Holly Wright, administrator, British Museum
The current temporary display in the John Addis Gallery: Islamic World, Poetry and exile: works by Abdallah Benanteur, Ipek Duben, Mireille Kassar, Mona Saudi and Canan Tolon, curated by Venetia Porter, brings together the recently acquired work of six artists all exploring the phenomenon of exile. In a gallery predominantly populated with Islamic art and objects dating as early as the 7th century, it could be said that this display of contemporary art is incongruous. So why is it here?
I first became interested in the modern and contemporary collections of the Middle East department in 2012, while visiting Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam. The work of Ahmed Mater immediately stood out to me, as it added an unexpected emotional interpretation of the pilgrimage to Mecca which was unique and surprising to me as a visitor. I would later go on to study the collection of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in greater detail for my MA, still barely scraping the surface; as it continues to grow and to be used in increasingly imaginative and diverse ways.
In this display the concept of exile is approached through the personal experiences of each artist and their political and humanitarian views. Each work directs the viewer to the incidents that have inspired them and it is these references which place the art within a broader context. Not only do the works inspire an emotional response but they also ignite curiosity as to what inspired those artists. It is this emotional engagement and varied approach which makes the pieces so important and interesting to me, and hopefully to the visitors who will see the display.
The works in the display were not created in isolation; their influences overlap whether it be on specific political or personal events or the work of poets such as Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) and Farid al-Din Attar (c. 1145–c.1221). The works are all united by difficulty, whether that of the artist or the experiences of others. Ipek Duben formulates this difficulty in her book Refugee by overlaying images of suffering with delicate gauze and simple embroidered text and in doing so she starkly contrasts the hardship shown in the images. The simplicity of the technique employed gives the work a scrapbook feel, rendered incredibly moving as it highlights the experiences of refugees from Kosovo, Pakistan, Liberia and elsewhere.
Mona Saudi’s work Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, one of three displayed on the opposite wall, is inscribed with the poetry of the renowned and revered Palestinian poet (1941–2008). The one illustrated here is The Poem of the Land. For me, an interesting element of this work is that the style of Saudi’s drawings echo posters which she created for the Plastic Arts Section of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, some of which are displayed alongside Homage and are part of a group that have been donated by the Palestinian Poster archive. This is a unique quality of the British Museum’s collection of Middle Eastern art, in that the works often contain references that extend beyond the collection itself and in doing so give even small displays the ability to explore more widespread elements of history and human experience.
In Canan Tolon’s series, Futur Imparfait, her exile is more singular and personal. Inspired by her experience of illness as a child, the series acts as a memory of her protracted stay in a French hospital when she was separated from her home. The thirty delicate drawings on Mylar add a voice from another perspective. It is a series executed in ethereally light washes of ink and graphite, reflecting the removed reality she experienced while in a strange country and environment. Tolon’s own words are relevant regarding not only her own work but of the artists in the exhibition as a whole:
… it is not the misfortune of others which fascinates and astonishes but the extraordinary will of a child to live…
This sentiment is characteristic of the message and draw of the works in this display; there are painful and violent stories here, but predominantly it is the human reaction to these events and not the suffering in itself which is explored. The aftermath of war, illness and displacement is discussed through delicate drawings and through poetry. This alone is reason enough for these pieces to be here.
This space within the gallery of Islamic art is used for rotations of works on paper from across the collection that we are not able to put on permanent display. These include Persian or Mughal paintings, even shadow puppets as were featured in a previous display. With the ever-expanding collection of Middle Eastern art, this small area will continue to host increasingly diverse and exciting exhibitions, so watch this space! Further information on this collection and the Middle East department as a whole can also be found on the Museum’s collection online.
Before joining the Museum as an administrator in the Middle East Department in 2013, Holly Wright studied for the MA in Museum and Artefact Studies at Durham University. Her dissertation was ‘Collecting the contemporary: modern and contemporary art in the Middle East Department of the British Museum’.
Poetry and exile: works by Abdallah Benanteur, Ipek Duben, Mireille Kassar, Mona Saudi and Canan Tolon is on display in Room 34 until 1 March 2015, admission free.