The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Contemporary Ceramic Art From the Middle East” that references more than 5,000 years of art history through the works of contemporary artists from the Eastern Mediterranean region and North Africa, illustrating their visions of issues of political and social conflict in a region rife with transformations. It also offers new forms of dialogue with different artistic traditions and the artists’ responses to the challenges of modernization and contemporary society.
The exhibition reflects the richness and creativity of current ceramic art in the Arab region, according to the museum’s website.
The Middle East is considered a cradle of ceramic art in the world, as the earliest evidence of firing clay in kilns to produce pottery appeared in Mesopotamia. Over the course of history, clusters producing pottery were concentrated in Turkey and Iran. Egypt was also distinguished by the production of Badarian pottery, which dates back more than 4,000 years. The Naqada area in Qena Governorate, in southern Egypt, is still one of the most substantial regions for pottery production in the world.
The London exhibition is the culmination of efforts by Mariam Rosser-Owen, director of the Middle East Department at the museum, who came up with the idea for the exhibition. The preparation of the exhibition took about four years, during which Rosser-Owen conducted field studies in several countries in the region to select the pieces that fit with the idea of the exhibition.
The exhibition brings together 19 contemporary artists from 10 countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as well as Turkey and Iran.
The pieces on display include references to the development of ceramic art from the traditional shapes of pots, bowls and pottery plates, and how these forms move to new horizons suitable for the modern era and the expansion of visual arts concepts, with the emergence of composite artworks and the so-called “processing arts” in the void.
Diverse Generations and Experiences
There are different generations, directions, formats and artistic methods in the exhibits. The artists, who are of different ages, present their works within three main themes: tradition, identity, and politics. Works under the tradition, or heritage, theme interact with the forms, designs and techniques of historical pottery, exploring the artist’s personal relationship with his homeland, and finally evoking traditional methods to approach many contemporary social issues.
Works From the Exhibition
For example, “Pregnant Spiral,” a work by the Turkish artist Elif Uras, comments on the role of women in society and the conflict between modernity and tradition, by representing the female body in a vase with the symbolism of a pregnant woman. The cobalt blue inscriptions on the white surface of the vase appear to be related to the pottery of the sixteenth century in Istanbul and the pottery of Tabriz in Iran.
The Tunisian artist Khaled Ben Slimane is featured in works from his series “Architecture of Shadow, Orations of Light.” These sculptural pieces highlight the forms of a minaret of a mosque and the tower of a church, reflecting respect for the other and coexistence in peace. Works in this series combine sculpting in space and portrayal through painted surfaces in abstractions and inscriptions.
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From Egypt, Mohamed Mandour is one of the most prominent contemporary ceramic artists. His works in the exhibition focus on presenting assortments of painted dishes, which are coated with white oxide and inscribed with black oxide, and they combine heritage and contemporary art in distinct aesthetic formations.
“I was attracted to works to highlight the power of form in ancient Egyptian pots, and considered it a peak in modernity,” Mandour said, explaining his happiness at participating in the exhibition and the expansion of the Egyptian and Arab participation in international exhibitions. (See the related articles “Arab Artists at the World’s Premier Art Event: ‘Art in an Era of Lies’” and “In New York, More Eyes Turn to Middle Eastern Art.”)
Works by another Egyptian artist, Diaa El-Din Daoud, focus on linking the heritage of lustreware pottery with contemporary oil paintings. He also exhibits a ceramic painting inspired by the nature of Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt.
“The exhibition is an index that demonstrates the orientation of the high level of this art in the Middle East.”Diaa El- Din Daoud
An Egyptian artist and a professor of ceramics
“The exhibition is an index that demonstrates the orientation of the high level of this art in the Middle East,” said Daoud, who works as a professor of ceramics at the College of Applied Arts of Helwan University, in Cairo.
The artist Ibrahim Said reworked the windows of the vessels in the Islamic Museum in Cairo by highlighting a double formation of the circular shape in a movable mold.
Nathalie Khayat, from Lebanon, is represented by a vase from her series “The Eye Above the Well.” It is a half-vase that has been reshaped to eliminate the idea of symmetry.
Vases by another artist from Lebanon, Raed Yassin, are decorated with scenes of battles from the Lebanese Civil War, which the artist lived through as a child.
Halim Al Karim, an Iraqi artist, also focused on the suffering endured during the years of war. His open porcelain notebooks in a series titled “Soul Archive” document his memories and experience of the war in his homeland.
The exhibition will continue until October 17, 2021.
Salah Bisar is an Egyptian artist and critic, and the author of several books about art.