Solidarity through literary arts: Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts on display in London, Cairo and USM

Posted on February 01, 2014 in Arts & Culture, Features
By Francis Flisiuk

A letterpress made by contributors Sara Bodman, a printer, and Nadia Chalabi, a calligrapher, whose simple yet powerful statement embodies the message of the entire exhibition.
Randy Hazelton
A letterpress made by contributors Sara Bodman, a printer, and Nadia Chalabi, a calligrapher, whose simple yet powerful statement embodies the message of the entire exhibition.
International poet Meena Alexander’s short poem “Fragment, In Praise of the Book” is contorted into a sphere at the artistic design of collaborator Jesseca Ferguson.
Randy Hazelton
International poet Meena Alexander’s short poem “Fragment, In Praise of the Book” is contorted into a sphere at the artistic design of collaborator Jesseca Ferguson.
Artist Nancy Bardos’ response to the attack in the form of a book cover spun from Uruguyan wool, entitled “We Shall Always Return.”
Randy Hazelton
Artist Nancy Bardos’ response to the attack in the form of a book cover spun from Uruguyan wool, entitled “We Shall Always Return.”

Seven years after a car bomb exploded in Iraq, killing 30 people, wounding over 100 and destroying the entire perimeter of Al-Mutanabbi street the cultural epicenter of Baghdad, a powerful art exhibition has arrived at USM entitled Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here that displays the significance of what happened on that day through visually impressive pieces of literary art.

Literary art, which can include everything from poetry and stories to calligraphy-laden broadsides (a large sheet of paper printed only on one side) was always the main focus of Al-Mutanabbi street. For centuries the street in downtown Baghdad was the bookselling center of the whole country and served as a hub for writers and literary artists to meet, exchange intellectual ideas and foster creativity. The suicide attack, for which no group has claimed responsibility, destroyed thousands of books, poetry and other literary works of art not just from Iraqi culture, but from around the world. Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here aims to bear witness to the attack and to create a sense of solidarity between creatives, writers and artists everywhere.

The exhibit includes over 130 letterpress-printed broadsides, an anthology of writing, and 260 artists’ books that make up a varied collection of personal responses to the attack on Al-Mutanabbi Street. The exhibit has made its way to USM’s Reading Room on the 7th floor of the Glickman library after being split into three parts, the other two of which are on display in London and Cairo and feature works from over 500 contributors in 20 countries.

The pieces themselves can be described as a whole as imaginative uses of typography, parchment, and book cover designs that capture the creative spirit that once flowed through the hands of Al-Mutanabbi streets artists and book merchants.

According to Beau Beausoleil, a poet, bookseller and visionary behind the exhibit, the literary art pieces represent the intellectual community of Iraq, while also bridging the cultural gap that over a decade of war has created. For Beausoleil, the project isn’t meant to be viewed as your standard art exhibition.

“It’s not a memorial art project; it’s a living breathing project,” said Beausoleil. “You cannot begin to heal unless you understand your wounds.”
Beausoleil believes these wounds are not just from the direct physical attack on a group of innocent people, but the removal of a space where people had the freedom to exchange ideas through literature and art. This project hopes to convey the importance of sharing a cultural space despite political differences.

Beausoleil found the motivation to start this project when he first heard about the Al-Mutanabbi bombings and was shocked when after ten days there was no significant cultural response from the attack. Being a fellow bookkeeper and purveyor of the arts, the attack struck a personal chord with him, and he felt that he needed to respond.

“I immediately knew as a poet that it was my cultural community that had been attacked,” said Beausoleil. “As a bookseller, if I lived in Iraq, I would be on that street.”

According to Beausoleil, an assault on culture is an assault on the world, and in some metaphorical way we share the same street as the Iraqi Al-Mutanabbi.
“This was an attack on us all,” said Beausoleil.

To bridge the cultural gap and help create a more accurate view of the Iraqi intellectual community that wasn’t tainted by political propaganda, Beausoleil initially sent out a call to poets and artists to send in work for a memorial reading at the San Francisco Public Library, and received 43 visual responses in the first month. After a growing rise in interest and a few successful collaborations the project expanded in 2010 and included 130 letterpresses that featured emotional and evocative responses to the attacks from several international artists.

The artists uses books and pages combined with text and illustrations as a platform for addressing issues,” said Beausoleil. “They often work in parts of their own life as well. It becomes a personal statement, something that will sink in very deeply.”

One work entitled “Ink and Blood” by Cathy Deforest reads on its first page, “In dedication to imagination: we are all descendants of Al-Mutanabbi.”
The pieces are all reminiscent of the diversity of content that was once available any given day on Al-Mutanabbi street. There are poems, anecdotal stories, typography and even a book cover with a broken mirror inside the frame, giving off the illusion of a victim’s reflection. Some pieces are even designed to feel like they came out of the explosion themselves with text sprawled out on half burnt and scattered pages, for a eerie level of immersion.

“I want people to struggle with the art and be uncomfortable with it in the best sense,” said Beausoleil.

According to Beausoleil, the pieces force us to think about the commonality between a small street in Baghdad and our own cultural streets, and furthermore, they can bring us to the realization that the Iraqi people have lives very similar to our own.

“Through art we can clear a space between us and the Iraqi cultural community,” said Beausoleil. “One day we will win their respect and trust, and they will step into that space, and we can work together.”

Rebecca Goodale, the program coordinator for the Kate Cheney Chappell ‘83 Center for Book Arts here at USM thinks it’s a thrill for students to be able to experience this exhibit and get a chance to meet some of the artists.

“I believe that the outpouring of the participants and their talent and thoughtfulness will impress those who attend,” said Goodale.

The exhibition is on display here at USM from now until May 1 and will also include a panel discussion on Feb. 5 with Jesseca Ferguson, Anna Wexler and Stephanie Stigliana, Boston-based artists who contributed to the project. They are part of a large network of international voices and artists who have come together with this exhibition to connect the world through literary art and help people realize that Al-Mutanabbi street doesn’t just start in Baghdad, it starts here.

“Al-Mutanabbi street isn’t just half a world away,” said Beausoleil. “If there is a bookstore, a university, or a cultural institution, that’s where it starts.”