Spotlight on Arab print pioneers at Meem Gallery’s affordable-art show

The show aims to shed light on early printmaking works by the artists who were largely responsible for its development in the Arab world.

The story behind the rise of printmaking as a cheap and effective way of spreading art around the world is an intriguing one.

As mapped out by Meem Gallery in the introduction to their latest exhibition, featuring prints from some of the finest Arab artists, the story dates back to the 16th century.

“On October 31 [1517], Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and history was made,” it says.

Thanks to the affordability and ease provided by the printing press – which had been invented by Johannes Gutenberg almost 80 years earlier – hundreds of copies of the treatise spread across Europe.

Artists started to catch on to the potential of the print process. Albrecht Durer, a German Renaissance artist started making woodprints, inspiring masters including Raphael, Titan and Hogarth to follow suit.

This tradition is remembered at the gallery in the exhibition Arab Print Vol II (a follow-up to the 2008 exhibition of the same name).

The show aims to shed light on early printmaking works by the artists who were largely responsible for its development in the Arab world, and the resurgence of interest in young artists in the region.

Dia Azzawi, Kamal Boullata, Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Mohammed Omar Khalil and the late Rafa Nasiri are all featured in the exhibition. Because it features only prints and not original art, this is also a relatively affordable show, designed to be accessible to the younger collector, with prices starting at Dh11,000.

The show features several memorable pieces, with lithographs and etchings from the 1970s and 1980s by Azzawi, a pioneer of Iraqi modern art.

He is a humanist who likes to engage with political issues through work with social and emotional substance. His colourful pieces are sometimes figurative and sometimes abstract, but always concerned with regional issues and the human spirit.

The back wall of the gallery is adorned with a series of silkscreens by Palestinian artist Boullata.

His geometric work is rooted in calligraphy and Islamic art, executed with meticulous precision. His mostly pastel palette is balanced with occasional bursts of brighter colours, which makes his works immensely appealing.

The content of his work is always fascinating, as he is also an accomplished art historian and weaves in literary and cultural references for the enthusiast to discover.

Khalil is a Sudanese artist whose dark works are intriguing due to the movement captured within them. He makes art that is emotional and abstract.

Kassab-Bachi – usually known by his first name, Marwan – is one of the greatest living artists in the region. His work is almost always concerned with the topography of the face, and this show features etchings that display this in quite a raw format.

For those familiar with his larger works, these rather more sparse drawings are an insight into his technique and style.

Nasiri, who died in 2014, is arguably the most important artist in the show, thanks to his printmaking legacy. He established the Graphic Art Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1974, and dedicated his life’s work to printmaking. The Rafa Nasiri Annual Printmaking Award was founded after his death.

His works included in this show illustrate in particular his interest in Arabic poetry, in which, as with many artists from the region, he found solace during his time living in exile.