Art in the press

A Breath of Fresh Air; New Middle Eastern art at the British Museum

A Breath of Fresh Air; New Middle Eastern art at the British Museum. (Word Into Art: Artists From the Modern Middle East)

Newsweek International; 5/29/2006
Byline: Tara Pepper

The sedate British Museum, with its vast, musty collections of ancient artefacts, isn't the most obvious place to go looking for radical contemporary art. Indeed, its new exhibit "Word Into Art: Artists From the Modern Middle East" (through Sept. 2) seems at first glance an unlikely departure in both style and subject matter. But director Neil McGregor says the show, which features works by more than 80 artists from Algeria to Iran, sprang from one of the museum's aims and founding principles: "to help us understand the world as it is now," he said at the exhibit's opening last week.

For more than two decades, in fact, the British Museum has sought out new Middle Eastern art to update its existing collections. The wide-ranging works in "Word Into Art" explore the region's ancient literature and history as well as modern concerns like regional conflict and social change. This is the only time this impressive batch of contemporary pieces will be shown together. After the exhibit, viewers will only be able to see the works by request in the museum's Prints and Drawings room; many are fragile and would be damaged by prolonged exposure to light.

In order to draw the exhibit's disparate themes together, curator Venetia Porter decided to focus on different kinds of engagement with Arabic script. The first section, "Sacred Script," demonstrates contemporary interpretations of ancient calligraphic techniques. Jordanian artist Nassar Mansour's 2002 "Kun" ( "Be") is striking and simple. It refers to the phrase in the Qur'an that reads, "and the day [God] says 'Be,' and it is." Rafa al-Nasiri's untitled etching of the Arabic letter ayn, which also means 'eye', evokes urban graffiti and progress, but also calls attention to the timeless, scorching desert of his native Iraq.

Some examine regional politics and social tensions. Maliheh Afnan's shadowy "Veiled Threats" (2005) covers inverted letters with a spidery veil of grey gauze to comment not only on the position of women but on the hidden meanings and threats that language can harbour. Sabah Naim's bold "Cairo Faces" (2006) juxtaposes an ordinary street scene with hundreds of tiny, rolled-up newspaper pages to suggest the gulf between everyday concerns about survival and the international arena of diplomacy that is the media's focus.

The exhibit is designed to be accessible as possible, with a comprehensive catalogue as well as a free booklet that includes the texts of poems used in the artworks and information about Arabic calligraphy. The museum's intent, says Porter, is "to open a window onto this extraordinary creativity in the Middle East that people [in the West] just don't know about." In that aim, the works in this wide-ranging show succeed. Without exception, they are thought-provoking and bold; most are beautiful and lyrical as well.

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