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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What lies beneath: new discoveries about the Jericho skull

Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

It’s always a problem for museum curators to find ways of learning more about the objects in their care without damaging them. For human remains, it’s even more complicated because there are additional questions of care and respect for the dead that have to be carefully considered before any research can be done. However, by studying their remains we can find out an enormous amount about the people of the past; about their health, their diet and about the religious practices they carried out.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The so-called Jericho skull is among the oldest human remains in the British Museum collection. Thought to be between 8,500 and 9,300 years old, it is one of seven Neolithic plastered human skulls found together by Kathleen Kenyon during excavations at Jericho in 1953. The site is now located in the modern State of Palestine.

Plastered skulls are thought to have been an important part of Neolithic rituals involving the removal, decoration and collecting of skulls. There has been a lot of debate about why particular skulls were chosen for this. Some archaeologists link them to the worship of elder males. Others suggest they were selected according to their shape or the status of the person in society. Some argue that they are portraits of revered members of the community. None of these theories are completely convincing, but a general agreement has emerged that the worship of ancestors may be involved.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

The Jericho skull shown facing sideways. The lips and remaining ear are modelled in plaster.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

View of the back of the skull showing the hole made in the bone and the plaster base.

This ‘skull’ is actually a cranium because the lower jaw has been removed. There is also a section of bone missing on the left side towards the back where the soil filling inside can be seen. The cranium was decorated with a thick layer of plaster, shaped to look like a human face, which covers all of the upper jaw and finishes at the eye sockets and temples. Plaster has also been used on the base, so the skull sits upright on its own. Frustratingly, the plaster covers the parts of the skull which provide clues about who the person was and what happened to them. Therefore, over 50 years after it had been found, we still knew very little about the person whose skull this was. Physical anthropologists (experts in the human body) Theya Molleson (Scientific Associate, Natural History Museum) and Jessica Pearson, looked at how much the sutures (the joins between the skull’s bones) had closed and were able to suggest that it was a mature adult, but we needed to see beneath the plaster to find out more.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Jericho skull in the radiography laboratory. The grey cassette behind the skull contains the X-ray film.

The Museum has equipment for taking X-rays (radiographs) and my colleague Janet Ambers was able to X-ray the Jericho skull, but the soil filling the skull made it difficult to see everything inside clearly. We were therefore very lucky to be offered the chance to use a micro-CT scanner and its associated software by the Imaging and Analysis Centre, at the Natural History Museum, and the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College, and to work with two of their experts, Richard Able and Crispin Wiles.

The images created by the CT scans allowed us to look beneath the surface, revealing new details about the person that died so long ago. The scans confirmed that the skull had belonged to a mature adult who was more likely to have been male than female. We were also able to look at his upper jaw, where we found broken teeth, tooth decay and damage done to the bone by abscesses; all of which fitted well with the person being a mature adult. The back teeth (second and third molars) never developed and the second incisor on the right side is also missing. It is difficult to be sure without other examples to look at, but these teeth may have failed to grow because of inherited traits that are relatively rare.

The scans also allowed us see that the shape of the person’s head had been changed during their lifetime. It is possible to alter the shape of a skull by binding or bandaging the head during childhood. When we looked at the outside of the Jericho Skull we could see a slight dip in the surface running over the top of the head from ear to ear which suggested that something like this had been carried out. The X-rays and the CT scans, showed changes in the thickness of the skull bone and, as such alterations can only be made while bone is forming and growing, this must have happened from an early age.

This work has also revealed new details about how the skull was prepared for plastering. The CT scans showed concentric rings of grits within the soil and a ball of finer clay sealing the access hole at the back. This suggests that the soil was deliberately put inside the skull to support the surface as the plaster face was being added. It is possible that the round piece of bone cut away to form the access hole was originally put back after the cranium had been filled. Although it was subsequently lost, its earlier presence may explain why the soft soil filling has survived so well.

The work has significantly changed our knowledge of how this person’s skull was treated both during life and after death, making clear the benefits of the long-term care for human remains offered by museums. This previously enigmatic individual is now known to be a old man who suffered badly from toothache. The deliberate re-shaping of the skull also suggests that for this individual, physical change and social status may have been linked, something seen across the history of humankind. The use of imaging techniques has provided us with new areas of investigation and suggested new ways to view plastered skulls; as a reflection of an individual’s life rather than just a treatment for the dead.

The Jericho skull can be seen in the British Museum in Room 59, Ancient Levant, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery.

Alexandra Fletcher is co-editor of a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum published by British Museum Press, which discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

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