Building a Collection of Middle Eastern art

I was able to attend this lecture at the British Museum, given by Venetia Porter the curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East. The Museum has been collecting works by Middle Eastern artists since the late 1980s and is continuing to develop the collection, concentrating on works on paper.

The talk was mainly about contemporary artists and works recently acquired by the Museum. The speaker showed work by many different artists, too numerous to mention here. I was interested to see all the work shown but I was particularly interested in four different artists.

Earlier in the day I had been to see the Kakiemon exhibition at the Museum, so it was particularly interesting to be shown the work of Raed Yassin from Lebanon. He used Chinese porcelain to portray key scenes from the Lebanese Civil War. We saw a photo of “The Mountain War” which was a white porcelain vase with battle scenes from the mountains painted on it in blue. I found it a telling contrast – the pure white of the porcelain and the blue painting – the purity of the porcelain depicting the horrors of war. Photos can be seen on Raed Yassin’s website.

The photographs of Abbas “Iran diary” 1979 were contemporary street photography but in the middle of the Iranian revolution. Many of the images were very striking and they can be seen on the Magnum Agency Website.

It was interesting to see a number of works where there were figural images. I had thought that representations of the human figure were very rare in Islamic art but Ms Porter stated that “figural representation has always been there in Islamic art – just not in a religious context”.

Calligraphy is renowned in parts of the Middle East, particularly in Iran and it was interesting to be shown a series of images where calligraphy real or abstracted – form part of the image. Mahmoud Hammad from Syria painted images in a cubist style, but incorporated calligraphic text within it. The work showed an artist “engaged with the modernist tradition” but who has added their own interpretation to it. “Untitled” can be seen here.

The final work shown was avery moving one. Syria’s Farideh Lashai had produced work based on Goya’s “Disasters of War”. It is very difficult to describe some 80 original photo intaglio prints (based on Goya’s work), had been created and then used to produce a video. The 80 prints were shown on a 10 x 8 grid and a spotlight shone on the various scenes in a seemingly random fashion. As they were spotlighted some of those individual scenes of war became animated. This is very difficult describe but it was very moving to see. The original prints can be found here

All in all a fascinating talk and one that expanded my knowledge of Middle Eastern art (from a very low base!).