British Museum blog

Poetry and exile: contemporary art from the Middle East

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?

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism,2012 One of four photogravures showing different stages of the installation of the magnet and iron filing (2012,6018.3, Funded by Abulaziz Turki). © Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism, 2012. One of four photogravures showing different stages of the installation of the magnet and iron filing (2012,6018.3, Funded by Abulaziz Turki). © Ahmed Mater

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.

Ipek Duben, Refugee, 2010, photoprint and hand-stitching on synthetic silk on Canson paper, (2011,6029.1, funded by CaMMEA, the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art Acquisitions group). &copy Ipek Duben

Ipek Duben, Refugee, 2010, photoprint and hand-stitching on synthetic silk on Canson paper, (2011,6029.1, funded by CaMMEA, the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art Acquisitions group). © Ipek Duben

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, Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, The Poem of the Land, 1979, silkscreen on watercolour. (2014,6026.2, funded by CaMMEA). © Mona Saudi

Mona Saudi, Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, The Poem of the Land, 1979, silkscreen on watercolour. (2014,6026.2, funded by CaMMEA). © Mona Saudi

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.

Canan Tolon, Futur Imparfait, 1986-9. Ink and graphite on Mylar (2013,6039.1.1-33 funded by CaMMEA and SAHA, an association which supports artistic projects connected to contemporary Turkish art). © Canan Tolon

Canan Tolon, Futur Imparfait, 1986-9. Ink and graphite on Mylar (2013,6039.1.1-33 funded by CaMMEA and SAHA, an association which supports artistic projects connected to contemporary Turkish art). © Canan Tolon

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.

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Altaf’s Hajj: Preparation

Altaf Abbas and his wife Rashida are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. For information about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam


Altaf Abbas
We are a married couple, Altaf and Rashida Abbas with three children. We live in Leyton, East London very near the Olympics. We were both born in East London and have been married for 22 years. Both our parents are from Pakistan and came to the UK in search of work in the late 1950s. I work as a Construction Project Manager on the new extension of the British Museum which is currently underway and my wife Rashida works in the local Muslim school. We are going to Hajj on 30 Oct 2011 inshallah (God willing).

We have been planning to go for a number of years but became serious and made the commitment last year after speaking to some friends who had made the journey and described how it was such an amazing feeling. It is also one of the five pillars of Islam, the other four are believing in one god, fasting in Ramadan, paying charity and establishing regular prayer (five times a day). We are travelling on a package deal which includes flights, transfers, hotel and a trained guide.

I thought it was going to be a complicated process, however it was very easy. We just paid our deposit, got our vaccinations and posted our passports to the travel agent to get the visa. Three weeks later we paid the balance and collected our documents, at which point it became a reality that we were on our way.

Altaf buying fabric

Altaf buying fabric

The preparation that I have done is mainly background reading and lots of discussion with family and friends about their personal Hajj experiences to gain any tips about what to expect and things that I will need. The only real item that I needed to buy was the ihram which is the two unstitched white sheets that the men have to wear which signifies the shroud that Muslims are buried in, thus during the 10 days of Hajj everyone is equal.


Rashida Abbas
I have been told that I will need a huge dose of patience! I have watched lots of Hajj videos on YouTube and I am still not sure what to expect, but I think I will be in awe when I see the Ka’ba (black cloth covered building). My preparation has been to train my mind to be strong and be prepared for any hardship or difficult situation due to the huge crowds. Physically I have been walking two miles each day for the last four weeks as we will be walking a lot and I want to be fit and ready for it.

I have so many mixed emotions running through my mind. I’m excited, happy, scared and anxious as I am not sure what to expect on the day. But I do know it will be a spiritually uplifting experience.

Filed under: Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, ,

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam


Venetia Porter, exhibition curator

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam will tell the story of a remarkable religious phenomenon – the annual pilgrimage to the sacred city of Makkah (Mecca), the birthplace of Islam. This is the British Museum’s third exhibition in a series exploring the idea of spiritual journeys – following the ancient Egyptians’ journey through the afterlife and the Christian pilgrimages undertaken throughout medieval Europe.

The Ka'ba. AP/PA

The Ka'ba. AP/PA

The exhibition will focus on three main stories: the journey, the Hajj itself, and what it means to have performed Hajj. There will be fascinating and beautiful objects – ranging from archaeological finds to modern art – from many different public and private collections.

All Muslims, wherever they live, are obliged to complete this pilgrimage (known as Hajj) if they are able, at least once in their lives. Hajj takes place every year, starting on the eighth day of the month of Dhu’l-Hijjah (the last month in the Muslim calendar) and involves a sequence of rituals that must be followed over a period of five days.

When we consider the journey of Hajj it is important to imagine a time before modern travel – and it immediately becomes clear why the Arabic word Hajj conveys a sense of striving toward a goal.

The exhibition will explore four key historical routes that lead to Mecca – from Baghdad, from across the Sahara and via Cairo, from Istanbul through Damascus, and from across the Indian Ocean arriving at Jedda, the port for Mecca and where pilgrims arrive today – many by plane.

For some, this journey could take months. For those coming from across the Indian Ocean and further east, it could take a year as ships before the age of steam could only travel when the monsoon winds blew in the right direction. Such journeys could be rough and terrifying. The Malaysian Munshi Abdallah wrote in 1854 ‘A rough wind blew as we tried to cross Cape Cormorin. Oh God, oh God, oh God! I can’t begin to describe how horrendous it was and how tremendous the waves were….all the goods, chests, sleeping mats and pillows were flung about…everyone was lost in their own thoughts, thinking nothing else but that death was close at hand.’

Many of the objects will be coming from similarly far-flung locations, but their journeys will be much less perilous. Major loans will be coming from collections across the Middle East, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as from Mali, Indonesia and Europe. A significant number of objects are being lent by the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust).

Certain objects, however, will merely be making the short trip from neighbouring galleries in the Museum, or from the Museum’s store rooms. With a global collection, the British Museum is well-placed to cover a subject that links so many different areas of the world.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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