BEIRUT: Sometimes museums get it right and sometimes they get it wrong. "Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East," on view at the British Museum through September 2, is a striking example of the former. The show and (for those unlikely to get to London anytime soon) its accompanying catalogue succeed where so many major international institutions trying to grapple with Middle Eastern and Islamic art fail.
With works by 75 different artists, "Word into Art" is the anchor for "Middle East Now," a full-blown season of cultural events unfolding in London over the next few months. The program, like the exhibition, is sponsored by Dubai Holding, a government-owned company that was established two years ago to consolidate Dubai's sprawling infrastructure and investment projects.
What makes "Word into Art" impressive is probably first and foremost the fact that it is Dubai that is coughing up the cash to put forward a progressive image of the entire region through cultural initiatives. Second is the fact that this is a daring show, one that does not shy away from politics, dissent, occasionally scathing critiques of state policies, religion, sexuality, even from the no-go zone that is Israel (breaking that unwritten rule against cultural traffic with the Jewish state).
Third is the fact that curator Venetia Porter has allowed the show's theme to emanate from the artworks themselves.
Fourth is the fact that it shows a serious commitment on the part of the British Museum for not only showcasing Middle Eastern art but for collecting it as well.
After an informative, resourceful and concise introduction, the catalogue breaks down into four sections: "A Sacred Script," "Literature and Art," "Deconstructing the Word" and "Identity, History and Politics."
By honing in on the use of text and script, "Word into Art" paradoxically widens out to consider issues of modernity, abstraction and representation, while at the same time maintaining close ties to poetry, literature and the overall importance of words, whether as texts or verbal forms of communication.
Consider all this compared to "Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking," the
recent attempt by the Mu-
seum of Modern Art in New York to tackle similar terrain that was, by almost all accounts, a train wreck (so much so that a number of artists, who should have been happy to have their work displayed in one of the world's most influential museums, publicly slammed the exhibition and dissociated themselves from it).
As such, "Word into Art" is a welcome antidote to the MoMA debacle. It takes its subject seriously. It gives the works room to breath. At the end of the day, it may be a brilliant PR coup, but with a catalogue full of thoughtful notes, excerpts from correspondences with the artists and patient translations of all the texts they used in their art, it is an invaluable resource for Arabic and non-Arabic speakers alike, and one which will travel well.