Review: ‘Living histories – recent acquisitions of works on paper by contemporary Arab artists’

By Elizabeth Jones

Upon entering Room 34 of the British Museum, it is not immediately apparent that this extraordinary collection of contemporary art is in the room at all – tucked away and surrounded by centuries-old artefacts of the permanent Islamic World exhibition, this collection of artists’ insights into conflict and identity crises in a variety of Arab countries is certainly worth seeking out.

One of the most successful elements of this exhibit is the range of media engaged in a relatively small space. Heba Y. Amin’s archival pigment photograph of two men on a motorcycle in the Fayoum region of Egypt is contrasted with a limestone panel from an Iranian frieze of the late 18th century; the curators’ presence here is strongly felt as they immediately seek to highlight one of many forms of displacement felt within Arab countries’ conflicts, and the juxtaposition of artefact and artwork is striking in the opening presentation of Arab heritage and contemporary history. This concept is further explored in Issam Kourbaj’s depiction of the perilous journeys undertaken by Syrian refugees through boats made of burnt matchsticks, with the works combining to present the current journey of many cultures and peoples from their homelands, from centres of rich cultural Arab heritage, towards a future of uncertainty.

Crucially, the thread that connects these installations together is language; communication and free speech characterise the sentiment behind ‘Living Histories’, featuring bold text quotations in Arabic, such as (translated) ‘Prepare for rebellion’ and ‘they struggled for our freedom’, superimposed onto anonymously collected poster prints from Syria to demonstrate the ways in which art in conflict can communicate specific and hard-hitting messages in everyday scenarios. ‘Communication’ is further explored through Jaber Al Azmeh’s greyscale photographs in his Resurrection series (2011). In each of these portraits, a member of a network of Syrian journalists, poets, artists and actors pose with a newspaper marked with their own unique message to highlight the differences between mainstream media and individual perspectives on the conflict in Syria. This effect is compounded by the exhibit’s use of these photographs next to symbolist paintings such as Youssef Abdelke’s Sardine, using multiple media to engage with the observer about issues of isolation felt in conflict.

Furthermore, the exhibition’s layout is both engaging and challenging; the proximity of the different artworks (both on the wall and in the display cabinets) necessitates several trips around the exhibition to fully appreciate each of the works individually, yet the curator’s creative decision to display the work in this way does create the sensory overload of the everyday life scenarios presented in the art, rendering a visit to this exhibition a true experience of contemporary Arab artwork and its underlying message. The British Museum’s ‘Living Histories’ is a notable preservation and promotion of contemporary Arab artwork, and is testament to the role of art as a vehicle of free speech, and as a unique view into others’ experiences.


Elizabeth Jones

Featured image: BM

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