Venetia Porter, the British museum’s assistant keeper of the Islamic and contemporary Middle East art has collaborated on a book with two fellow scholars with complimentary expertise on cultural and political matters within the Middle East: Natasha Morris, Myojin-Nadar Project curator and Charles Tripp, Emeritus professor of Politics and author of “The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East” (2013). Venetia’s primary motivation for publishing their book called: “Reflections-contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa” was to bring attention to what has been being collected by the Patron Group since its formation in 2009.
Venetia began thinking about the artists’ experience and how the world becomes a mirror of their day to day lives and emotions; how through their art, they are capable of creating unique reflections, hence the title. Solely including works on paper was an important decision. She claims that once one delves into that world, there is much to be discovered whether it is in preparatory sketches or finished works. When starting out, Venetia says she had little to no knowledge of works on paper from the Middle Eastern regions that went beyond the traditional and Islamic works.
When discovering Shafic Abboud’s nudes and Michel Basbous’s drawings, she emphasises how positively enamored with all of these works she came to be. Moreover, The British Museum has a known reputation for collecting works on paper. So this consolidated body of works adds significant cultural depth to the museum’s collection, which had previously focused mainly on European art.
Venetia goes on by passionately describing her curatorial process. The challenge of selection and categorisation was a creative endeavor unto itself, as the pieces previously unclassified as such, could just as easily fall into many other categories, namely Contemporary and Modern. In a way, the different section’s subject matter could just as likely be seen as Literal and/or Conceptual.
The book is divided into chapters with titles such as : “Faith”, “The Past is Present” and “The Female Gaze”. As such, Venetia has found a way to organise the works into brackets while giving the reader enough intellectual leeway to assign his or her own significance to each piece.
The exhibition taking place at The British Museum accompanying this publication, is in two parts: the first room focusing on prints and drawings is entitled: The Figure and Figuration and Abstraction, Figuration and Script. As an example Venetia says that “it’s got the beautiful “Le Bouna book” that I love, an artist book by Abboud composed of fifty-six monograph pages illustrating the story of a village known as Mhaidse, northeast of Beirut. A masterpiece acquired by the museum in 2016.” The second room is called Tangled Histories and focuses on the notion of history and politics coming together.
“Reflections-contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa” is a book that transcends one’s expectations and the norms of publishing while keeping categoric faithfulness to accuracy as well as educational aptitude.