Tuesday, May 30, 2006
The work of the two Saudi artists participating in the “Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East” exhibition at the British Museum gives visitors some idea of the exciting creative work being produced by artists from Saudi Arabia.
Faisal Samra, born in Bahrain in 1956 to Saudi parents, is a world-renowned artist who has taken part in many international exhibitions.
Ahmed Mater al-Ziad is a relatively new artist, who was born in Tabuk in 1979 and combines his artistic pursuits with a career as a doctor. He studied medicine and surgery in Abha, and joined the Al-Miftaha Artists’ Village at the King Fahad Cultural Center in 1998. He founded Al-Miftaha cultural magazine in 2001 and has spearheaded various artistic initiatives.
Samra’s work in the exhibition, “Text-body”, is an 80-centimetre high sculptural shape of clay over wire mesh, on which oil, pigments, henna and gold leaf have been applied to produce letters on a weathered background.
The curator of the exhibition Venetia Porter says: “This wonderful piece by Faisal Samra is a very remarkable work. He’s covered it with individual letters and of course what’s interesting here is that this goes back to the magical tradition. In early magical texts and amulets you find individual letters written because they were much more powerful.”
In the exhibition catalogue Samra states: “In 1989 I burned the border between painting and sculpture by freeing the treated canvas from the frame and then I cut it to an organic shape and hang it from one side on the wall or in a space. This act enabled me to open a dialogue between the artwork and its context.”
In Ahmed Mater al-Ziad’s striking painting “X-ray”, the x-rayed human form is rendered in turquoise, while the dark border around it is marked with inscriptions and formulae.
In the catalogue Mater explains that the work “explores the confusion in the identity of mankind in the contemporary world. The x-ray, sitting on top of a deep, layered background of medical text and expressive paint, represents an objective view of the individual, chosen to provoke a familiar response.” He adds: “My approach as a practising doctor has been evidence-based and influenced by a direct experience of the world.”
Stephen Stapleton, founder of the Offscreen Education Programme and project coordinator for the British Museum’s artist-in-schools programme, says: “Ahmed Mater’s voice is unique and complex. His work in the exhibition features expressive layers of paint reminiscent of the abstract expressionists, as well as medical text and x-ray images from the hospital where he works as a doctor.”
Stapleton describes Mater as “an important new artist from the Arabian Peninsula, his work presenting both an objective and highly subjective view of the individual.”
An exhibition of Mater’s work opened at the Saudi Cultural Centre in London last week. During his trip to London he is also participating in collaborative workshops at the Royal Geographical Society and in schools.
Saudi Gazette, May 30 2006
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
left: 'Homage to Baghdad' by Dia al-Azzawi
The exhibition ‘Word Into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East’, which opened at the British Museum last week, provides a wonderful opportunity to view the work of around 80 of the region’s most accomplished contemporary artists.
The exhibition, which runs until September 2, has been organised in partnership with Dubai Holding. This is the first time the British Museum has put on show the impressive collection of modern art from the Middle East it has built up over a quarter of a century.
The museum’s director Neil MacGregor says: “We wanted to show that the Middle East is in London, and not just as a temporary phenomenon. Many of the artists in this exhibition are partly resident in London, which has become over the past 30 or 40 years one of the cultural capitals of the Middle East. That is something we should take notice of and celebrate and put on display.”
MacGregor points out that the exhibition is to be made available in a “virtual form” so that it can be seen and studied in the Middle East by those who may be prevented (by for example by the all-too-prevalent visa problems) from viewing it in London.
The exhibition’s curator Venetia Porter describes it as “a tribute to the artists and to the extraordinary creativity that there is in the Middle East that people just don’t know about here. We’re hoping that by showing this work we’re going to be able to introduce people to what is a very vibrant tradition of modern art happening all over the region.”
She adds: “We would like people to come away from this exhibition realising that there is much more to the Middle East than what you read in newspapers or see on television screens.”
The strikingly-designed exhibition is arranged in four sections. The first, ‘Sacred Script’, illustrates the relationship between the Arabic script and Islam and the enduring vitality of the Islamic calligraphic tradition. The works in the second section, ‘Literature and Art’, include Iraqi artist Hassan Massoudy’s “Calligraphy” illustrating the poetry of al-Aqil.
The third section, ‘Deconstructing the Word’, looks at the use of script in abstract art. One example is “Untitled” by Mahmoud Hammad, a pioneer of the Syrian artistic movement from the 1960s and the first Syrian artist to include Arabic letters in abstract composition (on right).
The final section, ‘Identity, History and Politics’, investigates the political, historic and social dimensions of the relationship between art and word. The bloody conflicts of the Middle East including Palestine, the Iran-Iraq war, Lebanon and the present war in Iraq are forcefully present in some of the works.
In her brightly coloured two-part work “Children of war, children of peace”, Palestinian artist Laila Shawa uses repeated images of a young boy from a refugee camp in Gaza to highlight the plight of Palestinian children. The Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi pays tribute in his lithograph “Homage to Baghdad” to his native city, placing Arabic letters over abstract shapes that echo ancient Iraqi sculptures. Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian’s work “Umm Kulthum’s Greatest Hits” presents various images of the diva with the titles of some of her most famous songs.
The exhibition, to which entry is free, is accompanied by a rich programme of events in a ‘Middle East Now’ season. The season includes conferences, workshops, films, literature, food, history and the performing arts.
Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette 23 May 2006
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
In contrast to the cuisines of some other Middle Eastern countries - notably Lebanon, Morocco, Iran and Turkey - the food of Jordan remains little known internationally. According to Cecil Hourani, author of the fascinating book “Jordan: The Land and the Table” published recently in London by Elliott & Thompson, even Jordanians themselves are not always fully aware of their country’s distinctive cuisine. There is no ‘Jordanian Restaurant’ in Amman, and no ‘Jordanian Cookbook’.
Hourani’s book shows just what a varied cuisine is to be found in Jordan. Drawing on his travels, research and personal culinary encounters he explains the organic relationship between food and Jordan’s people, geography, history and seasons.
He aims to demonstrate that “there is indeed a Jordanian cuisine which mirrors a society composed of several ethnic and cultural communities which form a distinct national entity.”
There are two main components of the Jordanian kitchen. The first is the traditional Jordanian Arab cuisine based on the relationship between ‘the desert and the sown’. The second was introduced by migrants from the Caucasus and Anatolia from the second half of the 19th century onwards.
Hourani writes that his book is “not a cook book which instructs the reader how to cook, but rather a book about food, with some recipes to illustrate the text”. The recipe section is actually quite substantial, made up of intriguing recipes collected from friends and family, and from people encountered on his travels around Jordan.
The book highlights the ingredients and flavours that give Jordanian food its character. One key ingredient is jameed, dried buttermilk. Another is freeki, the ears of wheat or barley picked while green and smoked on wood. There are also more exotic items, such as the desert truffle.
Hourani looks in detail at characteristic sweet and sour ingredients, and at various combinations of spice and herb flavours. No fewer than 45 wild plants are used as food. The terms in the glossary include zerb, a lamb or kid roasted in a pit or sunken barrel. He gives an evocative account of a zerb feast in an orchard near Madaba.
The recipe section begins with national dishes, including the Jordanian Mansaf. From Palestine there is a national chicken dish Masakhen. The Circassian national dish Shipswabasta combines burghul, garlic, walnuts and hot paprika. The national dish of the Chechens is Galnish, and from the Armenians there is Manti, or Shishbarak, known in various versions from China to Turkey, which comprises dumplings filled with minced lamb and boiled in a broth.
“Jordan: The Land & the Table” appears at a time when in the West there is a turning away from mass-produced food towards healthier, more authentic products. Perhaps Hourani’s book will inspire the setting up of one or more restaurants specialising in Jordanian food.
Saudi Gazette, 16 May 2006
The success of the far-right British National Party (BNP) in the recent local elections in England, in which it more than doubled its council seats, was an ominous sign of a rise in public anti-Muslim sentiment. The BNP has made a campaign against Muslims part of its platform.
The new TV film-length drama “Bradford Riots” reminds us of the potential for violence when such far-right groups target cities with large Muslim populations. The drama has been released on DVD, and has been screened on Channel 4 and repeated twice on its sister channel More4.
The film is based on the 12-hour riots by Asians in the northern English city of Bradford in July 2001, which were the worst rioting on mainland Britain for two decades. The trigger to the riots was a planned march by the National Front (NF). Although Bradford council banned the march, many NF supporters turned up.
In the aftermath of the riots, courts handed down severe sentences, with 191 people receiving prison terms totalling 510 years. The film’s writer and director Neil Biswas has no doubt that the harshness of the sentences resulted from a hardening of attitudes towards Muslims after the September 11 attacks in the USA.
The film centres around university student Karim (played by Sacha Dhawan) who is back home in Bradford for the summer vacation. Through his eyes we see the problems of deprivation and unemployment faced by his peers who remain in the city. One friend, Aki (Syed Ahmed), has become a drug dealer.
Karim’s older brother Faisal (Ace Bhatti) runs the family textile business and is resentful of their father Azad (Victor Banerjee) paying large amounts for Karim’s university education, while Faisal has a wife and young son to support.
The film shows the gap between the generations, with the older generation opposed to the rioters. Karim gets caught up in events and joins in throwing stones at the police, partly because he is incensed that they declined to intervene when a friend of his was badly beaten up by NF supporters. When Faisal comes out to find Karim he too is enveloped in the riot and hits a policeman in self-defence.
Although Karim at first denies to his father that he was present at the riots, his face is among those published by the police who want rioters identified. Azad insists that his son give himself up to the police.
Karim’s lawyer advises him to plead guilty, confident that with his clean record and exemplary references from his university he will be treated leniently. But the judge sentences him to five years. Karim is placed in a cell with a racist white cellmate who taunts him about his Muslim faith. His final collapse comes when he learns that Faisal has been seized by the police in a nighttime raid on his home.
Sacha Dhawan says he was keen to give Karim a strong identity and individuality because “at the end of the day, I feel that what the young Muslim community lack is identity, in that people just categorise them by their religion.” In court, “you want the judge to look at him, to look at his case personally, and realise this is a kid who shouldn’t go to prison.”
Saudi Gazette, 16 May 2006
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
(L) Tilda Swinton
At first sight there might seem to be little connection between supermodel Kate Moss and the Palestinian cause. But a kiss from Kate Moss is just one of the ‘promises’ up for auction at a benefit dinner in support of Palestinian refugee children, to be held at Annabel’s club in central London on Monday May 15. Tickets for the dinner and auction are £200 each.
The event is organised by the HOPING Foundation (HOPING is the acronym of ‘Hope and Optimism for Palestinians in the Next Generation’). By far the majority of the funds the foundation raises go directly to community projects for children in refugee camps. The foundation’s most recent grant paid for a specially-equipped bus to transport of disabled children located in refugee camps and villages in the Nablus area.
HOPING’s trustees are fashion designer Bella Freud, Palestinian academic and activist Karma Nabulsi, and writer and film maker Harriet Vyner. Another key figure in HOPING is Jemima Khan, the ex-wife of the Pakistani politician and former cricketer Imran Khan. Jemima is a member of HOPING’s committee, along with 12 other prominent women.
Oliver Barker of Sotheby’s auction house will present the benefit auction, and the ‘promises’ will presented by actor Rupert Everett. The ‘promises’ include the reading of a story to a child by actress Tilda Swinton, a star of the film “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Another ‘promise’ is a cricket lesson with Imran Khan. Also being auctioned is the ‘promise’ of a game of golf with Jemima Khan’s boyfriend, film star Hugh Grant, with Jemima acting as caddy.
The other ‘promises’ are a walk around the Tate Modern gallery with artist brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman plus Paul Simonon of punk group The Clash; a pair of boots or shoes designed by artist Sam Taylor-Wood and shoe designer Christian Louboutin; tea and a tour of Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Wiliams; a portrait by top fashion photographer Terry Richardson, and dinner for eight cooked by chef Giorgio Locatelli, or a day in his restaurant kitchen.
The HOPING Foundation has already shown its ability to organise high-profile events in which celebrities show their committed support for Palestinian children. In October 2004 the foundation held a sell-out benefit concert for 5000 at the Brixton Academy featuring Primal Scream, Spiritualised, Nick Cave and Steve Mason (of the Beta Band). The concert was released on DVD.
Before the concert, Primal Scream lead singer Bobby Gillespie wrote in the Guardian newspaper: “The Palestinians are a prisoner nation, refugees and exiles treated like ghosts. Now we want them to feel our solidarity.” He said the members of his band were “upset and appalled with what is going on there.” Doubtless this is a sentiment echoed by those who will be guests and participants at the forthcoming benefit auction.
Saudi Gazette, 9 May 2006
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
The debut CD of Palestinian singer Reem Kelani - "Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora" - is a major new contribution from this remarkable singer, musical researcher and broadcaster towards reviving and spreading Palestinian culture through music.
In the weeks since "Sprinting Gazelle" was released in the UK it has been acclaimed by critics and journalists and has received excellent reviews in nearly every serious British newspaper, as well as in music magazines and other publications. Many critics have praised highly the quality, range and emotional depth of Kelani's voice.
Kelani told Al-Hayat in an interview that she is "overwhelmed" by the avalanche of positive media coverage the CD has enjoyed.
The London magazine Time Out not only gave the CD a very favourable review, but also put it at the top of its list of the top six new albums. The CD has been featured on radio stations in countries including Britain, Germany, Australia and the US.
The widespread praise of the CD from critics is all the more remarkable given the fact that Kelani made it independently, with the small Fuse label as a "cover label". She lacks the strong production, marketing and promotion muscle of a major recording company. But through remaining independent she has been free of pressures to make musical and cultural compromises.
The preparation and recording of the CD took Kelani and her husband Chris Somes-Charlton two years of intensive work. They put most of their savings into the project and received further financing from family, friends and supporters. They have not even organised a concert to launch the CD "because we could not afford the logistics, the time or the money." Now they are busy marketing the CD through Kelani's website and in record stores through the distribution company Proper Music.
The CD's ten songs take the listener on a 74-minute odyssey through the Palestinian experience, from the nineteenth century until today. The CD comes with a highly informative and attractive 32-page booklet which contains the Arabic words to the songs, and translations into English poetry.
Some of the songs are Reem's arrangements of traditional songs. Others are Kelani's compositions for poems by such important Palestinian poets as Mahmoud Darwish, Rashid Husain, Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Mahmoud Salim al-Hout.
A number of the songs are sombre in mood, including Kelani's music for the Mahmoud Darwish poem "Mawwal: Variations on Loss". Kelani wrote the music for this song in 1992 for a BBC TV documentary on the tenth anniversary of the massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut.
She dedicates "Yearning" by Rashid Husain to the late French singer Barbara "whose music taught me to turn anger into inner peace."
Other songs are more upbeat, such as the spirited traditional song "Habl el-Ghiwa", which is performed with a very jazzy, danceable feel.
The CD has spiritual depth and rewards repeated listening. Asked about the narrative thread running through the CD, Kelani says that after choosing the songs "I realised that they are all either by poets that are pre-48 Palestine or areas that are pre-48 Palestine." She describes the narrative as "totally non-compromising," as shown by a song like "Qasidah of Return", with words by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, which has a mood of "total defiance".
The final song "Il-Hamdillah" is a medley of two songs, "Il-Hamdillah and "Intu Banatu, Ihna Banana". These two songs show the "somoud" of the Palestinians and celebrate their collective identity, "something that the last 58 years couldn't impoverish, quite the contrary, they enriched it."
Kelani says that from women in refugee camps she got the message "that I now use in my life as a Diaspora Palestinian - personally, collectively and artistically - that we are not victims. You are not a victim even when you are in pain, even if someone has done you wrong. You get on with life, you acknowledge your pain and you're strong and you celebrate and you sing and dance. She adds: "This is resistance in its purest form."
Reem's core group of musicians consists of the award-winning jazz pianist Zoe Rahman; Zoe's brother Idris Rahman on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet; Oli Hayhurst on double bass; Patrick Illingworth on drums; the Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai, and the Iranian percussionist Fariborz Kiani.
The first song "As Nazarene Women Crossed the Meadow" is a dramatic start to the CD, featuring Kelani singing to no accompaniment but that of a vocal drone. According to local Nazarene folklore, women sang this song when they said goodbye to their men who were leaving to serve in the Ottoman Army. The arrangement of the song " "was principally inspired by a visit I paid to St Gabriel Geek Orthodox Church in Nazareth during one of my childhood summers there. I was mesmerised by the Eastern Christian chanting that I heard which had such striking similarities with Muslim religious chanting. My rendition pays tribute to the historically ecumenical tradition of Nazareth and is an attempt to keep this tradition going in increasingly difficult times."
The song is followed by another furaaqiyaat (song of parting), "The Cameleer Tormented my Heart."
Kelani sees no contradiction in being a jazz singer who is a Palestinian. "Both disciplines are based on improvisation, both disciplines come from suffering and from emancipation."
The CD works on two levels. Kelani's voice with its extraordinary range and timbre makes a direct emotional impact. Even for those listeners who do not understand the Arabic of the words there is no mistaking the emotions that are being expressed - range, tenderness, joy, sorrow, defiance. But beyond this, the accompanying booklet helps non-Arab listeners to get further inside the experience of the songs through reading the lyrics in English and through Reem's detailed information on each song. The booklet also contains a glossary of Arabic musical and cultural terms.
Kelani carried out the translations of the songs into English with her husband, and with Salma Khadra Jayyusi as the literary consultant. The poetry consultant to the project, well-known British poet Alan Brownjohn, made suggestions.
The cover illustration of the CD and of the booklet portrays a gazelle on a background of canvas which represents the Palestinian costume for embroidery, and at the same time the earth and sense of belonging.
The delicate plant with yellow flowers that adorns the cover and inside pages of the booklet is feijan - a herb found in the area of Nazareth from where Kelani's mother's family comes.
The value of the booklet providing the translated lyrics and the background to the songs was illustrated recently when a BBC Radio 3 programme featured "Sprinting Gazelle" and played several songs from it.
Thepresenter explained that the words of the song "Yafa!" were written by the Palestinian poet, mythologist and translator Mahmoud Salim al-Hout (1917-88) after he lost all his manuscripts while fleeing Jaffa.
In this evocative song of loss and pain Kelani is accompanied only by pianist Zoe Rahman playing ominous deep rumbles overlain with agitation. The effect is that of a soulful meditation.
Kelani was born in Manchester, northern England, to doctor Yusuf Kelani, from the village of Ya'bad near Jenin, and Yusra Sharif Ali Zu'bi from Nazareth. Reem dedicates the CD to her mother, who died in Amman in 2004, and "to all the 'Big Mamas' who taught me to sing and to belong." In her concerts Kelani often pays tribute to the "Big Mamas", most particularly the old ladies in Palestinian refugee camps from whom she has collected songs.
Kelani grew up in Kuwait where she was surrounded by many different kinds of music. The songs her father sang kindled the devotion to jazz that has been with Kelani ever since. At the age of 13 she fell in love with Palestinian music when she went to a family wedding in the village of Nein near Galilee and saw women singing and dancing.
A marine biologist by university education, she first came to London in 1989 on a British Council scholarship to do an MSc in aquatic resource management at King's College. But before long she decided to pursue her ambition of a musical career.
Kelani has attracted a large and growing following of fans who appreciate her unique blend of Palestinian music and jazz, her superb voice, her charismatic and warm stage presence and her ability to strike up a rapport with widely differing audiences. She has performed at concerts in the UK, US, Canada, Middle East and Europe, often at events to raise funds for Palestinian charities.
Her broadcasting work has included presenting two series of BBC Radio Four's 'Distant Chords' in which she interviewed musicians in exile in Britain from countries including Yemen, Afghanistan, Armenia and Portugal. Kelani has also been involved in educational work, starting with music workshops at the British Museum. Last autumn she was the music consultant for the play "Iman: Walled In, Walled Out" performed by children at the Miskin Theatre in Dartford.
Kelani has found it difficult to find suitable musicians in London, and it took a long time to assemble her band. None of the musicians on her CD is Palestinian. She says: "Playing with people of different nationalities was very challenging because they didn't know anything about the music."
Another challenge was finding a recording label. The political folk singer and song writer Leon Rosselson offered his own Fuse Records label as the "cover label" of the CD.
Kelani says that many musicians based in the Middle East assume that musicians based in the UK or America are lucky. "They don't realise that the 'world music' circles here actively ignore the local talent around them." A foreign musician like her based in the UK tends to be neglected in favour of more "exotic" musicians brought from abroad. "Even if I were based in Paris I would have been more exotic." She considers that "in a way, being in the UK has hindered the launching of my career."
It was radio stations in other countries - America, Australia and Germany -that started playing the CD long before the BBC did, despite the fact that Reem regularly works for the BBC.
The release of the CD comes at a particularly difficult time for the Palestinian people, a time when culture has a more important role to play than ever in helping to convey the Palestinian identity and experience. As Kelani says: "unless people listen to, and acknowledge, the Palestinian narrative in its own right, no peace treaty, peace accord or peace settlement will work. The Palestinian narrative has always been robbed of its independence and authenticity."
Original of article published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat newspaper, May 2 2006
In all, 54 artists are participating in the exhibition, which is organised by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) with support from the A M Qattan Foundation. Some are London-based Palestinian artists who have already made a big impact on the international art scene, such as Gaza-born Laila Shawa and Beirut-born Mona Hatoum. A number of other Arab artists based in London are also taking part, such as the Egyptian Ahmed Mustapha, and Iraqi Maysaloun Faraj.
The exhibition website says the show aims “to show that despite difficulties experienced over many years, Palestinian artists of all generations are producing significant, exciting work in all media.”
The show is an encouragement for artists working within Palestine, including such well-known figures as Vera Tamari, Suleiman Mansour and Tayseer Barakat. Also represented are up-and-coming young artists who are “producing work of astonishing quality under the challenging conditions in the Occupied Territories.”
Some of the biggest names in British painting are featured in the show, among them Maggi Hambling, Dinos Chapman and David Gentleman. A work by John Keane, who was a war artist in the 1991 Gulf war, entitled “Security/Impunity/Geometry & Terror” and reproduced on the exhibition invitation card portrays the Israeli “security wall”.
The participation of so many British artists in the exhibition is proof that, despite the increasingly beleaguered existence of the Palestinians, there is much sympathy for the Palestinian cause in British cultural circles.
All works in the exhibition are for sale, and those artists from outside the Occupied Territories have donated their work. Proceeds from the sale will go to the artists from Palestine taking part in the exhibition, and towards PSC projects in the UK. And Leila Shawa has made available for sale a limited edition of 100 prints (at £75 each) of her painting “Jerusalem” which was displayed as a poster at Piccadilly Circus underground station in 2002 as part of London Underground’s Platform for Art Programme.
Susannah Tarbush Saudi Gazette May 2 2006