Late in life, the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish began reflecting on his identity – as a Palestinian, an Arab, and a famous poet – in a surprisingly new way. ‘Who am I to say to you / What I say to you?’ he read pensively from his final poem, ‘The Dice Player’, in Ramallah just weeks before his death in 2008.
The poem, as its title suggests, is all about the odds: the poet’s personal chances of surviving one more heart surgery; meditations on who determines the day’s headlines; questions of uncertainty when it comes to who dies during conflict, and, in the case of his Palestinian homeland, when it will be free from occupation. Inspired by Darwish’s ruminations on identity and arbitrary history, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris has assembled ‘L’histoire ne se soucie ni des arbres ni des morts’, an exhibition which takes its title from a line in the French translation of ‘The Dice Player’; in English: History cares neither for the trees nor the dead.
The theme of this small but striking survey is a broad one: examining the artistic representation of ‘history’ within the Arab world is no short order, and that history, as presented here, is defined by conflict. The exhibition opens with an explanatory wall text, listing the region’s internal and external armed struggles: from the establishment of Islam across the region during the Umayyad (661–750 AD) and Abbasid (750–1258 AD) dynasties, to the wars of the Crusades, straight through to the colonial mandate periods in Iraq, Palestine, Tunisia, and Morocco. The list extends through to the contemporary, ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria, and touches on the expansion of Islamic State terrorism, conjuring up ideas of grisly news images that depict these destroyed landscapes and displaced citizens, before the exhibition has even begun.
The exhibition attempts to subvert the pervasiveness of a news cycle filled with war-torn imagery from the region, which so often, in a Western context, depicts the ‘other’ as terrorist or victim. It fits well within the museum’s remit – its core aim is to illuminate artworks and artefacts from throughout the Arab world that exceed Western-held, often Orientalist stereotypes, and which so often lump together vast geographic and cultural areas throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Western Asia. Museum director Éric Delpont and curator Djamila Chakour looked to the museum’s collections of ancient, modern, and contemporary art for works that would offer new perspectives on the evolution of figurative art in the region.
They begin in the late 16th century, when painting in the Arab world began to gain traction alongside the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal reign throughout the Indian subcontinent. Illuminated manuscripts, reserved for those rulers who could afford the commission, celebrated military status and victories. A richly detailed manuscript page from India, dated to around 1670, displays the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb astride a rearing steed, dressed in chain mail and wielding a spear, two halo rings emanating from his ornate helmet. Such imagery breaks with the quieter influence of Hindu practices in the region – Aurangzeb is in full combat mode, and the artist has taken a page from the regal military portraits coming out of Europe at the time, offering up a brave hero, dressed in finery and poised for victory.
From the Mughals, the exhibition quickly and confusingly jumps from noble imagery to a focus on works from the 20th century, so much so that it’s as if the intervening three centuries never occurred. What happened to the artistic patronage system? How did artistic attitudes towards the visual arts evolve? Suddenly, it is 1970, and Egyptian artist Said El-Adawi’s (1938–73) ink drawing The War draws our attention to the Suez Crisis of 1956, depicting an abstract and harrowing resistance to heavy artillery, the central figure’s arched saber rising from a sea of victims. For Adawi, who died in the same year as the Yom Kippur war, this image does not signify one single battle, but unites 14 years of suffering in light of the Franco-British-Israeli war plan.
The long thin hallway that makes up the exhibition volleys back and forth between different decades of the second half of the 20th century, with work from Algeria, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, the UAE, and Bahrain. Innovative graphic techniques, such as the infusion of bright, almost neon ink into the traditional woodblock print work of Tunisian artist Brahim Dahak (1931–2009), are shown alongside Algerian Rachid Koraichi’s (b. 1947) L’Enfant Jazz (1997) which reimagines traditional modes of calligraphy on lengthy pages.
The artists’ book figures heavily in the exhibition – perhaps a nod to the region’s crucial early manuscripts. Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi (b. 1939), a founding member of the New Vision Group in Baghdad, unites word and image in The Body’s Anthem (1979). Taking poems from Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mahmoud Darwish, and Yusef Al-Sayegh, Al-Azzawi’s corresponding bound etchings are a reaction to the 1976 massacre of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar, an effort to ‘create free expression’ rather than evoke dark memory. Jagged silhouettes emerge from the darkness of wild scratches; central to the display, the outline of a red hand confronts the viewer, stopping their sight line.
Lebanese design team Bokja adds a third dimension to the exhibition’s many works on paper. In Twitter and Hashtags – I remember this day very well #Jan14 #Feb11 #Aug22 #Tunisia #Egypt #Libya (2011), a mound of leaves is printed with tweets and hashtags used throughout the Arab Spring. The phrases (EGYPT’S RIGHTS, my honor, AGAINST) are at the mercy of the ‘winds’ of change.
In highlighting the talent of well-established 20th-century Arab artists, as well as those relatively new to the contemporary scene, the exhibition can’t help but reinforce the region’s seemingly continuous violent history. Towards the end of the display, documentary photographs like the grainy, black and white work of Dalia Khamissy (b. 1973), hint once again at familiar news headlines; her 2004 image of Kurdish-Iraqi refugees, backs to the camera and stoically walking towards no-man’s-land by the Jordanian border, is a haunting reminder of the region’s ongoing refugee crisis.
But for the artists here, their work is reactionary, cathartic, and emboldened to ignite change. Almost all use the uncertainty of revolution, colonialism, military occupation, and armed conflict to usurp their own role as ‘victim’ and re-establish isolated moments in history on their own terms – something profoundly necessary, as the exhibition puts it, for ‘civilisations in light of wars’.
‘L’histoire ne se soucie ni des arbres ni des morts’ is at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, until 14 January 2018.
From the October issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here