Saturday, September 03, 2005

West by East

ka‘aba

I think democracy exists in the West because the West has had the novel. And despotism reigns in the East because the East has had poetry. The novel develops the democratic imagination because it offers various paths, various destinies, while poetry is despotic.

—Sorour Kasmai

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Nisaburi Virgin with Child
Virgin with Child (1595), from
Nisaburi’s Stories of the Prophets
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Some have harrumphed that there are a paucity of exhibitions of Middle Eastern artists in the West: this stems, in part, from a variety of reasons that sound suspiciously like Orientalist arguments, but really aren’t. I've long lamented that curators aren’t drawn from broader stock, but it’s well-neigh essential when we’re looking at the Islamic world, where the fine arts are less Western and comingled with religious tradition. Fortunately, the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona has enlisted Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb to curate West By East, an exhibition that examines an “Occidentalist” view of the world, a notion that is gaining strength over the past year (witness this exquisite examination of Istanbul, filtered through Western eyes by future Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk). Meddeb, a multidisciplinary character who demonstrates a broad knowledge of the history and culture of both East and West, knows literature and art history (it shows). The Times has a piece on the show in today’s paper; after closing on 25 September, WBE will be decamping for Valencia.

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