CO-CREATE/CURATE // Alexander Mouton

15 Nov 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

In 2008, Denison University hosted the traveling exhibition Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art, curated by Dr. Nada Shabout, a native of Iraq and Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of North Texas.  Isis Nusair, a colleague of mine at Denison at the time and a friend of Nada's had arranged for the exhibition and because of my interest in books invited me to speak as part of the related programming.  Having recently read Dard Hunter's Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, I was aware that what is now Bagdad had been the epicenter of paper-making in the 8th Century and was the home of the first paper mill (papermaking later spread to Damascus, Egypt, and Morocco and eventually to Europe, albeit 500 years later).  Needless to say, I was excited to be part of the programming and especially excited to see the work of the sixteen artists whose books made up the exhibition.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The books were unbelievably contemporary in terms of their aesthetics and simultaneously were frequently intensely powerful in their radical content, commenting on the Iraq war and the subsequent fallout.  So many different formats were represented, from rough painted boards to sumptuous gold lettered paper. Not all of the books were as innovative as the ones I remember most. However, the quantity of work that was superlative was incredibly high and the quality far from the decorative Arabic arts that saturates much of Western consciousnesses.

In speaking with Isis of my enthusiasm and awe for the work, she mentioned that she was a close acquaintance of Rafa al-Nasir, one of the more interesting artists represented in Dafatir, and she asked me if I would be interested in visiting him in Jordan and speaking with some of the other artists represented. I jumped at the occasion and the following summer I landed in the Middle East to visit Palestine and to meet with Iraqi artists, many of whom were living in Jordan.

What I discovered was that a single individual (Dia al-Azzawi) had elicited many of these book works from the Iraqi artists he knew or had even mentored.  This raises the question for me, can curation be considered a form of authorship?  If one person prompts original creations from ten bookmakers addressing a political system, a moment in time, or an aspect of the book itself, mightn't that person not in a sense be their author?  I don't want to stretch things particularly thin, but certainly there is something going on here that goes beyond curation—rather, the curator brings the work out of the artists and into being.  Not to over-dramatize, but don't each of you who teach have examples of work that you consider to be robust and important from students that would never have made the work without your instigation and critical support?

Where am I going here? During this trip, I visited Damascus for a week and it reminded me of Berkeley California in the 1960's with people selling books on the streets and kids serving tea in the parks (I also spoke to people who explained how everything was not as it seemed and that the price of dissent was prison). Now Damascus and much of Syria has been destroyed. The change came suddenly. I never would have expected that the places I walked and the people whose homes I visited then would be transformed only a couple of years later. And we have just invited a force for change into the white house that has as much potential to destroy as any we've elected into office in our history.

In Bridget's September Post, What Is Critical Now?, she quotes Booklyn: “In the 21st Century, where taking an activist stance involves preventing the possible destruction of the entire planet’s ecosystem, discussing the use of art and bookmaking as a tool for human and ecological rights and actions becomes urgent and unavoidable.”

Could we have possibly foreseen a Donald Trump Presidency from the optimism of Arab Spring 8 years ago?  Now more than perhaps ever before do Booklyn's words ring true.  So my question is, can we from our positions facilitate a national production of books, an outpouring that speaks to the political agency that we must take in this time?  Can we come together to co-create/curate a traveling exhibition of books and book initiatives with the guidance of the excellent criteria Bridget has posted which together speaks to this political moment and to the voices this regime does not represent?


  • 22 Feb 2017 9:18 PM | Usra Ahmed
    You bring up many interesting points in this article. For one thing, I am glad to see Arab representation in the book arts. I was not aware of exhibitions like this and knowing that artist's books play such an important role for advocacy in the Arab world makes them even more meaningful for me. This article really made me think about how art is used in times of hardship throughout history (especially in the light of a Trump presidency) and how this is not an exclusively Western phenomena. In America we are often biased in that we believe Western world has developed most of what we use in todays society, so it was nice to be reminded that paper was invented in the Middle East. I also enjoyed looking at the works of those that you linked and would like to see more of the art that was shown in that exhibit.
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