In March 2007, a bomb killed 30 and wounded 100 on Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street. This carnage is dwarfed by the devastation in Iraq, Syria and other countries in the region since the 2003 U.S. invasion. But Mutanabbi was a place of potent cultural symbolism: a street of booksellers, named after a 10th-century Iraqi poet.
The attack on readers and writers recalled such infamies as the Nazi book burnings that preceded World War II and the destruction of Ptolemaic Alexandria’s grand library. And it spurred San Francisco poet and bookseller Beau Beausoleil to call on writers, printmakers and art-book makers for an aesthetic response. Their work is showcased in “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC 2016,” an area-wide festival that includes exhibitions, readings and more.
The number of books and prints made in response to the bombing is now so large that the array must be spread across multiple venues, including the McLean Project for the Arts (MPA), Brentwood Arts Exchange and the library and galleries at George Mason University. (GMU professor Helen Frederick is the festival’s D.C. coordinator.) In addition, several local galleries have mounted shows of new work inspired by the bombing and classical Arabic poetry.
Most of the pieces incorporate text or were sparked by verse. The show at the District’s Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, “Night and the Desert Know Me,” takes its title from a famed line of Al-Mutanabbi’s, and it matches artworks to poems. “Embracing the Power of Artistic Practice,” at Fairfax’s Olly Olly Gallery, contains work keyed to the poet’s warning: “When you see the lion bare his teeth, don’t think he merely means to smile.”
Not all of the words are from one author, or even from one region. There’s antiwar verse by Britain’s Wilfred Owen (killed in action in World War I) and excerpts from the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” first inscribed on clay tablets some four millennia ago. Several pieces feature butterflies, fluttering from a phrase by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” perhaps the best-known line from Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” appears in several prints and handmade, single-edition books.
Books can burn, of course, as many participants demonstrate by singeing the edges of pages or scorching holes through them. That’s not the only form of violence on display. Paper is slashed, rumpled or wadded, and words take 3-D form. Arabic calligraphy is carved with a blade and the cut-out pieces piled next to the absent text. Miriam Schaer chopped and charred a book’s pages into a series of hands, on display at GMU.
Many of the books fold out so stories can unfold, or texts can stream. At MPA, Art Hazelwood offers a fanciful account of the explosion, in which books and readers are blasted, apparently unhurt, into orbit around Earth. At GMU, Dan Wood’s scroll superimposes Arabic script over this newspaper’s account of the bombing. Margaret Bellafiore, also at GMU, layers healing photos and gauze inside an old metal first-aid kit.
Nasir Thamir’s handsome sculptural collage, at Hisaoka, combines lines from “Gilgamesh” with surfaces of metallic green and gold. Zofie Lang does something similar at Olly Olly, but her elegantly ominous story cabinets encapsulate grim fairy tales and the equally bleak “Lord of the Flies.” The narrative is more personal in local artist Mojdeh Rezaeipour’s mixed-media works on wood, also at Olly Olly, which recall her childhood in Iran.
Sisters Nasrin and Nahid Navab, whose “Hushed Revolt” is at MPA, also are local artists who grew up in Iran. Their show includes such personal sagas as a long scroll painting in which the abstract motifs of Persian manuscripts flow into a depiction of a political demonstration and then into the technological abstraction of the bar code on Nasrin’s Virginia driver’s license. But not all of the work is autobiographical. “Behind the Walls” is a two-sided piece placed before a mirror to reveal trapped figures inside, in memory of journalists imprisoned or killed worldwide in 2015 — another form of assault on knowledge and understanding.
Simple, universal images take on political meanings in such a context. Anita Klein’s linocut print, at MPA, shows a girl using a flashlight to read under the covers in bed. She might merely be disobeying a parental lights-out order, but perhaps she lives in a place where educating girls is forbidden.
Many of the slogans in “Al- Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” are hopeful or defiant: “Put out fire with paper” or “This book survived.” In Jodi Le Bigre’s print, at Brentwood, women grind the ashes of burned books to make ink to print new ones. Ideas, like paper and ink, are renewable resources.
At multiple locations. Also scheduled are readings, lectures, films, workshops and a street fair. For more information, visit www.amsshdc2016.org.
Dates: Most shows run through March 5, but some continue through March 30.