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


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.


Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can
Updated 27 February 2021

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can
  • The most prestigious venues in South Africa’s tourism capital have never been more affordable

DUBAI: The silence atop Table Mountain on a cloudless afternoon in December is an experience only the COVID-19 pandemic could have brought. 

As one of the most popular hikes (or cable-car rides, if you’d prefer an easier climb) in Cape Town, the summit is usually thronging with people wielding selfie sticks and smartphones whatever the day, leaving you jostling for a decent view of the famed Twelve Apostles to the left, and the sweeping city and harbor to the right. But on this Friday evening we find ourselves alone except for our guide and a peppy rock hyrax for company. 

Naturally, South Africa’s tourism capital is a different place during the pandemic. Like elsewhere in the world, it’s largely devoid of international travellers. This is bad news for the country’s tourism industry, but a positive point if you’re one of the few choosing to head abroad.

In Franschhoek, the picturesque valley filled with vineyards just north-east of Cape Town, a seat at one of the country’s premier restaurants has never been easier to come by. (Shutterstock)

The city’s top hotels are offering large discounts to entice travellers in. And Cape Town’s premier attractions — including its world-renowned restaurants — are easier to get into then ever.

South Africa opened its doors to tourists on November 1, but has since faced challenges in being perceived as a safe place to visit. In December, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country was in a second wave of infections, one that was crippling the hospital system. The South African variant of COVID-19 was also discovered. Flights into and out of the country were cancelled. Ramaphosa closed beaches and public parks and enforced a number of other restrictions in perceived hotspots — including Nelson Mandela Bay and the famous Garden Route. The move was another blow for the tourism industry there, which, after a tough lockdown period earlier in the year, was relying on the incoming flock of domestic tourists for the festive season. 

If you’re staying at the One and Only Cape Town, seek out David. (Shutterstock)

Cape Town and the surrounding area escaped strict restrictions, however. Its beaches, as well as the sparkling white bays and the quirky towns dotted around Cape Peninsula (Hout Bay, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg etc) are humming with locals. It’s a relative hum, however, with only a few beachfront restaurants nearing capacity and a palpable air of uncertainty. 

Wandering along Cape Town’s beachfront, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear a foreign accent. You can wander through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and not see another face for long periods of time. On a hike up Table Mountain, you might only encounter a couple of other people on the same route. The uncrowded outdoors beckon.

Many of the hikes in the city (Lion’s Head is another must-do) seem easy enough, but are better attempted with a guide — both for safety and enjoyment. Most hotels will either have one on staff or will be able to arrange one for you. If you’re staying at the One and Only Cape Town, seek out David. He’s knowledgeable about hidden spots on the hike, as well as about the area’s fauna and flora, meaning your hike will be peppered with educational tidbits too. 

Babylonstoren is arguably the region’s most popular spot. (Shutterstock)

One and Only Cape Town is a top choice if you’re looking to stay central — nestled in around the waterfront. Its affable army of staff positioned around the property at all times are vigilant about temperature checks and sanitization, and it’s a diverse enough hotel to mean you never have to leave if you’re nervous about mixing in crowds. A central island of resort-style rooms offer an escape to a tropical island in the middle of the city, surrounded by waterways where you can kayak or paddleboard. 

The hotel is also home to Africa’s only Nobu restaurant. Given the freshness of the catch in this area of the world, it’s the perfect place to break up all your heavy game meals. Better yet, spend a rainy day trying a sushi masterclass and learn Nobu’s famous six-step nigiri method. 

Given the freshness of the catch in this area of the world, it’s the perfect place to break up all your heavy game meals. (Shutterstock)

Best of all, the Western Cape’s world-famous restaurants don’t need to be booked months in advance at the moment. Even in the really touristy areas.

In Franschhoek, the picturesque valley filled with vineyards just north-east of Cape Town, a seat at one of the country’s premier restaurants has never been easier to come by. For instance, at Babylonstoren, arguably the region’s most popular spot, bookings for its restaurant Babel open nine months in advance, with its website recommending booking two or three months in advance. Now, you can book with less than 24-hours notice.

La Residence, Franschhoek’s most beautiful property (and a favorite of Sir Elton John), is a boutique option at the best of times, but now it seems almost as though it’s your own private mansion. The 30-acre estate is positioned on a hillock overlooking the village on one side and with lines of vines on the other, as emboldened peacocks wander around your room, and up to your table at breakfast time. One couple has booked in for 46 nights, which may be a bit much, but it’s hard to blame them, given the (relatively) bargain prices and lack of crowds.

If you’re willing and able to travel — and if the country’s borders are open again — this might be the best possible time to visit this dazzling city.


Saudi-British artistic collaboration explores Saudi Arabia’s past, future

Saudi-British artistic collaboration explores Saudi Arabia’s past, future
Updated 25 February 2021

Saudi-British artistic collaboration explores Saudi Arabia’s past, future

Saudi-British artistic collaboration explores Saudi Arabia’s past, future
  • Young artists received mentorship from prominent Saudi creator Manal Al-Dowayan
  • They were participants in Connect ME program, which fosters UK-Gulf artistic exchange

LONDON: An upcoming artist from Saudi Arabia has revealed the results of his collaboration with a British counterpart, launching digital artwork that “seeks to recalibrate viewers’ perception of ‘the other’ culture.”

Riyadh-based Meshal Al-Obaidallah worked with artist Carolin Schnurrer to produce the work, called “FAREWELL ARABIA: A Bold New Vision,” as part of the Connect ME Digital Residency program run by the Arab British Centre.

The initiative pairs young artists from the Gulf with British counterparts to foster artistic collaboration, and to consider how digital tools can encourage connectivity across borders despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of the program, the young artists received mentorship from prominent Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan.

The work by Al-Obaidallah and Schnurrer explores Saudi Arabia’s rapid development during the 20th century and how it changed society, as well as looking ahead at what the future might hold for the Kingdom.

“Through our exchange, we collected found footage, sound bites, quotes, symbols and other fragments,” said Al-Obaidallah.

“These re-appropriated fragments were processed, destroyed, accelerated, decelerated and rearranged,” he added, describing it as a “mishmash of fact and fiction.” 

Eilidh Kennedy McLean, British Council country director for Saud Arabia, congratulated Al-Obaidallah on representing the Kingdom in the residency, saying: “It is an incredible, interesting time for artists to explore different mediums of collaborations to create and innovate despite the physical restrictions during COVID.” 

Also selected to participate in the Connect ME program were Emirati artist Dina Khatib and British artist Ollie Cameron.

They collaborated to create a work that explores “how visualizing the unseen space between them could become a means for connection and exchange.”

All four artists and their mentor Al-Dowayan will host an online talk on March 3 to discuss the program and their creations in-depth.