Juxtaposing text and image on the page, artist books are an important part of the work of many Arab artists working today. Literature and the Art of the Book have a long history in the Middle East. Beginning with the oral traditions of pre-Islamic poetry, the significance of the verbal message was soon given visual form, seen as early as the first century after the Hijira in lavishly calligraphed and illuminated medieval manuscripts. Even after the traditional arts of manuscript making were lost in the Western world, with the rising dominance of the printing press, the skills of the calligraphers, illuminators and artists were still employed widely in the Islamic world long into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The medium of the book and the mode of viewing that it engenders is quite unlike that of a larger scale easel painting. Its smaller format, and its individual pages which must be handled each time a different text or image is viewed encourage a much more personal interaction with the piece. Because of its scale only one reader can properly view it at one time. Rather than the experience being shared, instead it completely absorbs the single viewer.
The five artist books presented in this sale are either unique, executed in gouache or watercolour, or are low edition lithographs, aquatints and digital prints. The illustrations accompany texts mainly by important Arab poets, historical and contemporary. Illustrations may stand alongside text, as in the case of Abdullah Benanteur's manuscript of Jaykuur Wa Ashjaar Al-Madina (Jaykur and the city's trees) by Al-Sayyab, where watercolour and monoprint images accompany each line; or else they can envelop the text, as in Chafic Abboud's lithographs of Adonis's Maraya Li Zaman Al-Inhihiyar. Working in pen and watercolour on handmade folding Japanese paper, the work of Lebanese artist and writer Etel Adnan is unusual in that the illuminated text itself becomes the image.
Poems can provide a strong inspiration for artists, especially when their content builds on prevalent themes in that artist's repertoire. Images of birds or bird-like forms have long featured in the work of Dia Azzawi. In his Book of the Bird an Arabic translation of Claude Aveline's Portrait de l'Ouiseau -Qui-N'Existe-Pas (Portrait of the Non-Existent Bird) provides a springboard for endless variations on the theme of phantasmagorical birds.
The books are often true collaborations between the artist and the poet. In Assadour's version of Issa Makhlouf's Igarements (Uzlat Al-Dhahab/Mislayings), a French translation of the Arabic text is enriched by hand written original poems in Arabic by the author. The choice of text in this book, and that in Azzawi's Book of the Bird, where a French poem is translated into Arabic, demonstrates the truly international nature of Arab artists working around the world today.
Claude Lemand (ed), Dia Azzawi, Recent Works, Paris, 2005
Paris, Claude Lemand, Mille Portraits de l'Oiseau, 2005