.
He was freed by the court in 1980, and may yet be acquitted on Monday.
Still, Gezen is uncomfortable with the similarities, and with Turkey’s trajectory under Erdogan.
“There is a record number of journalists in jail — we have never seen this in the history of the republic. That’s what upsets me,” he said.

Irritable dictator
An author of more than 50 books and founder of his own art center in Istanbul, Gezen says he has “either criticized or parodied politicians to their faces” for decades without going to jail.
His popularity and resolve earned him a role in 2007 as a goodwill ambassador for the UNICEF children’s relief fund.
But he fears that Turkey’s tradition of outspoken artists — “art is by its nature oppositional,” he remarked — is wilting under Erdogan.
“We now have self-censorship. But what is even more painful to me is that (some artists) prefer to be apolitical,” he said.
“The president has said how he expects artists to behave. But it cannot be the president of a country who decides these things. It’s the artists who must decide.”
To be on the safe side, Gezen’s lawyers now read his books before publication to avoid legal problems.
“It is risky in Turkey,” he observed.
Many of the opposition media outlets that once flourished have been either closed or taken over by government allies, leaving independent voices with even fewer options.
But he remains doggedly optimistic, calling democracy in Turkey something tangible but just out of reach, like the shore for a stranded boat.
“And then someone up on the mast will cry: Land ahoy!“


Creative touch adds a little color to Jeddah’s corniche

Creative touch adds a little color to Jeddah’s corniche
The Colorful Corniche initiative will extend over the central island of the southern corniche for 4,500 meters and is due to be carried out in eight phases. (Social media)
Updated 28 February 2021

Creative touch adds a little color to Jeddah’s corniche

Creative touch adds a little color to Jeddah’s corniche
  • The event seeks to improve the appearance of main squares and meeting spots throughout the governorate in line with Vision 2030

JEDDAH: Citizens and creatives of Jeddah have come together for the Colorful Corniche initiative, painting roadways, walkways and squares to beautify the city.
The event, coordinated by the charity organization Oyoun Jeddah alongside Jeddah municipality, seeks to improve the appearance of main squares and meeting spots throughout the governorate in line with Vision 2030.
Prince Saud bin Abdullah bin Jalawi, adviser to the governor of the Makkah region, took part in the launch, while also overseeing mock-up paint trials carried out earlier.
Jeddah’s mayor, Saleh Al-Turki, inaugurated the event on Friday, saying that the collaboration between Oyoun Jeddah and the municipality, as well as government and private entities, will encourage the growth of the urban environment.
The corniche makeover has been praised by passers-by.

This is such a great initiative because it will turn this beach area where people hang out, have a picnic or work out into something vibrant and full of life, while encouraging creativity and showing the country’s support for art.

Nourah Al-Nahi

“I was having my lunch break at the corniche yesterday and I wish this had been implemented then so I could have seen it,” said executive assistant Nourah Al-Nahi, 29.
Al-Nahi said she often stopped by the corniche to sit and reflect.
“This is such a great initiative because it will turn this beach area where people hang out, have a picnic or work out into something vibrant and full of life, while encouraging creativity and showing the country’s support for art,” she added.
University student Jana Abdullah, 19, said that the urban makeover will encourage her to take more walks at the corniche.

HIGHLIGHT

The aim is to highlight urban design, and integrate art and architecture in the urban landscape, raising cultural awareness by improving access to contemporary work in daily life.

“I don’t go to the corniche often because of the crowds, but this makes me want to go early on weekends for a quick jog or fast walk.”
Abdullah believes this initiative will add life to the austere asphalt and stone setting of the walkway, and will appeal to both adults and children.
“It also represents the country’s interest in art and its desire to revitalize it and encourage those pursuing it,” she added.
The Colorful Corniche initiative will extend over the central island of the southern corniche for 4,500 meters and is due to be carried out in eight phases.
The aim is to highlight urban design, and integrate art and architecture in the urban landscape, raising cultural awareness by improving access to contemporary work in daily life.


Miniatures and manuscripts capture the golden age of Islamic art

Miniatures and manuscripts capture the golden age of Islamic art
Updated 27 February 2021

Miniatures and manuscripts capture the golden age of Islamic art

Miniatures and manuscripts capture the golden age of Islamic art
  • European scientists have benefited from Al-Kashmiri’s drawings of the human body and anatomy that became part of their medical education and have helped in a number of medical discoveries

RIYADH: Muslims have paid great attention to miniatures and manuscripts throughout history.

In Arabic the word miniature translates to munamnamat, a small painting on paper, and it was a way to preserve what Arab and Islamic artists had created.

They became valuable artifacts and told stories of the religion’s golden age, leaving a tradition that has been studied by researchers to understand Arab and, in particular, Islamic culture and its evolution.

These small yet intricate scrolls reveal stories that have been captured with an extreme focus, offering a detailed look into the lives of people through the ages.

The earliest examples date from around 1000 AD. Scholars divide Islamic miniatures into four types: Arabic, Indian, Ottoman, and Persian.

The King Abdulaziz Public Library has, since its establishment in 1988, contributed to the preservation of miniatures and manuscripts to protect Arab and Islamic heritage and make it available to researchers.

Dr. Bandar Al-Mubarak, who is the library’s director general, said there were around 8,000 original manuscripts in the collection and that they had been digitally converted.

The library has bought most of the miniatures and manuscripts it owns, they have not been donated, and it has certain criteria when acquiring a manuscript. Rare, old, containing exquisite artwork and possessing a distinctiveness that sets it apart.

“The library takes great care of the manuscripts it owns,” Al-Mubarak told Arab News. “We have some of the rarest in the world. The oldest manuscript is “Al-Nawader fe Al-Lugha” (Stories of Language), which dates back to the year 377 Hijri (987 CE). Our manuscripts cover a variety of subjects, including medicine, Qur’ans and languages, and important topics in Arab and Islamic history such as horsemanship and more.”

The miniatures, manuscripts, and old books are sterilized annually to prevent their deterioration. They are kept in a special room that is cold and dark to thwart insects and bacteria because both of these can damage the paper and even the animal skin used in some manuscripts.

The library also has a particular way of storing the precious books, especially the delicate ones, by laying them down horizontally on shelves instead of storing them vertically, similar to the way that libraries in the early Islamic era used to store them. They are positioned that way to protect the spine of the book from damage. The spine is the most important feature of a book's structure and is one of its most delicate features, so great care must be taken to avoid damaging it.

Islamic miniatures have captured images of everything from customs, rituals, behavior and historical events to architecture, costumes, and the arts, helping researchers to learn about Islamic aesthetics and morals.

The distinctiveness of the manuscripts and miniatures lie in their detail. From double rule borders in red, gold, brown or green to page orders in gilt floral patterns or geometric shapes.

“The library recently launched a new manuscript-preservation project,” said Al-Mubarak. “It has always worked to preserve manuscripts but the new project includes enhanced preservation methods, including professional conservation treatments, to prolong their lifespan and allow more people to benefit from them,”

The library owns one of the famous manuscripts copied in 1772 AD by Abdelkader Bin Salim Al-Shafei called “Dalail Al-Khayrat Wa Shawariq Al-Anwar Fi Dhikr Al-Salat Ala Al-Nabi Al-Mukhtar,” (Guidebook of Benefits and Illuminations of Prayers to the Chosen Prophet).

This manuscript is one of the most famous books mentioning prayers for Prophet Muhammad. The author collected the forms of prayer and divided them into seven sections to read throughout the week.

This book has grabbed the attention of many Sufi scholars, who have made it part of their daily routine.

What makes the manuscript even more special are the two illustrations of the Kaaba in Makkah, at the back of page 30, and the other of the holy mosque in Madinah, and the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad and his two followers Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq and Omar bin Al-Khattab on page 31.

The library has also shown interest in acquiring Islamic scientific heritage. One of the miniatures that the library preserved is a copy of “Anatomy of the Human Body” by one of the 15th century’s most prominent medicine scholars, Mansour bin Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Yusuf bin Ilias Al-Kashmiri.

Al-Kashmiri preceded the scientist Andreas Vesalius, who published a classic work on anatomy, as well as Leonardo da Vinci.

European scientists have benefited from Al-Kashmiri’s drawings of the human body and anatomy that became part of their medical education and have helped in a number of medical discoveries.

Iraq, Iran, and Syria have been among the most active countries in providing miniature arts and paid attention to it because of their past heritage in drawings and sculpture.

One of the more well-known Persian miniatures that the library possesses is “Khamsat Nizami,” a selection of five poetic works from Nizami Ganjavi. The five selections are: “Makhzan Al-Asrar,” “Khosrow and Shirin,” “Layla and Majnun,” “Haft Peykar,” and “Eskandar-Namah.”

The inscriptions at the beginning of each of the book's five sections, as well as the clear and beautiful calligraphy, are what make this item so special.

The book itself is a mixture of tragic romance, fictional versions of real love stories, and popular Persian tales.

Even though miniatures were not popular in the history of the Arabian Peninsula’s culture, the library restores them in order to preserve the past and provide researchers with the opportunity to study them.

 


Syrian artist Tammam Azzam: ‘To be an artist is an endless dream’

Syrian artist Tammam Azzam: ‘To be an artist is an endless dream’
Updated 26 February 2021

Syrian artist Tammam Azzam: ‘To be an artist is an endless dream’

Syrian artist Tammam Azzam: ‘To be an artist is an endless dream’
  • The acclaimed Syrian artist on challenges, loss and optimism

LONDON: It must be strange for artists to hear people theorizing about their art. Talking to Tammam Azzam, you get the sense that, while he is happy to engage and listen, the Syrian artist is not particularly interested in adding layers of rumination to what he has already expressed on canvas.

“Sometimes even the artist cannot realize the message because there is no message — just a visual language,” he says. “Even I don’t know exactly what it means.”

Part of the reason that people want to talk about the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ in Azzam’s work is that his images are so powerful. When you look at his photomontage “Bon Voyage”  — showing a shattered Syrian apartment block suspended by balloons in front of the burning Twin Towers — you feel a flood of mixed emotions. Azzam explains the thinking behind the piece: “This image is about the evil and imbalance in our world. Every life is important, whether American or Syrian, and it is right that 9/11 is commemorated every year. But who is commemorating the Syrian casualties?”

Part of the reason that people want to talk about the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ in Azzam’s work is that his images are so powerful.  (SUPPLIED)

Azzam’s 2013 “Syrian Museum” photomontage series, in which he inserted famous masterpieces into scenes of destruction from the ongoing civil war in his country, garnered international attention. Asked why he juxtaposed Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” with the mangled wreckage of a bombed-out building, he answers: “Besides my love and admiration for Van Gogh, I chose to show his night sky — full of energy and movement — to make a sharp contrast between beauty and destruction.”

Another striking image from the same series shows Paul Gauguin’s “Tahitian Women on the Beach” transplanted into an arid landscape with a UNHCR refugee tent in the background. “This came from seeing women around the camps just sitting and waiting — actually for nothing,” he says. “Gauguin’s women were sitting and contemplating and I just put them in a different location, situation and atmosphere.”

Much of the global attention was focused on “Freedom Graffiti,” which superimposed Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” onto a ruined apartment block. It was the final image in the series and Azzam was taken aback by the publicity it attracted.

160x240 cm, paper collage on canvas, 2019 (Supplied)

“It’s strange, because as an artist I was just creating my work. I don’t know the secret behind that,” he says. “I spent a year working on this project and after the Klimt I felt that there was no need to go further,” he said. “I am always questioning myself: ‘How long am I going to use this technique and why?’”

Azzam studied fine art at Damascus University, specializing in oil painting. And after graduating, he went into graphic design. The combination of those two disciplines clearly informs his work, and he mentions the German-based Syrian artist Marwan Kassab Pashi  — whose workshop he attended at university — as a major influence.

In 2011, Azzam was forced to flee his country. He was assisted by Ayyam Gallery, which has helped him and other artists start new lives in Dubai and Beirut. For Azzam, the pain of leaving was amplified by the loss of his studio and materials, on top of the cultural shift.

The Syrian artist is not particularly interested in adding layers of rumination to what he has already expressed on canvas. (Supplied)

“It took me three years to adjust to living in Dubai. It’s another system and mentality. Everything was different. And very expensive. In Damascus I had my studio and my materials. In Dubai I felt everything was lost; I couldn’t go anymore to the old souk where I used to get my materials,” he says. “Before Dubai I never thought about creating digital art, but because I was a graphic designer for 10 years in Syria, that helped me make the shift.”

After five years in Dubai, he moved to Germany in 2016 taking up a residency at the Hanse Institute for Advanced Studies in Delmenhorst. Once again, he found himself grappling with the challenges of adapting to a new environment, culture and language. In 2018, he moved to Berlin where he now lives. His family is scattered due to the war.

“Like so many Syrian families, we are dispersed around the world,” he says. “It’s sad, but it’s nothing compared to what’s happening to people still in the country and unable to leave. My parents are still in the village where my father, a writer, has his library. He is still writing. They are not in a conflict area, but daily life is difficult with just a few hours of electricity each day and no gas for heating.”

His next show is at Berlin’s Kornfeld gallery in April and that is the focus of Azzam’s carefully structured days at the moment. (Supplied)

His parents, he says, were always supportive of his desire to be an artist. “I was lucky,” he says. “It was my dream from a young age. To be an artist is an endless dream.”

In Germany, his focus recently has been on collage. “It was a new step for me — a big challenge to use a new medium,” he says. Even in this new medium, however, the message remains consistent. One recent work is a representation of a building with its façade blown out, revealing glimpses of wallpaper, painted walls, and fabrics, all exposed to the elements. “I saw so many building like this,” he says. “Totally destroyed with interiors that used to be full of life and color.”

His next show is at Berlin’s Kornfeld gallery in April and that is the focus of Azzam’s carefully structured days at the moment.

“I work every day, alone. It is very important to me to work otherwise I can’t do anything,” he says. “I feel optimistic even with all the bad daily news. We will find good things alongside the bad.”


THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’
Updated 26 February 2021

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

DUBAI: Through their 2011 installation, The Paris-based Lebanese duo reflect on their 2011 installation, inspired by the Lebanese Rocket Society from the 1960s.

Lebanese Rocket Society. (Supplied)

Hadjithomas: It all started with my sister. She was researching Lebanese history and came across this story about rockets being launched from Lebanon (in the Sixties). It stayed in our minds. A few years later, we saw the stamp of the Cedar IV rocket, which was issued in 1964, and we thought it was really interesting. 

Joreige: We wondered why such a positive project disappeared from our history and memory. 

H: The Lebanese Rocket Society started in 1960 at Haigazian University. There was a professor — Manoug Manougian — who was really fond of rocketry. His students started making rockets and propellants at the university. The Lebanese Army joined in, but for Manoug and his students it was always an educational project — never a military one.

J: It wasn’t nationalistic either. Most of the people involved weren’t Lebanese — they came from all over the region. Through education, they were building peace.

H: They thought they were contributing to the space race — they were contemporary to the rest of the world, researching this fascination that people had for space. It’s about hope and dreams. So we felt that we should tell this story and find all the people that participated. That was not easy because they were scattered all around the world.

J: We had to think about different strategies of reactivating the past in the present.

H: So we rebuilt a rocket with the help of Sharjah Biennale and we offered it to Haigazian University. Reconstitution is a way of giving matter — reality — to our lost memories. That’s why it was important to redo the rocket exactly as it was. We chose Cedar IV because it was one of the most successful, but we didn’t put the Lebanese flag on it.

 J: if you put a flag on it, it would become national and militaristic. By keeping it white, it’s a place of projection, a ghostly presence.

H: Today, it seems like a military missile but it’s not. 

J: The UAE probe (which reached Mars on Feb. 9) is called “Hope.” When you are targeting another dimension, something you don’t know, it is always a question of hope.

H: Lebanon is very rich in its people, but we are hostages of people that are corrupt and think only about themselves. We were really happy for the UAE when “Hope” reached Mars, and I think the Lebanese reacted to it because they felt they should also be dreaming — and having the possibility to reconstruct and free themselves from those corrupt people.