Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Word Into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East

This is an artist's book by an artist now living in Paris. Many Iraqi artists started working with artist books when it was no longer safe to go to their studios. They also wanted to be able to transport their work easily. We all remember the pillaging of the museums and libraries after the US invasion in 2003. The pages of this book are intentionally charred.

This artist's son is wrapped in Arabic poetry.

A refugee's suitcase, on paper. What would you grab if everything you took had to fit in a small suitcase? Text surrounds the silhouettes and appears in the suitcase.

This is a dictionary by a Palestinian artist, opened to the definition of "Philistine," surrounded by actual nails.

Phil·is·tine n. (fĭl'ĭ-stēn', fĭ-lĭs'tĭn, -tēn')
  1. A member of an Aegean people who settled ancient Philistia around the 12th century B.C.
    1. A smug, ignorant, especially middle-class person who is regarded as being indifferent or antagonistic to artistic and cultural values.
    2. One who lacks knowledge in a specific area.

Another artist's book. You can see its accordian shape in the lower right hand corner--above the big head of that person sitting in front of me.

This is graffiti the artist saw and copied onto paper. It says 'the envious shall not prevail."

I went to a slide presentation--at the Virginia Commonwealth University campus in Qatar--of this show; it's opening in Dubai and comprises art from the British Museum--better known for its mummies than controversial collections of Middle Eastern art, said the museum's Middle East curator, Venetia Porter. She's British but spend a good part of her childhood in Lebanon and is fluent in Arabic. After the presentation I told her this show should go to New York. The consensus seems to be that it's too controversial for the U.S.

All of the artists in this show work with transforming text into art--Linda Passman and I are fascinated by the interpaly of text and visuals. We play with a lot of ideas in the visual journal workshop we teach.

A full reception followed this free, open-to-the-public event--with falafel, hummus, chicken and vegetable pastries, grilled meats, dessert pastries, fresh fruit, fresh-squeezed strawberry juice. Quite a spread. "They always have these," my friend told me. Can you imagine such lavish spreads at a free slide presentation in America?

Not served--alcohol. This is a strict Muslim country.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Secret Garden

Most spaces between the apartment buildings look like this.

The secret garden.

Palm fronds and grape vines shade the arugula growing underneath.

I have fallen in love with my compound. At first I was disappointed. Some of the people I know here in Doha live in more established walled-in worlds, with palm tress and lush plantings and attractive street lights. Here there are still unoccupied, forlorn units and when the wind blows, it carries not only dust and sand but also stray plastic bags and candy wrappers. I found the place, well, kind of desolate and at night, dark--not threatening, just unwelcoming.

When I first lived in Los Angeles, and walked up in the hills above our neighborhood, I was disappointed. Where were the bright leaves of fall, the bursts of bloom in the spring, the ice and snow of winter? Over time, I began to notice the seasons--they are subtle and, in their own way, stunning.

I'm now noticing more about my hood. Every afternoon, children from all over the world gather out on the streets to kick a soccer ball, ride bikes, and just hang out. They remind me of how American children used to be--unsupervised, bored, creating games out of . . . whatever. I hear so many languages coming from these straggly groups of kids. The other day two young brothers were running across a speed bump. The older in-charge one gave his squat brother a subtle shouldering, just as they crested the mound. The little guy went down hard--his tummy hitting the bump, his hands and arms badly scraped. An accident, the bigger boy told his mother, who came out to investigate the shrieking. He fell on the bump, the older boy pointed, gesturing. I couldn't understand the conversation but knew the story.

As I take my daily walks (several) around the rectangle and up and down the little side streets, I now notice potted plants in stoops and little postage stamp bits of greenery. I have a nodding acquaintance with some of my neighbors. Even if we wanted to chat, we'd be hard-pressed to find a shared language we were both comfortable with.

A desert cabbage!

The other day I discovered a luscious secret garden between two apartment buildings. I now walk up and down that path several times a day. One time I saw a woman staring at me from the villa across the way. I hope she didn't think I was stealing a cabbage or arugula (known to be an aphrodisiac here). I just like to look--have you ever really seen a growing cabbage? The broad-veined, big leaves wrap around the center and open out in an almost surreal pattern. I stare at the curlicued grape vines, inhale the summer-smell of the tomato plants and marvel that someone has cultivated this verdant garden plot, here in the desert.