Poetry and Exile

British Museum

Contemporary art from the Middle East

‘When you are in your home, you don’t glorify home: you don’t feel its importance and its intimacy, but when deprived of home, it turns into a need and a lust, as if it is the ultimate aim of the whole journey.’ Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008)
This display, drawn from recent acquisitions of works by artists of the Middle East and North Africa at the British Museum, explores the effects of exile through the eyes of five artists. There are many forms of exile expressed here. For Canan Tolon, it is exile from her home in Istanbul as a result of contracting polio as a child, the story of which she evokes in 'Futur Imparfait'. Ipek Duben’s book 'Refugee', with its delicate gauze pages, belies the terror and helplessness of people forced to flee their homeland. Mona Saudi and Abdallah Benanteur combine the powerful verses of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish with drawings, while Mireille Kassar conjures a story of exile from her own family history and the Persian poem 'The Conference of the Birds'.
Canan Tolon
Tolon was born in Istanbul in 1955. She studied architecture and design at Middlesex University and at the University of California, Berkeley, before she pursued a career in visual arts. One of Turkey’s most celebrated artists, she is known for dramatic architectural compositions and installations, very different in style from ‘Futur Imparfait’ pictured here.

Tolon contracted polio shortly after her birth and spent her childhood in a hospital for disabled children in France, totally unaware of the world beyond its walls. The effects of polio and her ‘exile’ in hospital had a profound influence on Tolon’s life and artistic practice. 'Futur Imparfait' is her memoir of that period and consists of a series of 33 ink washes and drawings, some interspersed with texts, inspired by her childhood experiences.

‘In this work,’ she writes, ‘there are children, there are men, and there are women learning to live... It is not the misfortune of others which fascinates and astonishes but the extraordinary will of a child to live. It is a force inherent in all of us that persists, that makes us want to explore the impossible... that makes us want to dream.’ The ‘exile’ she evokes is also about being exiled from her own body. In her words ‘not belonging to it – wearing clothes that don't seem to be your own, that seem borrowed.’

Ipek Duben
Duben’s training in political science and sociology informs all of her work. Since 1994 she has largely been making artists’ books focused on identity, domestic violence and migration. These works are exhibited variously as light, sound and video installations, as well as in the form of actual books.

'Refugee' is about worldwide forced migration during the 20th century. Ten delicate images with childlike embroidery depict the moment of crossing a border, or the process of leaving a home and homeland behind.

Mona Saudi
Saudi was born in Amman in 1945. She is a leading sculptor who often uses stone native to Lebanon or Jordan in her work. Her drawings are strongly linked to her sculptures, and this series is inspired by the poems of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. It was intended to be a gift for his birthday in March 2009. 

Lines from Darwish’s poem, 'The Poem of the Land', are inscribed in Saudi's own hand around the drawing.

Abdallah Benanteur
Benanteur was born in Algeria and currently lives in France. He is a painter and engraver and has created artists’ books from the poetry of numerous writers, including Mahmoud Darwish.

The book is inscribed with and illustrates the poem 'Birds Die in Galilee' by Mahmoud Darwish.

...Flocks of birds fell like paper into the wells
And when I lifted the blue wings I saw a growing grave.
I am the man on whose skin Chains have carved a country.

(Translated by Rana Kabbani)

Mireille Kassar 
Kassar was born in Lebanon in 1963 and lives and works in Paris. Her family is from Mosul and Mardin (present-day Iraq and Turkey) but fled during the Ottoman massacres of minorities in the late 19th to early 20th century. She is a graduate of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and the Sorbonne, and is part of the Sorbonne Research Centre in plastic arts. In her practice she has developed a rich and varied body of work that includes paintings, drawings, sound, films, writings and installations.

In describing this work, Kassar has said that what appealed to her was the universal message of the Persian poem 'The Conference of the Birds': the idea of quest, transformation and death. Exile is also at the heart of her project on the birds, because for them ‘it was the right time to leave, in the search for something else.’ This echoes her own situation, having left Lebanon to live in France. By entitling these drawings 'Homage to Giotto', she is in addition evoking paintings of the suffering of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata by the Italian artist Giotto (died 1337).

Credits: Story

This exhibit is based on a previous exhibition at the British Museum, curated by Venetia Porter, which ran from 1 October–1 March 2015.

The acquisition of these works has been supported by CaMMEA, a fund set up to support acquisitions of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art. Canan Tolon’s 'Futur Imparfait' is additionally supported by SAHA.

All artworks have been reproduced by kind permission of the artists.

Credits: All media
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