Venetia Porter: Word Into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East (2006)

15 April 2016, dusan

This landmark catalogue is one of “the most comprehensive gatherings of Middle Eastern artists that has been undertaken in recent times.” Based on an exhibition mounted by the British Museum, it is “devoted to the recurring theme of calligraphy and how artists from the Middle East and North Africa use the traditional visual vocabulary of Arabic letters as a point of departure and an integral expressive element. The works, which were drawn mostly from the British Museum’s own collection of contemporary Islamic art, demonstrate how each artist celebrates the aesthetic powers and plasticity of the letters, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries, even sometimes subverting traditional canons. The artists manipulate letters, often transforming them beyond recognition, using ingenious and innovative methods, materials, styles, and daring compositions. Some use letters for purely aesthetic reasons, while others use them more instrumentally as writing, signs, or ciphers that allow the artists to grapple with issues of socio-political orientation and cultural and religious identity. For some artists this resonates with the sacred tradition of Islam and the Qur’an, while for others it is an undeniable part of their cultural heritage and a natural vehicle for expression.” (Sourced from the two reviews linked below.)

Foreword by Saeb Eigner
With contributions by Isabelle Caussé
Publisher British Museum Press, London, 2006
ISBN 0714111635, 9780714111636
144 pages

Reviews: Islamic Monthly (2006), Maryam Ekhtiar (CAA Reviews 2007).


PDF (124 MB)

Shamil Jeppie, Souleymane Bachir Diagne (eds.): The Meanings of Timbuktu (2008)

9 April 2014, dusan

In a joint project between South Africa and Mali, a library to preserve more than 200 000 Arabic and West African manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries is currently under construction. It is the first official cultural project of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), the socio-economic development plan of the African Union, and when the library is built, the cultural role of Timbuktu will be revived, as it becomes the safehaven for the treasured manuscripts. The manuscripts prove that Africa had a rich legacy of written history, long before western colonisers set foot on the continent.

This volume, authored by leading international scholars, begins to sketch the ‘meaning’ of Timbuktu within the context of the intellectual history of West Africa, in particular, and of the African continent, in general. The book covers four broad areas: Part I provides an introduction to the region; outlines what archaeology can tell us of its history, examines the paper and various calligraphic styles used in the manuscripts; and explains how ancient institutions of scholarship functioned. Part II begins to analyse what the manuscripts can tell us of African history. Part III offers insight into the lives and works of just a few of the many scholars who achieved renown in the region and beyond. Part IV provides a glimpse into Timbuktu’s libraries and private collections. Part V looks at the written legacy of the eastern half of Africa, which like that of the western region, is often ignored.

A fascinating read for anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the aura of mystique and legend that surrounds Timbuktu. The Meanings of Timbuktu strives to contextualize and clarify the importance of efforts to preserve Timbuktu’s manuscripts for Mali, for Africa and for the intellectual world.

Publisher HSRC, Cape Town, in association with CODESRIA, Dakar, 2008
Open Access
ISBN 0796922047, 139780796922045
416 pages

Review (David Robinson, H-SAfrica, 2009)

Publisher (HSRC)
Publisher (CODESRIA)

PDF (single PDF)
PDF (PDF chapters)

Malek Alloula: The Colonial Harem (1981/1986)

30 August 2013, dusan

“Malek Alloula takes the everyday object of postcard and shows how it was a classic locus of Orientalism, which has long been a phantasm of the West: ‘There is no phantasm, though, without sex and in this Orientalism .. a central figure emerges, the very embodiment of the obsession: the harem’. In Arabic, harim means forbidden and thus also refers to the women’s quarters of many Islamic households, which are forbidden to strange men. Embroidering from four centuries of stories concerning the Imperial harem in Istanbul, however, the Western imagination had transformed every harem into a hotbed of sensuality and sexuality. France colonized Algeria in 1830, an operation documented at the time by the artist Eugène Delacroix and later depicted by countless Orientalist artists, led by figures like Horace Vernet and Eugène Fromentin. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the fine art genre of the odalisque, or Oriental nude, was displaced by a flood of popular postcards depicting the algérienne, the Algerian woman.

Alloula, himself Algerian, studied this mass of now-discarded visual material in his classic study The Colonial [Harem] in which he wants to ‘return this immense postcard to its sender’, the French colonizer. He shows how the veiled Algerian woman was a provocation to the European photographer as her light clothing produced a ‘whiteout’ in the bright sun, a technical failure of the photograph to register strong differences of light and dark. The women’s peephole gaze from behind the veil recalls the photographer’s own gaze from behind the cloth of a tripod camera of the period and in a sense ‘the photographer feels photographed .. he is dispossessed of his own gaze‘. The response is to remove the obstacle to the gaze–to obliterate it, in Terry Smith’s terms–by raising the veil: ‘he will unveil the veil and give figural expression to the forbidden’. Thus from the seemingly innocent postcards showing a woman slightly lifting her veil to the popular image of a half-naked Algerian woman, there is hardly a step. The colonial gaze must see and make an exhibition of these women, which is then rendered as the aesthetic. The erotic effect, such as it is, is beside the point in this operation of colonial visualism.” (from Nicolas Mirzoeff, Visual Culture Reader, 2002, pp 475-476)

Originally published as Le Harem Colonial: Images d’un sous-érotisme, Editions Slatkine, Geneve-Paris, 1981
Translated by Myrna Godzich and Wlad Godzich
Introduction by Barbara Harlow
Publisher University of Minnesota Press, 1986
Theory and History of Literature series, Volume 21
ISBN 0719019079, 9780719019074
160 pages

review (Gregory K. Betts, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature)
review (Carlos Shloss, The New York Times)
review (Arlette Gautier, Les Cahiers du CEIMA, in French)
commentary (Jean-Noël Ferrié & Gilles Boëtsch, Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord)