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Word into Art

Artists from the modern Middle East approaching calligraphic traditions, British Museum, London.
By Dustin Ericksen | Aug 2006

There is no more topical exhibition than one of contemporary art from the Middle East. No matter what you put on the walls, it would seem like one couldn’t fail but inform and entertain. But sometimes, good intentions aren’t enough. Assembled largely from recent additions to the British Museum’s permanent collection, Word into Art is a loosely conceived introduction to the work of artists who originate from the Middle East and whose works make use of or have some relation to text. Ostensibly, the work illustrates the centrality of the calligraphic tradition to the region’s visual culture. In the first room of the exhibition, visitors are welcomed by a wall covered in photographic portraits of almost all the participants. The next four rooms comprise the body of the exhibition which is divided into 4 thematic categories: "A sacred Script", "Literature and Art", "Deconstructing the Word" and "Identity History and Politics". Additionally, sculptures by Parviz Tanavoli and a towering colourful fibreglass column commissioned for the exhibition by Dia al Azzawi are situated in the "Great Hall" of the British Museum.

In the first section, A Sacred Script, the technically impressive feat of Fou’ad Kouichi Honda’s Three Calligraphies is described in the wall text as being a text from the Qur’an written in "mirror writing (…) one of the calligraphic traditions particularly popular in the Ottoman era". Mr Honda’s Three Calligraphies introduces the curatorial emphasis on a type of art making which has very little to do with contemporariness or anything modern. The British Museum’s acquisition of contemporary Middle Eastern art was initiated in the mid 1980’s. The emphasis of the collection activities eschewed "global, generic forms of contemporary art" [1] in favour of a more craft-specified categorisation; one especially focused on religious text. The current display is mostly a manifestation of that position.

A visit to the exhibition provides a view to an impressive assortment of calligraphy and text related works by over sixty artists. Even for those only remotely interested in the visual culture of the Middle East and its Diasporas, there is a wealth of individual works rarely displayed in London. In particular, works from the Arabic word-orientated Hurufiyya movement and it’s near contemporary, the Iran specific Saqqakhaneh are historic markers of the synthetic approaches by visual artists of the region. Even the notion of an "artistic movement" as such, implies that these artists engaged with the larger global context in which they worked, even if, as in the case of Saqqakhaneh, the intention was to reflect a specific national heritage.

Unfortunately, as a part of the various texts accompanying Word into Art, the category of graphic design as it exists in the West and it’s relationship to the Islamic calligraphic tradition is never addressed. For example, Hussein Madi’s Alphabet, 1994, is a grid of 30 squares containing Arabic letters repeated and manipulated into individual circular compositions. It is a typographical exercise. To the extent that this exhibition’s audience is unfamiliar with the context of the production of such work, the burden is on the organisers to explain why such a work might transcend the category, or why this, perhaps, culture specific category is unnecessary.

Though the term "avant garde" is used in the catalogue, the collected portion of the exhibition is largely at odds with its stated intention to represent a contemporary art of the Middle East. As evidenced by exhibitions in the Middle East and around the world, there is, in fact, a great deal of art emerging from the Middle East which, although not reflecting the unfortunate characterisation of "generic", nonetheless engages in a global dialogue. Within the exhibition, work by Shirin Neshat, Shadi Ghadirian, Walid Raad, Chant Avedissian, Shakir Hassan al-Said and Sabah Naim acknowledges and participates in contemporary art production. In fact, the more interesting art in the exhibition, including that of Walid Raad and Shirin Neshat, uses Arabic text as a medium for communication; at most, having a peripheral relationship to calligraphy. Tellingly, most of these works are not from the museum’s collection. Again, through quantity, the exhibit posits the primacy of artists whose production is centred on millennia-old traditions with minimal shift in meaning through content or materiality from their source, then relies on supplemental art to provide a contemporary context.

A similarly focused display could be culled from almost any corner of the globe that has a tradition of calligraphy. For example, if one created an exhibition based on Chinese culture, there would be an ample supply of contemporary Chinese calligraphers, whose work has synthesised modern western practices. Also, the history of Chinese politics, governing, poetics and indeed religion, would be demonstrated to inform their practices. The same could be accomplished for Japanese, Indian, even American culture. What these examples illustrates is that the position of the curators bias toward the Calligraphic tradition reifies and encourages this craft above other, forms, characterised in the catalogue as "generic". Would a similarly organised exhibition of European or specifically Calligraphy-related European Art necessarily reflect such a strong representation of religiosity? Indeed, American fundamental Christian craftspersons frequently deploy artisanal calligraphic strokes; scribing their most holy phrases and platitudes, yet the work of these, highly talented craftpersons would not be any more contemporary or avant garde were they lumped together with the work of Barbara Kruger or Christopher Wool. The exhibition proves beyond a doubt that religious and secular modes of production co-exist in the Middle East and among its Diaspora, but it avoids addressing the disparity in the meaning of these artistic practices. The work of these two sets of artists is categorically unrelated.

Within its narrowly defined remit, the educational context of the exhibition is well developed, and the aesthetic value of much of the work is remarkable. However, this exhibition and the collection from which it is largely drawn stand to define contemporary or modern art practices from the Middle East as seen from Europe. A constricted collection and exhibition does a disservice to both the artists of the region and the appreciation of the wider audience.


  1. Word into Art, Artists of the Modern Middle East, Venetia Porter, The British Museum Press, 2006, p.14

Dustin Ericksen

Visual artist. Lives in London, U.K.

Word into Art
Artists of the Modern Middle East

18 May - 3 September 2006

Venetia Porter

The British Museum

Great Russell Street
United Kingdom
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