The British Museum.
The Islamic World Gallery (Room 34), Free Entry.
21st June – 2nd October 2013.
Boushra Almutawakel to Michael Rakowitz is a small temporary exhibition showcasing recent acquisitions of contemporary art by Arab artists from the Middle East. Displayed within the Islamic World gallery these works on paper are simultaneously juxtaposed with, and contextualised by, the Museum’s permanent display of artefacts exploring the history of Islamic faith, art, calligraphy, and science. All pieces within this exhibition draw upon issues concerning the Middle East today, providing a socio-political commentary, and artist’s perspective, on subjects such as conflict, cultural and religious identity, and the looting of ancient artefacts.
The exhibition features works by two Egyptian artists, Moataz Nasr and Fathi Hassan. In 2008 Nasr founded Darb 1718, a contemporary art and culture centre located in Old Cairo designed to develop the contemporary art movement in Egypt. Nasr’s work is represented by one of three pieces from his Insecure series (2006) which uses sun print techniques developed in the 19th century to explore the depths and complexities of human insecurity. The more politically hard-hitting approach of Egyptian-Sudanese artist Fathi Hassan is represented by five key pieces. These highlight central themes in Hassan’s work such as the exploration of the written and spoken word, colonial domination, and aspects of his Nubian heritage.This exhibition demonstrates the value of displaying contemporary art with historic and archaeological objects, with these elements drawing from each other and acting as mutually beneficial interpretive tools. This exhibition style allows the visitor to be more actively involved with interpretation, while the diverse range of artists provides an important multi-vocal approach.
Having visited the exhibition a couple of months ago I was delighted to catch a talk last week on the new acquisitions by the Museum’s Curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East, Venetia Porter. The talk provided a guided tour of the exhibition, allowing the group to discuss each piece and its significance to the collection, and gave a brilliant insight into the department’s collections policy and the processes behind choosing new pieces for acquisition.
Venetia Porter, who is responsible for developing the department’s collection of modern and contemporary arts, stressed how important it is to look at political situations through the eyes of artists, and how Middle Eastern art should be considered fairly unique for its multi-layered political concepts and its ability to make you truly think. Interestingly, the talk also touched upon how so much of Middle Eastern art tends to resonate with the past and the exciting opportunity this presents in juxtaposing historical and contemporary pieces on display.
Over 250 artists from across the Middle East are represented in the department’s collection. While the department is restricted to collecting works on paper they often collaborate with other leading institutions, such as the Tate, to ensure other mediums are equally represented in other collections. As with all works on paper, these acquisitions have a limited display-life – roughly four to five months on display at a time. It was therefore great to hear the department’s aim to enhance virtual access by making new acquisitions available through the online catalogue as soon as possible after their arrival into the collection.
This exhibition originally formed part of London’s annual Shubbak Festival of contemporary Arab culture.