Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 27th November 2015

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Display of Arab modern art at British Museum

Venetia Porter, curator responsible for British Museum’s collection of Islamic art, says exhibition focuses on how artists go from figurative to abstract.


Venetia Porter

Venetia Porter is the curator responsible for the British Museum’s collection of Islamic art.

London - In the British Museum’s permanent collection of treasures and artefacts from the Muslim world, an exhibition space called Room 34 is covered by a magnificent Persian rug. The room is used for art displays where carefully selected works hang on the walls or are displayed in glass cabinets.

Room 34 is the venue for From the figurative to the abstract: modern art from the Arab World displaying 26 works on paper recently acquired by the British Museum. The art was created by Lebanon’s Shafiq Abboud, Michel Basbous and Nabil Nahas; Saudi Arabia’s Safeya Binzagr; Iraq’s Sadik Kwaish Alfraji and Rafa al-Nasiri; Syria Marwan Kassab-Bachi; and Tunisia’s Tahar M’Guedmini.

Venetia Porter, the curator responsible for the British Museum’s collection of Islamic art, said the exhibition focuses on how artists go from the figurative to the abstract.

“It’s special for me because the works on display are mostly some of the extremely recent acquisitions to the collection. Many of the artists – Abboud, Kassab-Bachi, al-Nasiri – can be described as ‘modernists’,” Porter said.

“We have purchased these works from galleries; some are gifts. We are able to make these acquisitions because of a patrons group CaMMEA (Contemporary and Modern Middle East Art group) that was formed in 2009. The [British Museum] is the first major institution to collect this kind of material,” she explained.

“What you see in the display is a tiny part of a growing collection. There are close to 300 artists from the MENA region now represented in the British Museum.”

Porter pointed out that all of the artists on display spent time in art schools outside the Middle East or interacted with well-known European artists.

Binzagr, the author of Saudi Arabia: an artist’s view of the past, uses printmaking techniques she learnt at St Martin’s College in London to capture aspects of Saudi tradition. She was born in Jeddah and the love of tradition and the desire to record it in the face of the rapid modernisation of Saudi Arabia is a motivating force behind her work. A man with a falcon, traditional houses and people from the past gaze contemplatively at the visitors to the exhibition.

In 1995, she opened Darat Safeya Binzagr, an important meeting place for artists and art education, to display her paintings and a growing collection of costumes and jewellery.

Kasab-Bachi, a resident of Germany whose works are also on display in London’s Mosaic Rooms, specialises in faces and abstract portraits. He studied in Berlin with Georg Baselitz, a neo-expressionist, whose imagery is symbolic of the body.

M’Guedmini focused on anatomical drawing in Paris where he trained in fine arts. During the past 40 years, he has exhibited widely in Great Britain, Switzerland and France. His black, haunting figures have an extraordinary effect, which could relate to the artist’s experiences or to figures he encountered and chose to portray.

One of the most abstract figures is by Basbous, a sculptor who from the age of ten retreated to a barn at the bottom of the garden in his home town of Rachana in Lebanon where a sign above the door read “art is above everything”. He studied under the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine.

Alfraji also has a shadowy character in his artwork. He makes use of the artist book, which is becoming increasingly popular among Arab artists, to tell his own story of exile, which he then transforms into moving video works.

Alfraji is a visual artist print maker and designer. He studied philosophy and says that art and philosophy blend for their course is one. He says he doesn’t believe in one fixed form that might limit the artist; what is more important is the style. “The style is the entity of the artist that we observe and see in his/her work and which is only completed by his/her death,” he says.

In their artist books, Nasiri and Abboud draw inspiration from the works of two of the best known Arab poets – Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said) and Mahmoud Darwish.

In another book included in the display, Abboud illustrates a French folktale. He lived in Paris and was interested in different techniques of abstract art pursued by Roger Bissiere and Nicolas de Stael, who had a major impact on the development of Abboud’s unique style.

Nasiri, who studied woodcut and watercolour in China, moved from a focus on the Arabic letter to abstract compositions that accompany Arabic poetry.