Publisher: The British Museum
Canvas rating: *****
The British Museum’s recent publication, Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa, is a 256-page tome for the coffee table, complete with Huda Lutfi’s 2008 Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses on the cover, with its playfully collaged Umm Kulthums. Helmed mainly by Venetia Porter, the museum’s curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle Eastern art, a post she has occupied since 1989, the book is a studied and comprehensive exploration of the museum’s collection of works from the MENA region over the past few decades.
What’s most admirable about the publication is its depth and breadth. An introductory essay by Charles Tripp immediately interrogates; entitled Art and power, it puts into conversation works by Alfred Tarazi from Beirut and the legendary Chant Avedissian. Later, while probing formal and more academic aspects of the collection, such as Abstraction, geometry and script, and Figure and figuration, the meatier parts are certainly the chapters devoted to Faith, to what, in a feminist turn, is called A female gaze (perhaps the result of having a highly knowledgeable female curator, writer, and editor leading both the book and the collection), which features luminaries such as Shirin Neshat and her 1995 Women of Allah series and Hayv Kahraman’s chilling Honor Killing (2006).
Then there is the thick section entitled Political struggle, revolution, and war, which covers Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria individually in detail, with artists ranging from Sliman Mansour to Ayman Baalbaki.
The book concludes with the chapter Where is home? a timely and pertinent question. Porter has produced a book with a sense of awareness that this is a contested museum, surrounded by heated postcolonial debates and controversies over its foreign acquisitions and possessions. Therefore, this is a publication that views artworks, their history, and especially their ownership and geographies within the most pressing contemporary topics of our global moment: gender, positionality, historical reckoning, religion etc – everything that both divides us and brings us together, that we spend whole lifetimes trying to unpack, whether that’s through art or not.