Dr Venetia Porter
Curator of Islamic and Contemporary
Middle East art at the British Museum
Can you tell us why you chose the title Reflections for the British Museum exhibition and the book that you coauthored?
There is a little fragment of a poem at the end of the introduction to the book which is by Adonis. It includes a wonderful phrase: ‘And histories are mirrors and civilisations are mirrors smashed to pieces.’ I was looking for a quote to encapsulate the works and this led me to Reflections as a title; echoing those Adonis words, it felt right. The idea of Reflections is that all these artists are making art through the prism of their own experience and these works become reflections of the artists themselves and of the times they are living in.
In the book’s introduction, you tell the story of how modern works by contemporary artists of the Middle East entered the British Museum’s collection. Can you take us through that briefly?
It started before I came to the British Museum, in the mid-80s. At that point, the Prints and Drawings department was very well-established but focused on European and North American art, from Rembrandt to Picasso. There was a realisation that there was a gap in terms of the coverage. I was in a department called Oriental Antiquities and working on the Islamic collections. Islamic art in most museums stops at about 1850 and there was a view that there wasn’t anything worth acquiring after that. The British Museum director at that time, David Wilson, asked those of us in the Oriental Antiquities department to find works from India, China and the Islamic world which would bring us up to date. In London, there were two wonderful people, Dale Egee and Rose Issa, who were promoting art from the region. They were the only ones. Occasionally you might find something at the end of an Islamic sale which was modern. I knew nothing at all and so I started looking. The first works we collected made that connection with ‘Islamic tradition’, i.e., calligraphy, and it went from there. For that first exhibition, Word into Art, although we had some important loans, 70 percent of the works came from the British Museum’s collection. It was then I realised that we needed to expand the collection in different directions, beyond writing and calligraphy, and this led to the formation of the patrons’ group known as CaMMEA in 2009.
Contemporary Middle Eastern art is a powerful combination of worlds, particularly because the transition between movements is sometimes unclear. What is your take on this?
The definitions of what is modern and what is contemporary is not always clear. I still haven’t completely understood what the boundaries are. I completely see that you can call artists, like Shafic Abboud and Michel Basbous, modernists because they absolutely are and they fit in with the traditions of European and American modernism. However, works made now using the same idiom are more difficult to define like the paintings of Tunisian artist Tahar M’Guedmini, who makes figurative art. Whenever I look at his work, I think of Francis Bacon, but he is making this work now. ‘Contemporary’ tends to define works made by artists who are referring to the politics and history of today. You think of Hazem Harb for example, an artist from Gaza, making work that highlights the complexities of the Israel/Palestine conflict, relevant more than ever today.
Why did you choose to focus on a unique medium – works on paper?
The British Museum already had a tradition of collecting works on paper. Works in other media have entered the collection, including ceramics and textiles, but I am really pleased because it has given us a particular focus. Other institutions, like Tate, for example, are able to collect magnificent sculptures, installations, oil paintings and so on, but we basically do paper. I found that when you just focus on paper, there is a wide scope. I began seeing all the different possibilities, whether it is a sketch or a finished work, from the nudes of Shafic Abboud, the preparatory drawings of Nabil Nahas, for the large canvases that still hang in the Yale Chemistry building, to artists’ books and photographs. I found that collecting these kinds of works makes so much sense for us. Also, it has a practical side to it: these works are easy to store, relatively inexpensive compared for example to an oil painting by the same artist, and they are straightforward to display.
How did you select the works you have in the book?
I tried to put a bigger focus on what has been collected since we formed the patrons’ group in 2009. I couldn’t include everything though. I have included a few pieces collected earlier and that had not been published before. Making a book on a collection is quite hard and working on the groupings was the biggest job. There are several ways of doing it, but, working with my colleague Natasha Morris, we had little paper cut-outs of all the pictures, and we began making groups, moving works from one section to another until the structure began to settle. One of my favourite sections where the works came quickly together is where different artists have found ways to talk about the past and how the past becomes relevant. Malek Gnaoui, for example, using brick dust from Carthage for his photographs of details of broken marble statues in the Bardo Museum in Tunis to tell a contemporary story. The Female Gaze was a really interesting one to do: there are issues around gender and there is a lot of poetry there. Every day I have a different favourite and the drawings of Afaf Zurayk are very special to me. She is a poet as well as an artist and her drawings of faces are accompanied by a poem. It was through the process of making the groupings that I discovered the fascinating ways in which the artists were telling their stories.
I had decided that I needed to find a way to talk about the politics and that’s where my husband, Charles Tripp, who is a Professor of Middle East politics came in. I asked him if he would consider writing an essay to lay the ground. He was away in Tunisia doing research for his own book at the time and out of the blue appeared this perfect 3,000-word essay encapsulating the entire history of the Middle East. He also helped me with the groupings for the second part of the book, which is entitled ‘Political struggle, revolution and war’.
While working on this section I often heard Myrna Ayad’s voice who once asked me why I always focus on works about conflict. I have always felt, however, that these works were telling powerful stories which needed to be heard. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to essentialise the conflicts that they were evoking. Not every country in the MENA region is represented. This is not supposed to be a definitive picture of the Middle East; this is a collection that is growing all the time.
Are all the pieces you selected for the book also on display at the museum?
I had to reduce the number for the Reflections exhibition. I couldn’t include all the works; about 100 are on display.
Could you tell us how the pieces are displayed and how important the dialogue is between the works?
For the exhibition I’m using two spaces in two different parts of the museum: one is the Prints and Drawings area, called Room 90, and the other is the Albukhary Foundation Gallery, which we opened in 2018, and where we regularly show contemporary works.
The main exhibition is in Room 90, which is divided into three main sections: The Figure, Abstraction, and Tangled Histories, and there are interesting juxtapositions of works. The section on the figure includes works by Fadi Yazigi and Samira Abbasy, along with the work of Modernists such as Noureddine Khayashi from Tunisia, Michel Basbous, Hafidh al-Droubi and Marcos Grigorian. Along with a nude by Abboud we have the first artist’s book that he made in 1953, Le Bouna, set in the village of Mhaidse, northeast of Beirut, where he was brought up. Then as you go round, you will find a work about women’s literacy by Laura Boushnak, Huda Lutfi’s Al-Sitt and Hayv Kahraman’s Honor Kiling. The section on abstraction includes works by Hanaa Malallah, Nabil Nahas, Dana Awartani, Y.Z. Kami, Timo Nasseri and Rachid Koraïchi’s collaboration with Mahmoud Darwish called A Nation in Exile. Also here is a work by Parastou Forouhar, and at first what you see appear to be designs from carpets, but when you look in more detail you will see dense repeated motifs tightly enclosed within their grid that are interrupted by scenes of violence.
The third section is called Tangled Histories. This is where history and politics from across the region come together. The Israel and Palestine conflict is seen through the eyes of several artists including Rula Halawani and Sliman Mansour. There are also prints from the series Thirty-five years of occupation, where 35 Israeli and Palestinian artists worked together to create this portfolio in 2002. Also displayed here are works to do with Syria, Iran, Iraq and Tunisia. The last part is in a small lobby area, where there is Manal AlDowayan’s work, which connects to her upbringing in an oil family in Dahran, and Paul Guiragossian’s La misère humaine and La mère douloureuse. There are beautiful photographs by the late Leila Alaoui, two of which are from the Natreen series and the last work in this part of the exhibition is a very delicate drawing in pen and ink on paper by Ibrahim El-Salahi from 1969, part of a series entitled By His Will We Teach Birds to Fly.
Moving to the Albukhary Foundation Gallery, there are works to do with the Persian mythological hero Rustam and the Persian epic the Shahnama. Also, in the gallery are works by Lulwah Al-Homoud, Emy Kat and Hera Büyüktasçıyan. I wanted works which felt comfortable within that context. There are two long desk cases showing artists’ books by Iraqi artists, including ones by Shakir Hassan Al Said and Dia al-Azzawi, and other works to do with notions of home and migration, which include a powerful aquarelle by Taysir Batniji, of a man standing in front of an oversized suitcase. I love this work so much, it is on the back cover of the book.
On the back wall are works called Faces, a series of 42 images, by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas. They look amazing at the end of this very long room, which is full of beautiful Ottoman art at the beginning of it. As you come down you see more and more contemporary works on paper, and then suddenly you see Faces. It is such a subtle work, the way that the artists photographed the same poster several times and then drew over them.
Can you give us an idea of the size of the collection in the Department of the Middle East?
We have more than 300 artists represented in the collection and about 800 works altogether, including political posters made by artists.
What is the main story that you want to tell through the works in the British Museum?
I think that what started to happen was that because I was learning as I went along, I began to see works that fitted into the idea of the British Museum as a museum of history. I would think about how these artworks can talk to you about the history and politics of today within the context of the past of the region and give the visitor a different view.
Some of the most interesting works we have acquired are by Syrian artists made following the uprisings of 2011 that led to the Civil War that is still on-going. I was hugely inspired by the work of writer Malu Halasa, who is the co-editor of a book called Syria Speaks. She curated an exhibition at the Prince Claus Fund of works by Syrian artists and included in the exhibition were amazing posters produced by an artists’ collective, Alshaab Alsori aref Tarekh (The Syrian People Know Their Way). I happened to be in Amsterdam at that time. I saw these works and thought this is exactly the kind of thing we should be acquiring at the British Museum. That gave me the idea to try to make a selection of the work of maybe 20 Syrian artists. The patrons really liked the idea and so I started working with Malu. Later I also worked with Delphine Leccas, who founded the non-profit AIN to support contemporary art in Syria in 2008. Delphine had done a very good exhibition at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam in 2014 entitled ‘Et pourtant ils créent! Syrie: la foi dans l’art and had also published Syrie: L’Art en Armes’.
In Beirut, I met Azza Abo Rabieh and we were able to acquire some beautiful etchings from her Traces series. Through all these different avenues I started gradually pulling these works in. The logistics of it were really interesting. For example, for the posters, they were digital, circulating around Syria, being downloaded. Malu organised for them to be printed because it was no good to us having them digitally. We turned them into works which we can display. Then, also through her and Delphine, we acquired incredible works by Sulafa Hijazi, Khalil Younes, Mohammad Omran and several others. It was wonderful to be able to acquire these really important works, some of which are on display in the exhibition.
Can you tell us about your acquisition process and most recent acquisitions?
I work with patrons who contribute to the funding on an annual basis. I go through an internal process, so everything that gets shown to the patrons is already approved internally and we generally meet twice a year. Obviously with the pandemic it’s been different, but I am now gathering potential acquisitions for the next round. Once I get the internal okay then we have wonderful, lively discussions with the patrons about the individual works. It is a really productive process.
How frequent are the rotations of the works at the museum?
In the Albukhary Foundation Gallery the works on paper are changed every six months. So, once this display comes down in about six months or a little bit later, I will be putting more works in there.
Are there any particular acquisitions you are most proud of?
The two works by Paul Guiragossian are among my proudest acquisitions and were acquired when the book was nearly finished; I was really happy to be able to get them in. I love his oil paintings, but not as much as his works on paper. These black china ink drawings are rare and some are illustrated in the book that Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath wrote with Manuella Guiragossian, Paul Guiragossian’s daughter, an artist herself and president of the Guiragossian Foundation.
Has censorship ever been an issue at the British Museum?
Not at all. When I show things for acquisition to the internal committee and then to the patrons, it is always about the quality of the work and its relevance to the British Museum and its collection. Nobody has ever said ‘no, you mustn’t acquire this because it’s too sensitive’ or anything like that.
Venetia Porter is a curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East art at the British Museum, where she has been since 1989. She has a BA in Arabic and Persian and an MPhil in Islamic Art from the University of Oxford. Her PhD from the University of Durham is on the history and architecture of Medieval Yemen. She has curated two major exhibitions at the British Museum, Word into Art (2006) and Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam (2012) and was the lead curator for the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World, which opened in October 2018.
Her research and publications range from Arabic inscriptions to contemporary art and include Islamic Tiles (1995), Arabic and Persian Seals and Amulets in the British Museum (2011), and contributions to The Islamic World: A history through objects (2018). She has also recently edited her mother’s autobiography Thea Porter’s scrapbook (2019). Her most recent exhibition is Reflections: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, and, with Natasha Morris and Charles Tripp, she is the author of the accompanying book.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #55