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Contemporary Arab Art By Ibrahim Alaoui
Collective exhibition of 5O Arab artists
"Keeping admiration alive"
By Mahmoud Mufti

Contemporary Arab Art
By Ibrahim Alaoui

(Head of The Museum Department and Curator of the Exhibitions at The Institute of the Arab World, Paris)

In the Arab world today, the visual arts occupy an important place in the field of creativity and artistic and intellectual exploration. They therefore have a major contribution to make to any study of the roots of creativity in contemporary Arab societies.

The history of painting in the Arab world is only a fragment of the history of these societies, and evolves in a multidimensional movement where it is only one part of a whole. That whole comprises not only aesthetic history but also social history, not to mention the complex relationship between the producers of symbolic forms and their societies. Unlike the history of modern Western painting, which was the result of a series of transformations linked to social revolutions, Arab easel-painting, as a system of representation which is modern in both its conception and its function, was born, at the beginning of this century, through contacts with the West which fundamentally altered not only the social systems of these countries but also the ways in which Arabs saw the world.

The emergence of this new mode of pictorial expression adopted by the Arabs is related on the one hand to the establishment of a relatively autonomous artistic domain (that of the artist as individual creator with a specific social status), to a market, to an audience, to all those who are interested in art, and on the other hand to the advent of new mode of expression and creation: the painting.

Although this artistic domain in the Arab world, with all the relationships it implies, was established in the early 20th century, it is necessary to add that easel-painting did not emerge from an aesthetic void. Inherited forms exist, both varied and essential, to express the cultural capital with which Arab artists must come to grips. They will no doubt be aware that their lands, through their creative and intellectual achievements, have produced a succession of remarkable civilizations which knew how to spread their influence throughout the world. They are therefore heirs of a rich and diverse tradition.

This abundant heritage, born of the meeting between pre-Islamic artistic traditions, on the one hand, and Islamic and Arabic culture on the other, is reflected in Arab societies characterized by a great diversity of modes of expression.

It is by considering the foundations of contemporary Arab art in this multiple dimension that we can most productively investigate the Arabs' visual memory. Since its foundations are so diverse, and since many elements and currents have participated in the re-birth of Arab art, its evolution is far from uniform. However, certain dominant forces have determined the development of contemporary art in the Arab world.

THE MEETING OF EAST AND WEST
The introduction of easel-painting is linked to the transplantation of Western political, economic, and cultural influences into Arab countries. Furthermore, European expansion in the 19th century fostered a growing interest in the arts of the Orient.

In painting, the Orientalist vogue had its origins in the orders issued by Napoleon to celebrate military successes in his Egyptian and Syrian campaigns. Later, the Greco- Turkish conflict and then the colonization of Algeria resulted in a lasting interest in the Orient on the part of European artists. The voyages of several major artists to Islamic lands in the 19th century were certainly determining factor: Delacroix to Morocco in 1832, Chasseriau to Algeria in 1846, Fromentin to Egypt in 1869, etc. Their Oriental travels had a multiple significance: at once a historical and archeological search for the origins of western culture, and an almost mystical quest for the cradle of religion. These painters also contributed to the development of pictorial Orientalism, which is to say amore or less obscure , more or less frivolous search for "the other." This quest issued from the need to escape from a civilization paralyzed by 19th -century bourgeois culture, and from the desire to liberate ones individual subjectivity by giving it free rein. What Westerners sought in the East was not, moreover, the recognition of their own identity , but rather the "Oriental" as Edward said has defined it- an entity invented by the west, its double, its opposite, at once the incarnation of its fears and the proof of its own superiority, the flesh of a body of which it could only be the spirit.

This fascination with the Orient also affected the first European photographers who set out for the Arab world immediately after the invention of the camera. Some settled there as early as 1860, such as Felix Bonfils in Beirut, the Abdullah brothers in Cairo, etc. Film-makers were to follow them as soon as cinematography was invented - the first projection of a film by the Lumiere brothers took place in Egypt in 1896. The installation of Europeans in Arab countries was accompanied by the establishment of milieus and institutions designed to receive and subsequently to educate Arab artists. Both intrigued and fascinated by this unfamiliar iconography and these new inventions, Egypt would be the first Arab country to attempt to master its language and techniques, and to devote itself to the remaking of its own image. Thus we witness the emergence of painters, of the first Arab photographs (notably Mohammad Sadie Bey who as early as 1861 took the earliest photographs of the Holy Land), and of cinematographers.

THE EMERGANCE OF ARAB PAINTING
At the beginning of the 20th century, Egypt awoke. Political, social, and cultural effervescence pervaded every sphere. It was in this propitious context that Egypt developed its artistic structures. In 1908, Prince Youssef Kamal created a school of Fine Arts in Cairo, the first of its kind in the Arab world. Among the original graduates were the pioneers of modern Egyptian art: the painters Ragheb Ayad, Youssef Kamal, Mohammad Nagui, and Mohammad Said, and the sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar. Most of these artists went on to pursue their studies in Europe.

On returning to their own country, these artists constituted a movement deeply aware of its role in the emancipation of modern Egypt, and from 1920 on participated in the "Nahda" (renaissance) symbolized by the statue of the same name sculpted by Mukhtar, a key figure in the artistic awakening of Egypt in 1928.

From then on, Cairo became the cultural and artistic capital of the Arab world. The teaching provided by the Cairo Academy of Fine Arts attracted many future Arab artists, particularly those of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Some of these artists were instrumental in setting up schools of fine art in their own countries.

The teaching propagated by these schools, the establishment of artists' associations, and the proliferation of local artistic outlets powerfully contributed to the emergence of the first generation of modern Arab painters.

The precocity of this plastic expression, the beginnings of a process of assimilation during the first half of the 20th century, meant that Western influence was to be expected, both on the technical and the stylistic level. However, these artists asserted their ability to represent their society in their own terms. Their wish at this time was to turn their backs on the exoticism of the Orientalists and, by returning to their roots, discover their own authentic voices in the idiom of modern art.

Many pioneering artists manifested the same wish to affirm their own rootedness, such as the Daoud Corm and Khalil Gibran in Lebanon, Jawad Salim and Faik Hassan in Iraq, Mahmoud Jalal and Nacer Shoura in Syria, Mahmoud Racim in Algeria, etc.

Each in his own fashion, these artists were able to build the premises of an aesthetic philosophy on the foundations of their new artistic activity, despite the presence of a European artistic community whose ephemeral success at the beginning of the century, based on a representational and academic exoticism dominated by genre scenes, was soon to be supplanted by intellectual and aesthetic revolutions in Europe.

FROM HERITAGE TO MODERNITY
In the Arab world, however, the plastic arts must submit to the vicissitudes of history. Struggles of liberation, culminating in independence for one land after another, were accompanied by self- searching and national affirmation. Ever since the "Nahda", Arab intellectuals had constantly been searching, each in his own manner, for a form of cultural and artistic expression adequate to the historical periods to which they belonged.

The desire to create an original form of aesthetic expression impelled certain artists in Egypt in the 1930's to distance themselves as much as possible from their immediate predecessors. On the fringes of fine arts academia, the surrealist current influenced certain intellectuals and artists who created in Cairo the group "Art and Liberty, " which from 1937 to 1945 galvanized Cairo intellectual life with its outrageous activities, at first through the publication of numerous articles and later through the founding of journals and the organizing of exhibitions. Ramses Youan, Fuad Kamal, and H. El-Telemsany adopted surrealism in order to achieve a more liberated style, which seemed to them a decisive step in the struggle for cultural emancipation and modernity.

Other movements appeared in various counties. In 1949 the school of Tunis was founded, which marked the birth of modern painting in Tunisia and nurtured its vigorous development over the following decades. This movement included painters of diverse origins and styles, who were soon joined by Ali Bellagha, Yahia Turki, Amman Fathat, Jalal Ben Abdullah, etc. These artists differed from the Orientalist school in that they favored the representation of ordinary activities and traditional life. A decade later the School of Tunis consolidated this vision by finding new ways of representing both the real and the imaginary life of Tunis.

Much more intellectually engaged, the Group of Modern Artists in Baghdad was born in the 1950's and immediately involved itself in the cultural and artistic life of Iraq. It advocated a modernity which was open to the world but did not renounce its roots. This movement engendered not only painters but also theorists and critics. It manifestos and critical writings on contemporary art provided the movement with a solid theoretical base and the sense of a coherent vision, quite rare in the Arab world at that time. One of its most observant and perceptive members, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, gives a good summary of the group's philosophy:

In their attempt to resolve the dialectic of the old and the new into a viable synthesis, the Iraqi artists and their defenders opened the way to a modernism which daringly emphasized its paradoxical nature, which no doubt explains its peculiar power. It is probably also the reason for the pre-eminence that Iraqi painting seems to have acquired in the wider currents of contemporary Arab art.

In the 1960's, the return of certain visual artists to their own countries after living in various Western capitals also favored the emergence of new artistic orientations. In Morocco, for example, the painting teachers Belkahia, Chebaa, and Melehi formed a group at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca which led an intensely active cultural life, with the aims of furthering the contribution of the visual arts to the redefinition of "cultural identity" and the integration of the arts with social life. Other painters, as well as writers poets, architects, etc., pursued ways in which art could be a vehicle for reflection and culture. This period in Morocco was notable for the opening of many art galleries, the creation of cultural journals, and the realization of a wide range of other innovative projects.

Also in the sixties, Lebanon saw the birth of innovative artistic practices and the flourishing of numerous art galleries, of which the most influential was undoubtedly Gallery One, founded by the poet Youssef El- Khal and his wife Helen. At about the same time, Janine Rebeize and a group of other Lebanese intellectuals created the Dar- El- Fan, which was destined to play a major role in the artistic life of Beirut. An exhibition space, it also became a meeting - place for exchanges between artist, intellectuals, and art-lovers. The gallery contact, with a wider base, exhibited artists from other counties in the Middle East, notably Iraq. This new dimension would serve to give Beirut a pivotal role on the contemporary Arab art scene.

TOWARDS A CONTEMPORARY ARAB ART

During the 1970's, Arab visual artists recognized the need to join forces in order to establish an inter-Arab domain of creation and artistic exploration through cultural conferences and group exhibitions. Shared questions concerning the role of the visual arts in the future of Arab culture, and the contradictions and tensions stemming from historical circumstances, led artists to organize activities of this kind.

Thus, in 1971 the first congress of visual arts in the Arab world, held in Damascus, met this need for pan-Arab co-operation. A year later, in April 1972, the Al-Wassiti Festival in Baghdad brought creative artists from many countries face to face. The same year, at Hammamet in Tunisia, a colloquium was held on contemporary styles in Arab visual arts. These activities led to the first pan-Arab Biennial of visual arts in Baghdad in 1974, followed by a second one in Rabat in 1976. These successive activities, which brought together artists and art critics from the Middle East and North Africa, providing them with the opportunity to exchange and confront individual and collective experiences accumulated over the years, served to create bonds, and to nurture the reciprocal exchange of currents and influences, both stylistic and conceptual.

Amid the diversity of inspiration during this period, it was the sense that Arab artists shared a common destiny which led to a real awakening of consciousness. Since then, there has been a certain relapse, which has not however prevented artists from getting together to participate in a concerted way in inter-Arab activities such as the Asilah Cultural Festival, the annual Kuwaiti exhibition of Arab artists, and the biennials of Cairo and Sharjah, etc. TOWARDS A

CULTURAL MODERNIZATION

The development crisis faced by Arab countries today originated in the unequal assimilation of modern products and values. The exhausted state of many modernizing industrial projects in certain developing countries demonstrates the limitations of strategies designed in economic terms, with little attention paid to cultural matters. The true and comprehensive modernization of a society must go by way of the modernization of the culture.

However, the lure of a cultural and artistic renewal, held out so temptingly at the onset of independence, and strongly marked by legitimate questions concerning cultural identity (and in the seventies by collective inter-Arab research), has been called into question by those who would seek their identity in traditional values. The problem for the Arab world lies in finding an appropriate response to this dilemma, and not foundering on a stubborn rejection of "the Other." Witness the generation of the 80's, which replaced attempts at collective effort with various individual itineraries and the multiplication of artistic exchanges and confrontations.

Though the infrastructures related to cultural life may be lacking, imagination and diverse private initiatives are alive and well. Rather than attempting a general survey of the state of contemporary Arab art, we should emphasize its creative power and its effectiveness as a tool of social transformation.

In Jordan, for instance, it was the creation of the Royal Institute of Fine Arts by Princess Fahr-El- Nissa Zeid in 1976 which promised to contribute actively to awakening curiosity about contemporary art in Amman.

After a distinguished artistic career in Europe, Princess Fahr-El-Nissa Zeid returned to live in Jordan. She then decided to share her passion and her experience with a handful of students. Far from the well-trodden paths of conventional academic instruction, the Princess introduced her students to what had been her motto throughout her career: "Listen to your own interior song."

It was not long before her inspiration bore fruit. Four years later a new generation of artists came to occupy the forefront of the Jordanian artistic scene, and in 1980 Princess Wijdan Ali established the Jordan National Gallery, a museum housing permanent collections and galleries for temporary exhibitions.

But the most striking event of this last decade was the creation by the Shoman Foundation of the Darat al Funun, a centre for contemporary art which is the first of its kind in the region.

The Darat al Funun is dedicated to promoting contemporary creativity in the widest possible sense, bringing various forms of artistic expression together and relating creation and formation to each other. In ten years of intense activity, it has become an essential venue for all those interested in contemporary Arab art, as well as a meeting-place for intercultural dialogue. Through its many exhibitions devoted to the most innovative Jordanian, Palestinian, and other Arab artists, and through its diverse cultural activities, the Darat al Funun vividly manifests its desire to reveal the creative dynamism of contemporary ideas and forms, and to contribute to the nurturing of a contemporary Arab culture.

AESTHETIC RESPONSES
It is in this general context that contemporary Arab art evolved. It would be difficult to give an inventory of all the approaches taken up by artist since the 1950's. Among the principal trends which seek to provide aesthetic responses to the problems posed by the visual arts, several options can be distinguished which co-exist and inter-relate.

FORMS OF FIGURATIVE ART
Modes of figurative representation are many and diverse. They vary according to their terms of reference and their sources of inspiration. One tendency draws its motifs and themes from social life. It refers, more or less allusively, to lived reality. There are many artists, Palestinians and others, who give prominence to scenes and types taken from social life and historical events by means of figurative signs capable of drawing attention simultaneously to the realities of the world and to their symbolic representation.

The painter Ismail Shamout, whose figurative images are placed in the service of the Palestinian cause, and Soleiman Mansour, and Ahmed Nawash, who paint allegorical scenes with a great liberty of interpretation, all adopt a signifying figuration.

Imbued with an expressionism abounding in energy, the work of Paul Guiragossian expresses the human condition, projected onto the canvas by way of representations of the body in motion.

Another figurative tendency borrows various formal and stylistic elements from antique patrimonies, such as Pharaonic art in the cases of Adam Henein and Nada Abdullah, or Babylonian and Assyrian art in the work of the Iraqi artists Ali Talib and Ismail Fattah, but also the art of the icon, as with the Syrians Fateh Moudarres and Elias Zayat, as well as the Palestinian Vladimir Tamari, whose native Jerusalem has inspired many of his watercolours with their iconic and spiritual resonances. Other artists reveal their attachment to their lands through a manner based on the observation of their patrimony or landscapes, such as the Jordanians Ali Jabri and Ammar Khammash. Others find their inspiration in popular imagery, such as the visual universe of the Tunisian Gouider Triki, whose work is based on a poetics of the image where the worlds of humans, plants, and animals are fused in an atmosphere of signs and colours, as if there were no limit to the artist's imagination. Finally, certain other artists of this persuasion deploy an imagery where the links with the real world are like distant reminiscences a stage of creation where the integration of forms and signs expresses the complex idea of a social, cultural, and psychological situation. Halfway between the figurative and the abstract, artists such as the Moroccan Kacimi and the Syrian Marwan (among others) translate their profound sensibilities, beyond any form of mimesis, and reveal their human experiences to us through formal speculations and metaphorical detours.

ABSTRACT ART
Abstract, or rather non-figurative art, operates by creating a synthesis between visible reality and the artist's interior experience. In the work of the Lebanese artists Chafic Abboud and Saliba Douaihy, purification and filtration lead to an abstract imagery, while in the art of Fahr-El- Nissa Zeid one sees lyricism of content and forms linked to temperament and creative power> This link is also visible in the work of her disciples Hind Nasser, Rula Shukairy and Suha Shoman. In Suha Shoman's works, a painterly informality, inspired by material qualities imbued with earthiness, emerges from deeply rooted cosmic landscapes. Indeed her work, dedicated to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, in a species of communion supplies not only an evocation of its memory but also the resonances of the self upon external objects.

Lyrical abstraction incarnates an undeniable plastic force in the work of the Palestinian Nabil Shehadeh and the Syrian Assad Orabi, while Najia Mehadji chooses a conceptual approach, seeking an equilibrium between formal purity and what she calls "le diagramme sensible."

Ziad Dalloul, painter and printmaker, excels in the union of two areas of expertise, and explores a domain where the figurative is cloaked in the abstract. In the work of Rashid Al Khalifa, one is instantly beguiled by the disposition of allusive, richly coloured forms, which give his paintings an emblematic density. We should also mention Khalid Khreis, whose gestural images are controlled by brush-strokes which often cover parts of the canvas monochromatically. Finally, the Sudanese artist Mohammad Omar Khalil explores the world of the print in which he is an acknowledged master, thanks to his work in America on images that have been becoming more and more informal, giving scope to the intrinsic values of black, of light and the texture of the paper. These are large prints where unadorned graphics and the movement of the forms generate abstract expressionist landscapes.

Among the younger generation, Ghada Dahdaleh is notable for the way in which a subtle and suggestive script translates the symbolism of Palestinian culture into an utterly personal idiom.

THE SCHOOL OF THE SIGN
Deeply aware of calligraphy as they are, Arab painters have sought some form of specific plastic expression by synthesizing traditional and modern forms. This quest, which has allowed them to establish a dialogue between the specific and the universal, delves into the primal sources of calligraphy and the symbolic signs of popular art. Arabic calligraphy, with its aesthetic, semantic, and philosophic - mystical dimensions, has led many painters to make the Arabic alphabet the object of artistic exploration.

Some artists, like Etel Adnan, have introduced the letter into their works while still retaining its visual aspect and its linguistic function. As for the Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata, throughout his exile in the U.S.A. he has never ceased to explore the visual memory of his native culture and to extract from it the "intimate geography" which keeps him in touch with his homeland. This link is the Arabic letter, which occupies a central place in his work, deriving its origin from that symbiosis where pictorial space is transformed into an inscribed surface and where linguistic significance and plastic expression are inextricably intermingled.

Other artists, like the Iraqi Dhla Azzawi, have exploited the letter as form, detaching it from the language in order to confer on it an autonomous aesthetic existence and thus create compositions where the sign is manifested principally as a visual reference. Finally, there are other approaches in which gestural and graphic expression make allusive reference to writing, as in the remarkable poetic evocations of the Palestinian Jumana Al Husseini.

Parallel to this formal investigation, a theoretical reflection can be seen in the works of the Iraqi Shaker Hassan, who founded the movement known as "Uni-dimensionalism," whose manifesto was published in 1971, redefining spirituality in art and revealing the correspondence between painting and writing as the unique dimension "linking man to God in infinitude." It sets gestural calligraphy in a communicative relationship with the formless matter of walls subjected to the violence and despoilment of history.

Traditional signs and symbols have also attracted the attention of several artists who see this legacy as an important source of inspiration. In their artistic activity, they investigate, in varying degrees, the formal elements and the symbolic dimensions of this inheritance. Certain North African artist, for example, mine traditional Berber art for signs which they might use as structural elements in their works, amplifying some and reinventing others, as in the work of the Algerian Rashid Koraishi.

One should also mention the extremely interesting cases of those artists who associate the search for vocabulary with the bedrock of traditional materials, such as the use of leather by Belkahia in Morocco and Faisal Samra in Saudi Arabia.

Art And Space
Faced with the iconoclasm of Muslim culture, sculpture seems to have been totally eclipsed in the Arab world. But it is re-appearing, though slowly, as an active element of modernity.

Ismail Fattah works with every kind of material - plaster, wood, stone - in order to give vent to his passion for self-expression and his brusque vision of forms and beings, just like Tayseen Barakat who burns his wood, or Samer Tabbaa who works with local stone in the manner of a mason: he sculpts it, brushes it, polishes it, to bring out its rich plasticity and impose on it a new force and a new glow.

As for Mona Saudi, she makes of sculpture a means of personal expression and of struggle, and at the same time a kind of mirror where passion and desire can be perceived. In recent years, her orientation has been towards monumental works integrated into the cityscape.

Recently, other artists have explored the new medium of installations which reintroduce meaningful objects into a mise en scene in space. This is the case with several Palestinian artists, whether they have remained in their homeland or been forced into exile, whose installations bear witness to the vicissitudes, both intimate and social, imposed by history.

Mona Hatoum, who remains one of the few Arab artists to attract attention on the international scene, has evolved a conceptual oeuvre in which ethical, political, and aesthetic premises are interfused. As for Khalil Rabah, he attempts to "transfigure the banal into metaphor." And finally Nasser Soumi composes his art from ordinary objects in the form of metaphorical assemblages.

Another form of consciousness arises for those artists who pose the problem of creativity in terms of liberties, the liberty of creation in relation to the individual and his sensibility, which is how all human experience can be made manifest. In this way they open up new paths and undertake new experiments in their search for an accomplishment which is their own.

 

 

 
Collective exhibition of 5O Arab artists
Keeping admiration alive
By Mahmoud Mufti

When the foremost 5O Arab artists from 10 Arab countries exhibit their work in a single exhibition, under one roof. for a whole month the result is simply spectacular. Accordingly, the "Small House of Arts" (Arabic for Darat- Al Funun) is now foster home to the works of some of the most established names in modern contemporary Arab art, such as Shaker Hassan Al Said, Mona Saudi; Nasser Soumi, Amin Al Basha and Farid Belkahia. Lending the exhibition special significance is the diversity of not only the artists themselves. but also the artistic styles involved, the materials, and the method of hanging (the achrochage), according each of the works its optimal surroundings with respect to the other works, the aesthetics of the exhibition hall as well as the light.

These overlapping and mutually-complementary elements make the exhibit particularly valuable to those interested in researching the development and evolution of style, technique and materials used in the field of contemporary Arab art. The experience is therefore as much an illuminating educational one as it is an aesthetic and spiritual one. The works feature the latest artistic innovations in the various schools: Abstract, expressionism, impressionism, graphics, installations, etc.

The exhibition abounds with works of rising artists- with talent galore-such as Ghadah Dahdaleh, Nadim Muhsin. Khalil Rabah, and Mahmud Obaidi. The artists, old and new, collectively represent each of Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, Sudan, Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Some of these artists reside in cities as far away and diverse as Tokyo and San Francisco.

Participating artists from Jordan are Samia Taktak Zaru, Nabila Hilmi, Khalid Khreis, Mona Saudi, Ghada Dahdaleh. Ammar Khammash, Ahmad Nawash, Nawal Abdullah, Adnan Al Sharif, Abdul Raouf Shamoun, Alia Amoura, Aziz Amoura, Fouad Mimi, Rula Shukairy, Dodi Tabaa, SamerTabaa, Nabil Shehadeh, Ufemia Rizk and Jamal Ashour.The team representing Palestine consists of Samira Badran, Vladimir Tamari, Kamal Boullata, Samia Halabi, Jumana al Husseini, Nasser Soumi, Sulaiman Mansour, Tayseer Barakat, Nabil Anani, Laila Shawa and Khalil Rabah. Iraq's historic marriage to art, literature and poetry is strongly evident in this exhibit, with the participation of the likes of philosopher- artist Shaker Hassan al Said, Rafa Nasiri, Saadi al Kaabi, Himat Moharnmad Ali, Nadim Muhsen, Ismail Fattah, Salem Dabbagh, Karim Rasan Mansour, Mahmoud Obaidi, and Ali Taleb. Finally, a small but important number of artists from other Arab countries are represented through their works: Farid Belkahia and Muhammad Kacimi from Morocco, Faisal Samra from Saudi Arabia, Rashid Diab and Muhammad Oman Khalil from Sudan, Rafik al Kamel from Tunisia, as well as Amin al Basha, Ghadah Jamal and Afaf Zureiq from Lebanon. If the viewer is expecting nothing more than the usual 'oil-on-canvas' or acrylic-on-paper pleasant surprises abound with the proliferation of other mediums and techniques: installations, sculptures, prints, etc. Samer Tabbaa's work of wood-and-tar will draw an inquisitive glare from the dullest eye, perhaps even a poke, (providing one can escape Director Ali Maher's vigilant prowling, of course). Nabil Anani's innovative working and colouring of virgin leather would no doubt put to shame the proudest Cherokee Indian teepee-maker.

Sulaiman Mansour, on the other hand, has no peer when it comes to environmentally-friendly art. His exhibited work, an ornate structure in itself, looks like a huge talisman or totem-symbol that is both recyclable and biodegradable. Predictably, a dehydrated (but potentially re-hydratable ) straw-and-mud base makes up the primary structure, with copius lengths of spiralling rope making up the mainsail egging. The whole item is then decked with granular articles that bear striking resemblance to millet, corn, raisins and cornflakes. Emerging from this wonderfully-organic emporium. the viewer is greeted with the solemness of Mona Saudi's bitextural black granite structure. Its austerity becomes its very art-form. It is both sensual and forbidding. It beacons to be experienced first hand.

Aziz Amoura's virtually translucent Arabic calligraphy work in yellow, gold, grass-green and orange is probably the most mystical of the whole range, save perhaps the Suffi-inspired works of Dr. Khalid Khreis and Rafik al Kamel. Amoura's faint arches add credence to the conjecture that the calligraphy might be of the spiritual sort. However, it is worthwhile mentioning the little-known fact that there is no division between sacred and secular art in Islam, and these same designs and materials could be used to embellish palaces, tombs and Fortresses as well as mosques." (Art in Islam. World of Islam Festival Trust).

According to the above essay, Art in Islam, the historical background of the art of calligraphy goes back to earlier Islam, when it [calligraphy], developed through every media, great and small. to remind the reader of his obligations and responsibilities as a Muslim. It is revealed in the Holy Qur'an that man is born forgetful of God, and it is therefore necessary and desirable that he should be constantly reminded of Him. For the scribe or illuminator, the creation of a Qur'anic manuscript or the inspiration of a quotation from holy scripture inscribed upon glass or pottery engraved upon metal or inlaid with gold or silver carved into ivory, wood or stone represents an act of piety and devotion. It communicates itself to any subsequent beholder, be it of miniature refinement or massive ornamentation upon a wall or dome. Even when the calligraphy becomes so elaborate and convoluted as to make it hard to decipher. it remains a proclamation of the Word of God".

Adjacent to an ink-on-paper sketch by Ismail Fattah of a distraught face that looks like that of a hurriedly and unnecessarily-awakened Egyptian mummy, is another work by the artist. cast in bronze. Standing approximately 40cm high, it depicts a disoriented nude man emerging out of coffin-like box, looking as if he is wondering whether he had made the correct choice. Rula Shukairy 's usage of delicate greys, greens, yellows and beiges conspire to conjure the likeness of an imposing rock-facade that manages to evoke Petra more than traditional works using the traditional Petra colours of rose-red, orange and variants thereof. A feast of indigo royal blue and black predominates in Dodi Tabaa's work. Dodi seems happiest whenever pasting, gluing, or affixing some contrasting material atop another. Here, she manacles a wrinkled sheet of texturous cloth onto a firm board, with all manner of mystical symbols drawn boldly on the more even surfaces.

Perhaps the most outspoken work on exhibit is an acrylic-on-canvas painting by Palestinian artist Laila Shawa,depicting three dancing twirling peasant girls clad in long dresses. with heavily-decorated feet and hands. incorporating good-luck charms and talismans such as those believed to ward off the evil eye. The background is of the most brilliant orange-almost phosphorescent-contrasting with a black and white chequered floor. Surrealism immediately, springs to mind here.

The viewer is encouraged to pay several visits to this exhibition, since one would probably not have a chance to become saturated with an individual work of art upon first encounter. The intensity of the works as a whole. and their number, are such that it may not be possible to do more than glance at each of the works on dislpay. But if one or more of the works touch the viewer in a way that is especially meaningful to him/her, then it could be most rewarding to savour the joys of discovering beautiful forms in the details, however subtle: "A picture is a poem without words", commented Horace. Jean Paul Richter added: Wart is indeed not the bread but the wine of life."

The Darat's director.. artist Ali Maher. explains that by integrating young talented artists with more established ones, we help introduce them to, and launch them out into society in a strong way. We help our participating artists in other ways too: Because the gallery is a non-profit organisation and does not exact any commission fees from artists. The latter are consequently able to offer their works for purchase to members of the public at lower prices, thus making more and more signifcant art works available and accessible to a wider spectrum of people.' On a lighter note, Mr.Maher adds that ..the intellectual atmosphere of the Dara's outdoor cafe-by-the-fountain is also a place where exhibition-weary bodies can relax and engage in hearty chats over a cup of coffee, perhaps even sketch an unsuspecting visitor in some far corner. One will almost always bump into old friends, there, and may very likely make new ones. Art has a tendency of bringing people and ideas together in most unanticipated yet creative ways, and inspiring settings are always conducive to that.' The month-long exhibition ends on July 31.

From the Jordan Times, Thursday, July 4, 1996


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