And the Word was Good

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Review of Word Into Art, British Museum, London: Jonathan Maunder welcomes an exhibition of modern art from the Middle East.

The Word Into Art exhibition at the British Museum is a real treat artistically, and at the same time a great riposte to current prejudices about Islam and the East. Taking in both artists who have remained in their country of origin and those who have settled elsewhere, the exhibition is a diverse, engaging and at times beautiful journey into Middle Eastern history and identity, as well as the thoughts and feelings of the individual artists themselves.

As you walk into the exhibition you encounter work by the Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli. A series of strange, contorted shapes turn out to be different forms of the Iranian word heech, meaning "nothing". The contrast between the creative work each shape embodies and the emptiness of the message they represent suggests a feeling of frustration. The final heech is trapped within a golden cage.

Some of the most beautiful works are in the calligraphy section. Single words or sections of the Koran are represented in drawings infused with vibrant colours and painstaking detail. It is the most religious part of the exhibition and yet it is distinctly unorthodox, including both colourful prints and more abstract portrayals. Karl Marx's phrase that religion is in part the "soul of soulless conditions" seems to find physical embodiment here. In seeking to make representations of faith and belief, the artists have made works of astonishing beauty. You can't help but contrast these with the racist representations of Islam that have been pushed by the media in Europe and elsewhere.

The second section of the exhibition is made up of visual representations of Arab and Islamic poetry. Again there is ingenious use of artistic form, including "calligraffiti" - traditional calligraphy fused with street graffiti. The dominant poetic themes are of life, death, love and war. You get a real sense of Arab history through some of the works. A piece by Hassan Massoudy repeatedly depicts in intricate detail in Arabic the phrase, "Come forward and you are free." These are words which refer to the warrior-poet Antara ibn Shaddad, born a slave to an Arab father and a black African slave mother. The phrase marks the moment when he became a free man.

One of the best things about the exhibition is the way in which it undercuts the "culture talk" peddled by some politicians, media commentators and academics that "our" culture is reflective, self-critical and open while "their" culture (the Islamic fundamentalist bogey-man or woman) is unchanging and blinkered. We learn that since the 1940s artists have been coming to Europe from the Middle East to learn about the major movements in modern European art. They have then gone on to create a unique fusion between East and West. The Iraqi artist Madiha Omar was the first to incorporate Arabic letters into abstract art, and her work is on display here.

The last section deals with "History, Identity and Politics". It contains some interesting pieces which mix images of tradition and heritage with modern artistic styles. The Lebanese civil war and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s loom large in many of the works. The record of imperialist violence in the region does not come through particularly strongly although it is alluded to. Satta Hashem's "Gulf War Diary" depicts US bombers as grotesque half-horse, half-machine objects. Kareem Risan's "Untitled" is a response to the destruction of Iraqi libraries following the 2003 US and British invasion. Laila Shawa's "Children of War, Children of Peace", created just two years after the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, depicts how for ordinary Palestinians nothing had really changed, except that "the graffiti got brighter".

One of the most interesting works comes at the end. Mohamed Abla's, "No More Killing", painted in 2004, depicts Egyptian soldiers alongside the head of George Washington from a US dollar bill, while anti-war slogans are dotted around the picture. It is a sobering reminder of the links between the US and the repressive Egyptian regime, which is currently trying to stamp out a grassroots pro-democracy movement.

On the whole the exhibition is well worth seeing. The diversity and imagination contained in the works are at times stunning. However, taking Iraq as an example and considering the violence done to it by US-UK sanctions, invasion and occupation, I did feel that the exhibition could have done with its own equivalent of Picasso's "Guernica", a stark statement about the horrors of imperialism.

Word Into Art runs until 3 September