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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 May 2006, 05:06 GMT 06:06 UK
The word in contemporary Islamic art
A new exhibition at the British Museum in London looks at contemporary art of the Islamic World.

Word into Art - Artists of the Modern Middle East, focuses on the way artists are experimenting with different approaches to Arabic script.

Love by Hassan Massoudy (Iraq/ France). Brooke Sewell Fund

But the BBC's Vincent Dowd says you can also simply enjoy it as a useful guide to contemporary art in the Middle East.

The British Museum is packed with objects from every era and from every part of the world.

Of course many of these objects are fascinating - and they attract almost five million visitors annually.

But by and large the museum lacks bright colours and the public do not associate it with contemporary art.

But from 18 May until 2 September the Word into Art exhibition is bringing the vibrancy of the Middle East and North Africa to the grey streets of Bloomsbury in London.

Over 80 visual artists from today's Islamic world are represented, their birthplaces stretching from Iraq to Algeria.

The unifying theme is how the artists have taken Arabic script and adapted it to their own needs on canvas and on the page.

But this central idea is not allowed to get in the way of presenting work which is fascinating or delightful in its own right.

Living art

Though few realise it, the British Museum has been collecting contemporary work from the Middle East since the 1980s and the museum as a whole wants people to begin to associate it with living artists and not just those long dead.

Portrait by Shadi Ghadirian (Iran). Private collection

Almost everything on display is from the museum's existing collections although little of it has been seen by the public before.

The exhibition has four sections:

  • Sacred Script looks at the relationship between Arabic script and Islam

  • Literature and Art concentrates on how artists have illustrated and decorated classic texts, sacred and secular

  • Deconstructing the Word looks at Arabic script's place in modern art

  • Identity, History and Politics looks at how art illuminates the current politics of the Islamic world.

    Some visitors will follow its theme in detail while others will simply admire individual paintings and illustrations for their own beauty. Either approach works.

    Some of the painters and illustrators featured have moved from their country of origin and it is clear some are influenced by living in the US or Europe.

    Three Uncles by Malekey Nayiny (Iran/France). Brooke Sewell Fund

    But for anyone knowing little about the art scene in cities like Tehran or Cairo this is a good introduction to new Islamic art whatever its origins.

    In some of the paintings the function of the Arabic text is very obvious. The Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri paints a water jar with lines on it from Omar Khayyam.

    Khosrow Hassanzadeh's slightly Hockneyish self-portrait has his thoughts written over it like graffiti.

    Political statement

    But you might initially miss the verbal imagery in Sabah Naim's Cairo Faces.

    Her large photograph of a Cairo street-scene is bordered top and bottom by hundreds of folded newspapers, in Arabic and English, each reporting the latest moves in international diplomacy.

    Hands of Fatima by Laila Shawa (Palestine). UK Copyright British Museum

    Naim is suggesting how little the world of high politics can sometimes have to do with everyday life.

    And in the striking X-Ray by Saudi artist Ahmed Mater al-Ziad, the words seem secondary to the ghostly central image.

    The poster image for the exhibition is Hassan Massoudy's graceful illustration of the word Love (al-hubb) extracted from lines of the 13th Century Sufi odes Turjuman al-Ashwaq and delicately executed on paper in pigment.

    With relations between the Islamic world and the West now such a focus of attention some will see the mere act of staging Word into Art as a political statement.

    Isabelle Caussť, who helped curate it, says that though many of the artists have been deeply influenced by the politics of the Middle East the museum's aim was simply to show to the world developments in modern art in a huge region whose culture remains unfamiliar to most people outside its borders.

    'Word into Art - Artists of the Modern Middle East' continues at the British Museum in London until September 2nd. Admission is free.

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