THERE ARE MANY surprises with this catalog. The first is that there was even an exhibition around which to create it. As the British Museum’s special adviser, Saeb Eigner, writes in his foreword: “Middle Eastern art in recent years has not been high on the world’s cultural agenda.” This is something of an understatement; it would be hard to find an art form that has made so little impact, until recently.

The growth of the Gulf economies now generates enough interest for a market to emerge, as reflected in phenomenally successful auctions such as Christie’s May 2006 sale in Dubai. Although the excitement is still conñned mainly to the Middle East, the British Museum had anticipated such events two decades ago. Getting back to its enquiring roots, the museum began building a collection of contemporary work from what was seen as an unpromising cultural powerhouse. The year 2006 must have seemed right to finally put it on display.

Another surprise is that people actually went to the exhibition. A reviewer visited the show in August, just after the British government announced that it foiled a suspected plot to blow up trans- Atlantic jetliners. Business was brisker than ever at the Word into Art exhibition. Perhaps people felt safer there than on an airplane, or maybe it was because this was one of the museum’s few special exhibitions without an entrance fee.
The visitors certainly seemed impressed. This is usually the reaction when Middle Eastern art is represented by calligraphy. Arabic as a written language has long had the ability to impress. The exhibition’s success confirms that the calligraphy continues to remove barriers, despite its incomprehensibility to those unfamiliar with it. As the exhibition title reveals, it is very much about words. Every one of the 96 works in the catalog has a written element. Some are more visible than others, but me theme of the exhibition is clear: to show the significance of the Arabic script.

The catalog is a landmark. Presented as simply and effectively as the exhibition, the catalog is the most comprehensive gathering of Middle Eastern artists that has been undertaken in recent times. It has also been assembled with considerable thought. Instead of just throwing in every big name in the art arena, it tackles the subject through four themes: “A Sacred Script,” “Literature and Art,” “Deconstructing the Word” and “Identity, History and Politics. ” The range is broad and the works varied. In many cases the artists comment on their own creations, and for artists, they are unusually articulate. They have the added benefit of British Museum curator Veneria Porter as the catalog’s author. Another surprise is to find such a distinguished historian of medieval Islamic art taking charge of a project with such a modern feel to it. She is a more adaptable curator than most and writes in an accessible style.

The amount of poetry on display does not necessarily add to ease of access, but makes the work a more all-around aesthetic encounter. Word into Art is a colorful introduction to the vibrant world of Arabic literature. Poetry has been central to Arab life since pre-Islamic times, and judging by the works in the exhibition, it is likely to remain at the heart of Middle Eastern culture.

It is unclear how the subtitle, “Artists of the Modern Middle East,” applies to the collection. One artist is from China, another from Japan. As they both reside in their homelands, their work might be taken to represent something other than the Middle East. Apart from this experiment in diversity, the catalog’s emphasis is on artists from the Arab world. An astonishing number of them live outside the Middle East, which in itself tells an interesting story. The majority are Muslim and yet this is not a compilation of contemporary Islamic art – a concept that almost nobody is marketing at the moment.

It is difficult to disentangle Arabic calligraphy from the religion that has embraced it. This exhibition succeeds in showing the script’s enormous versatility. For some Muslims, it might be disappointing to see pages of the Qur’an cropped to the layout designer’s convenience. It can create a misleading impression about some of the works on display, although it is understandable from a practical point of view when the dimensions of Ghani Alani’s rendering of the Throne Ver se are an awkward 23 centimeters by 449 centimeters (9 inches by 177 inches).

Such details will not prevent Word into Art from becoming a classic. In merely 10 years, contemporary Chinese art has gone from being a complete enigma to the toast of global collectors. In another 10 years, when collectors of Middle Eastern art are looking for the turning point of their passion, this is the catalog they will referto.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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