Artists making books: How SWANA artists embraced the book as a carrier of experience

How SWANA artists treat the book as a carrier of experience
5 min read
09 November, 2023
The exhibition 'Artists Making Books' at the British Museum looks at the history of Arab and South Asian artists using the book medium as a source of poetic inspiration.

Artists making books: poetry to politics, is a new publication by Venetia Porter, former Curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art at the British Museum.

The publication and the accompanying exhibition — which runs till February 2024 — sheds light on the phenomenon of artists’ books as an act of creativity by inspired artists from the Middle East, North Africa and as far as South Asia.

Venetia Porter has curated major exhibitions at the British Museum, Word into Art (2006)Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam (2012), and Reflections: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa (2020) and was the lead curator for the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world, which opened to critical acclaim in October 2018.

"Richly illustrated, Artists making books: poetry to politics documents the experiences of modern artists whose lives have been impacted by colonialism, war, sanctions, revolution and exile"

Artists making books features the work of 61 artists and explores how they respond to ancient and medieval contemporary literature, political events, and individual experiences.

Whilst artist books from South Asia and Iran are featured, the majority of the works are associated with the Arab world.

Structured into four broad categories; Chapter 1 begins with how artists have created works in dialogue with classical literature, such as One Thousand and One Nights, the writings of the Sufi mystics or the poetry of Hafez.

Chapter 2 focuses on contemporary literature; Chapter 3 speaks of history and politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The final chapter provides a personal perspective, to some of the themes in Chapter 3, stories of grief, loss, displacement, familial relationships and identity.  

Farkhondeh Shahroudi © The Trustees of the British Museum
Farkhondeh Shahroudi © The Trustees of the British Museum

Artist’s books are well known in canons of Western art however, how they are created and perceived by artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia is a relatively new area of study.

Artists’ books were the focus of an earlier exhibition, L’art du livre Arabe at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, in 2001 which brought together classical manuscripts and contemporary book art.

In 2007, Dr Nada Shabout, a leading authority on Contemporary Iraqi art, curated Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art — a travelling exhibition of artists’ books by seventeen Iraqi artists at the University of North Texas Art Gallery. She named the exhibition Dafatir (plural for dafatar) and hence coined the term ‘Dafatar’ (daftar: Arabic for notebook).

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The Middle East has had a long, rich tradition of illustrated manuscripts on literature and poetry from the early illustrated Maqamat al-Hariri created by the celebrated Iraqi artist Yahya Ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti in 1237 to later exquisite masterpieces commissioned by Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman rulers.

Whilst these early illustrated manuscripts were often bound as books and for the private enjoyment of a select few, the artists’ books featured in this collection convey modern-day personal experiences whilst at the same time retaining some aspects of these early literary traditions.

The earliest cited practice of Arab artists making artists’ books is by Shafic Abboud, whilst living in Paris. Artists’ books were already being produced in Paris by Matisse, Braque and others at the time, and undoubtedly influenced him.

Silsilat al Nafa’is translated as ‘precious books’ is a series of books he published in Beirut in the late 1960s that leads directly to a key moment in the history of artists in the Arab world.

Abboud’s books had a profound effect on Dia al-Azzawi, the next major Arab figure in the world of artist’s books.

Kareem Risan © The Trustees of the British Museum
Kareem Risan © The Trustees of the British Museum

Dia al-Azzawi, an Iraqi artist whose works were featured earlier this year in a solo exhibition held at The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has produced several hand-painted books that visualise contemporary issues through selected modern Arab poetry.

During the sanctions of the 1990s, through the 2003 invasion of Iraq up until 2005 they, became the main form of production.

Due to a lack of exhibition space, these books became personal journals documenting the inward experience of the Iraqi artist. Interestingly, it is Azzawi’s love of books that led him to encourage fellow Iraqi artists to make books.

Azzawi describes: "The Daftar is like a closed room with windows. Once opened, the light leaks out to reveal the worlds of various elements: lines, shapes, colours and text. It is also different [from painting] because of the unlimited freedom to use any material."

The late Beirut-born poet and artist Etel Adnan’s works are featured in the publication. She began making leporellos (book format with folded concertina-style pages) in the 1960s after being introduced to the traditional Japanese art format by Rick Barton.

Adnan selected poetry that captured ideas in Arabic that she could not express herself and used drawing and painting to provide counterpoints or emotional and intellectual responses.

As a poet and an artist, it made complete sense to her: "This sense of reading ‘scrolls’ brought to my mind poetry and literature. I felt that kinship between the script and the horizontality of the paper. I suddenly saw that I was going to write poetry on these papers and paint watercolours with the sentences, verses, on words. I opened to myself, with exhilaration a new artistic world whose possibilities I was going to explore by the very acts of paintings."

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Richly illustrated, Artists making books: poetry to politics documents the experiences of modern artists whose lives have been impacted by colonialism, war, sanctions, revolution and exile.

These artists carried and exchanged ideas through key moments in time and experimented with new forms of expression that eventually led to the development of this new genre.

Readers of this publication will note an absence of richly illustrated manuscripts commonly associated with the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia and instead will discover personal expressions of modern artists’ love of literary and poetic traditions.

Farida R. Ali is an art and literary critic covering the Middle East and South Asia. She studied art history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and previously worked in the museum sector.

Follow her on X: @farida_art