Modern humanity is reflected through the prism of contemporary art

Every Day
Maraya li zaman al-inhiyar (Mirrors for a time of decline)
Sound Palimpsest (detail)
Sound Palimpsest (detail)
Exhibition view
Third script (bottom right of image)
Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World
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The British Museum

The British Museum is hosting special exhibitions to reflect on modern humanity through the prism of its contemporary art collection. Even though the art sometimes only loosely engages with the stories behind the objects of these ancient civilisations, they inevitably leave a trace of current issues of gender, identity, and politics for reflection by archaeologists and audiences.

Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World

Artists making books: poetry to politics is a special exhibition in the British Museum’s Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World — a small part of the museum’s colossal collection of antiquities that cover Islamic religion, cultural tradition, and art. Though intimate in size, this exhibition comprises more than forty artists’ books, each bearing some emotional burden of modern human conflict and suffering.

Poetry, Politics and Visual Arts

Politics is everywhere in Arab lands. Poetry written by contemporary writers suffering from exile has become a powerful political weapon.

Exiled Syrian poet Adonis (b.1930), one of the greatest living poets of the Arab world, has a strong presence in the exhibition. He is showcased by artist books inspired by his poetry, with whom he collaborated, or books he created himself. Lebanon’s most revered artist, Shafic Abboud (1926–2004), was the first artist of the Middle East to make art books from Adonis’s poetry. Abboud incorporates Adonis’s handwritten poems over a black-and-white background in his Abstract Expressionist style. Born in Lebanon, he went on to study and settle in France. Abboud roots Adonis’s poems in a subtle, metaphysical and romantic French style that satisfyingly integrates text and painting into the final artwork.

Palestinian diaspora and the effects of war

The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008), referred to as “the voice of the fragmented soul”, inspired artists in this exhibition. His work expresses his discontent with being part of the Palestinian diaspora caused by the Israeli occupation of his homeland. His inner dialogue touched upon language and identity. In Darwish’s work, The Damascene Collar of the Dove (2019), Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj (b.1963) uses the eponymous ode to Damascus as a framework to explore the devastating effects of the civil war in Syria, which began in 2011 and continues. The artist deconstructed a found diary and handwrote Darwish’s poem in crayoned red text over the pages, alongside images of the country’s destruction and human suffering collaged onto the pages. The English translation of the poem is printed on the wall next to the artwork, whilst viewers who do not understand Arabic can also appreciate the poetry in the artwork as a form of visualised sentiments.

Iraq National Library and Archives destruction

Similarly deconstructing an old book into a fragmentary installation and treating the pages with collages and handwritten texts, Kourbaj’s other artwork Sound Palimpsest (2003) reacts to the Iraq War of 2003. The yellowing, fragile old pages are arranged in a chaotic way looking like the scene of ruins after a battle. It also symbolises the destruction of the Iraq National Library and Archives during the war and the massive amounts of rare books and documents that were destroyed. At the corner of the installation lies a Syrian passport that adds a material symbol instead of language to the poetic body. Another artist’s book addressing the 2003 Iraq War less metaphorically is Iraqi artist Kareem Risan’s Every Day (2005). Broken eyeglasses, tyre marks, fragments of a passport, hospital gauze and clothing are pasted onto a blood-red ground. Both artist books mentioned above transcend the two-dimensional space on pages to construct a poetic sculptural body absent of any words.

Islamic art

Artists’ books are not history textbooks in a fully descriptive way. Rather, they float through a personal lens and often further ambiguate space and time. Yet the struggles and emotions expressed are real. This exhibition expresses universal human emotions of a culture and religion overshadowed by decades of devastating struggles. This was the last exhibit I visited after exploring The British Museum’s overwhelming collections of artefacts dating from the rise of Islam in 622 until the present day. But this small collection of books best helped me appreciate Islamic art and empathise with the human condition we all share.

Test & photos by Yang Jiang