Exploring the long and aesthetic role of text in contemporary Middle Eastern art

Exhibitions in the UK shine a spotlight on the importance of lettering in the development of modern art in the region

An expressive, untitled 1981 work by the Algerian artist Rachid Koraichi, part of the second generation of Arab artists to use text and Arabic lettering. Photo: Rose Issa
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Whether scribbled in minute scale, expansively painted, crafted out of bent bronze or telling a story in folded artists’ books, text has long remained a major — albeit receding — element of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art.

Curiously, this feature is having a moment, as it is under the spotlight of two exhibitions, running simultaneously in London at SOAS's Brunei Gallery, and the British Museum. The shows, each curated by pioneers in the field, span three generations of artists from the Islamic world.

At Brunei Gallery, The Future of Traditions, Writing Pictures: Contemporary Art from the Middle East traces a chronology of the subject. It is co-curated by SOAS's own Bob Annibale and Rose Issa, the latter having explored the subject since her work at London’s Kufa Gallery in the 1980s. Meanwhile, at the British Museum, Venetia Porter’s Artists Making Books: Poetry to Politics comprises the artists’ books Porter collected for the museum, which she left after more than 30 years last December.

“Lettering was the aesthetic of the Iranians and the Arabs in the late 1950s and '60s that changed the direction and the trajectory of the art scene,” says Issa, who co-authored a book on calligraphy titled Signs of Our Times: From Calligraphy to Calligraffiti in 2016.

“After I published Signs of Our Times, I thought everybody would jump to do an exhibition, to remind themselves what an important aesthetic lettering was for the region, for Iranians, Arabs and many other cultures. It’s not just calligraphy. In this show out of 38 artists, only four of them are calligraphers. The rest of them are people who love the morphology of the letter, the shape of it, the aesthetic of it.”

A vast show spread across the Brunei Gallery’s three floors, the exhibition begins with early experiments with Arabic and Persian lettering in the 1950s, by artists such as Nja Mahdaoui from Tunisia, Mohammed Ehsai from Iran, and Maliheh Afnan, from Palestine and Iran. From their explorations on canvas, one can watch the subject unfurl, turned into graphic lettering by Mouneer Al-Shaarani, artists’ books by Etel Adnan and even stone sculptures by the Kurdish artist Walid Siti.

Yet, while the importance of early Iranian experiments is well-documented, that of the hurufiyya movement in Iraq feels somewhat absent, which is an omission in such a historical survey.

Like much of Issa’s curating, this is a show that revels in beauty, with history and politics not far behind. Fathi Hassan creates colourful, almost folkloric renditions of Arabic letters — which seem to jump and dance in relation to each other, untethered by lines or the need to combine to create meaning. For the Upper Egyptian artist, the dismembered letters reflect on the loss of Arabic under colonialism.

Elsewhere, in comparison to the predominance of the two-dimensional canvas, sculptural forms are particularly striking, such as Said Baalbaki’s twisted “La”, or “no”, made out of bronze and fashioned to look like a leather belt crossed over itself — a double-edged image of constriction.

Reflecting the intimacy of language, other works are inspired by personal events. A series of 45 small bronzes by Susan Hefuna reads “Patience is Beautiful” — a reference, says Issa, to the fact Hefuna, now an internationally renowned artist, only began to achieve success at the age of 45.

The art of artists' books

A few blocks away, at the British Museum, Porter's show dives deeper into one of the forms touched on by Issa: the artist's book, a medium that arose in the 20th century and became hugely influential in the Middle East. These take various forms, from hand-drawn unique works to books produced in limited editions, those made in lithographs or etched and even sculptural renditions.

Porter divides her show of more than 40 books into five key themes: the mixing of traditions, poetry, conflict, histories and Arabian Nights. The last carefully examines not only how artists were inspired by that famous book, but on how the stars and the night sky have been used to guide migrants both literally and figuratively.

The Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtekar, for example, has made a deep-blue book pierced with stars by exposing pages featuring Isaac Asimov’s short story Nightfall — treated with light-reactive chemicals to the night sky, which acts both as a memory of the past and as a means to capture the present.

The portability and fragility of the books, which could be folded up and packed away, provide a reminder of the ubiquity of conflict, migration and exile throughout the region in the 20th century.

The Iraqi artist Mahmoud Obaidi created small suitcases in which he placed his scrapbooks, in the poignantly titled Compact Home 7 (2015). Mohammed Omar Khalil, from Sudan, responds in a series of minute etchings to Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, a novel that chronicles the loss and displacement of trying to exist in two worlds at once. In his tight, careful script and illustrations, Khalil summons Salih’s portrayal of the heroic self-control of men estranged from their surroundings.

The show is a delight, despite the fact artists’ books can be notoriously difficult to exhibit in a public setting. Designed for perusal, they often feel cut off behind the vitrines' panes of glass, with text too small for the audience to read, and the intimacy of the artists’ hand-done illustrations and writing seen only at a distance.

However, the British Museum has chosen to reproduce many of the poems, which allows the books' unique equality between the visual and written to come to the fore. The show includes the full text, for example, of Mahmoud Darwish’s The Damascene Collar of the Dove, through which the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj responds to his country’s civil war a work and poem worth the trip to the museum alone.

“For me, the magical thing is the interaction between the text and the image,” says Porter, who admits a personal fascination with the medium. “Every artist talks about how their work is not just an illustration of the poem. The artists are working with poets, coming up together with ideas on how to make these books.”

Tradition or a postcolonial choice?

The staging of the two shows is coincidental, but Issa and Porter have collaborated over the years, as when Porter contributed to Signs of Our Times.

Issa and Porter's exhibitions, along with Dia Al Azzawi's retrospective of his artists’ books, called dafatir, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, have opened a debate over artists' use of lettering as a postcolonial move. Al Azzawi, for example, who is also included in Porter’s show, has suggested that dafatir connects him to the Arab tradition of manuscripts and performed poetry — unlike imported media such as painting or sculpture from the West.

Similarly, for Issa, artists’ use of text speaks of an authenticity to Middle Eastern traditions.

“I wanted references to my culture rather than imitating or having derivative works of the West,” says the Iranian-Lebanese curator of her interest in the form. “I see students from Sharjah who come to London — and they teach them how to put garbage in a plastic bin to be conceptual, while what they did before was much more interesting. To me, I prefer when they refer to their own culture than to be a bad derivative work of the West.”

Both Issa and the curator of Al Azzawi's show, Francesca Leoni, underline this continuity by juxtaposing contemporary text work with pre-modern Islamic artefacts. Issa, for example, sets a blue-glazed Seljuk ewer from SOAS’s permanent collection next to a ceramic work by Manal Al Dowayan, in which she casts scrolls in porcelain (ironically titled Just Paper, from 2019), and various artists' books with richly illustrated manuscripts.

But the emphasis on Arabic and Persian writing has, over the years, come across like typecasting: a recognisably "Arabic" subject that artists from the Arab region feel pigeonholes them in their identity.

While neither of these shows address these concerns, the variety of work — and the works themselves — complicate any easy readings, whether of artists' books as an authentically "Middle Eastern" form, or as one of stereotyping.

When it comes to modern art, the interchange between West and Middle East has been ongoing for decades, without any sharp or binary divide between the two regions. Indeed, the Lebanese Shafic Abboud, who was the first modern artist in the Middle East to make an artists’ book, became acquainted with the form when he was living in Paris, where the tradition of livres d’artistes flourished in the early 20th century.

Likewise, Moroccan artist Farid Belkahia, who explicitly turned his back on the French traditions of the School of Fine Arts of Casablanca in the 1960s, used source material from that country for his own explorations. In his Atours autour (1980, on view at the British Museum), he used a French text, written by the Czech poet Natacha Pavel, which he had translated into Moroccan Arabic for his handwritten version of the text.

While the source material speaks of layers of cultural exchange, Belkahia cites his version of the book in the colour palette of Moroccan folk art, in tawny browns and dark reds.

“These books are many things,” says Porter. "Artists will find different ways to tell their stories."

The Future of Traditions, Writing Pictures:, Contemporary Art from the Middle East is at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London, until March 25. Artists Making Books: Poetry to Politics is at the British Museum until September 17

Updated: March 15, 2023, 2:54 PM