It seems entirely appropriate that the Middle East, where the art of writing was itself invented, should be the focus of the British Museum's new exhibition. The museum has been collecting contemporary art from the region since the mid-Eighties, and this exhibition is a showcase for Middle Eastern and North African artists who've used Arabic script to illustrate different facets of their lives, traditions and concerns. It reflects their artistic heritage, allowing them to express the ways in which they have been affected by history and current events.
Unlike many blockbuster exhibitions of recent times, this one is comfortably manageable, allowing the visitor time to linger over pieces by more than 80 artists. Four interlinked spaces cover "Sacred Script", "Literature and Art", "Deconstructing the Word" and "Identity, History and Politics". For those unfamiliar with Arabic script and poetry, a useful booklet gives background information.
The exhibition reflects the diverse artistic history of the Middle East. Perhaps its most surprising aspect is the variety of images and materials used, and the inventiveness of the artists. For example, there are strips of flame-and purple-coloured paper on which are written words in Arabic, French and English using watercolours, ink and liquid gold. It belongs to no known school of calligraphy, and the artist simply names it Calligraffiti. Rachid Koraichi's 1998 L'Enfant Jazz has lengths of material illustrated - in almost cartoon-like style - using Islamic magical signs, Arabic and French poetry, representing life, loss and war through the eyes of a child. …