Threads of Light/Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, The Mosaic Rooms, London – review

If mainstream media are your chief couriers, you might be forgiven for thinking that serious exhibitions about Arab artists only popped up in London last year with, for example, the monograph at Tate Modern devoted to Saloua Raouda Choucair from Lebanon.

Yet a succinct, intelligent focus on the Arab world has been unfolding at the Mosaic Rooms gallery in Earls Court since 2008. Set up in that year, it is the UK arm of the A.M. Qattan Foundation, created by the eponymous family who have roots in Palestine, the UK and Kuwait. While the foundation aims to foster culture and education in Palestine and the wider Arab world, Mosaic Rooms is devoted to promoting Arab culture in the UK.

Although it collaborates with better-known projects such as the Delfina Foundation and the Arab cultural festival Shubbak, the Mosaic Rooms’ refusal to engage in what director Omar Qattan describes as the “academic jargon of the contemporary art world and the trivialising effects of a global art market” has shielded it from art that grabs headlines with either conceptual shock tactics or auction records.

Currently, however, the gallery is hosting a pair of exhibitions that deserve wider recognition for their elegiac celebration of Iraqi culture.

On the top floor, two rooms are devoted to paintings by the artist Hanoos Hanoos. Born in Kufa, south of Baghdad, in 1958, Hanoos left his native country in 1981 to study in Madrid. As Iraq was swallowed by one war after another, it grew too dangerous to return, and the Spanish capital became his home. Although he has exhibited widely in Spain, and will have a retrospective at the Casa Arabe in Madrid next spring, Hanoos has never thrust himself on to the international stage.

His exhibition at the Mosaic Rooms, Threads of Light, takes its title from the eponymous work by the Iraqi poet Abdel-Wahab al-Bayati, who also lived for a time in Madrid. The poem roams through Spain, Rome, India and Iraq in pursuit of a figure who is simultaneously bullfighter, matchseller, teacher and prophet. When he dies “covered in blood and alone”, Al-Bayati sees him “stretched out from one generation to the next, a thread of light/In a world of chaos”.

Hanoos conjures a landscape, fragmented yet ultimately unified, to match that of his inspiration. Employing acrylic with dexterity, his paintings are palimpsests: loose grids assembled from blocks of colour, whose clandestine geometry is shielded by gestures, scumblings and patches of grittiness. As if they have strayed in from a different, realist canvas, a mosaic of human and inanimate figures floats on the surface. There are men, sometimes in Arabic dress, women, musicians, cats, still lifes of bottles and glasses. Their repetition ties the paintings together like chapters in a surrealist novel or the storyboard of a dream.

Particularly intriguing is the recurrence of a pair of torsoless female legs, sometimes clothed, sometimes naked. The source of these disembodied pins derives, Hanoos says, from the 12th-century Sufi philosopher Ibn’ Arabi, who once declared that until space was feminised it was not complete.

Such provocative mysticism fuels Hanoos’s vision’s vitality. His influences are clear: the black contours of his figures, which have the transparency of silhouettes, talk back to the Arabic tradition of calligraphy. His shallow space draws on a tradition of non-perspectival geometry that spans the Islamic Renaissance to David Hockney’s photographic experiments. One can see Paula Rego in the bold sexiness of those invasive legs and Antoni Tàpies in the raw depths of the background voids.

Yet his work is an organic expression of our times. As we ramble through the panoramas, perplexed by the bird on a man’s headdress, the cellist playing to a deaf crowd, we are moved by such radical human disconnection yet warmed by the tenderness with which Hanoos conjures our essential separateness. There is loss and longing here but these are paintings that sing their hymn to exile lightly and even with joy.

Threads of Light transcends the particularities of Hanoos’s experience to attain a universal resonance. On one level, the exhibition downstairs is a stark contrast, in that it was born as a direct response to a contemporary tragedy. Entitled Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, its seed was sown on March 5 2007, when a suicide bomber exploded his car on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad.

The attack killed more than 30 people and wounded another 100. But it also devastated the heart of Baghdad’s literary and intellectual life. Named after the classical 10th-century poet, Al-Mutanabbi Street had welcomed four generations of Iraqi writers and readers to the plethora of bookstores, publishers, printers, outdoor book stalls and cafés that clustered its route. Described by Iraqi writer Lutfia Alduleimi as “a place for the most extreme celebrations of the mind”, it was a harbour for dissident ideas and texts during Saddam Hussein’s regime.

When he heard of the tragedy, Beau Beausoleil, a San Francisco poet, activist and secondhand bookshop owner, was determined it should not go unmarked.

His project, Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, began as a one-off memorial poetry reading, then mushroomed into a more ambitious undertaking. Today, 130 letterpress printed broadsides and 260 artists’ books have been produced by printers, artists and writers from all over the world. An international exhibition tour is under way, after which a complete set of all the works will be donated to the Iraq National Library and Archive in Baghdad.

The display at the Mosaic Rooms, which is the show’s first London stop (it subsequently moves on to the Arab-British Centre in London and then various other venues), is a moving homage to what has been lost. Yet it also fosters hope through the redemptive power of the imagination.

In an era when so much art dies on the altar of its grandiloquence, these works are a reminder that expression is rarely diminished by modesty in either proportions or materials. Displayed on the walls or in vitrines, no work here is other than of domestic scale. There is an abundance of poems, often by Arabic writers. For example, the poem “Destinies”, by Iraqi poet Gzar Hantoosh, has been printed over a map of the Al-Mutanabbi Street district by Felicia Rice, a book artist and the proprietor of the California-based Moving Parts Press. Unlike so much blue-chip art, which suffers from the chill of its outsourced origins, here are works born out of true collaborations between bespoke printers, poets, artists, calligraphers and illustrators.

The result is an occasion where word, object and image intertwine in a rare harmony. Brighton-based American book artist Sarah Bryant, for example, has printed the names of those who died on blood-red ribbon then twisted it into a skein whose illegibility acts as a seduction to decipher. Ania Gilmore and Annie Zeybekoglu have fanned a book of torn and ash-grimed pages into a circular sculpture beneath which spills a puddle of human hair.

One of the most recent works, “Pain of Memory” by London-based book artist Mona Kriegler, riffs on the Asian practice of wabisabi, whereby artisans employed to mend broken ceramics trace the cracks with gold paint. Kriegler asked people “Where are you broken?”, then traced a gilt wound on their skin. Her photographs of these body parts, together with a map of Baghdad where Al-Mutanabbi Street has been sewn with a gold thread, and a video of Kriegler undertaking the embroidery, weave together a meditation both on the universality of suffering and the healing possibilities of the human hand.

That her luminous handiwork chimes with the trope that inspired Hanoos embodies the serendipity between these shows. Today, the death toll in Iraq remains relentless. Last year, though the bombings were barely reported in the international press, the number of civilian deaths doubled from the previous year to almost 9,500. Hats off to all those committed to art as a means of shedding light upon our world.

Until February 22,

Al-Mutanabbi Street details:

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