Friday, 27 May 2011

a field student of well red rooms

A Well Read Room?
The Waltham Forest Arts Club exhibition, The Long Conversation: Poetry and Painting, is on show in The Red Room, at Ye Olde Rose & Crown. 17 arts club members have contributed a variety of works in response to the titular theme. Painting, drawing, writing, artist books, libraries, photography, digital media, lino cut and screen printing, recorded/spoken poetry, calligraphy and collage are to be found in metaphorical conversation.
The club has welcomed a guest artist, Majed Shala, who is visiting from Gaza. Majed, in association with Aser El Saqqa of Arts Canteen, has kindly contributed 2 works to the group show and is also presenting a more extensive solo exhibition at the Arab British Centre in Gough Square. The centre is next door to the former home of, and museum to, Samuel Johnson, eminent man of words; a lexicographer and poet who believed a good poem relies on contemporary language and should incorporate new and unique imagery.
Returning to Walthamstow and The Red Room, we could ask, as a contemporary gathering, how new and unique is the collective interpretation of Simonide’s teasing conundrum:
‘Painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks’
The exhibition was open to all arts club members and no selection process was imposed but for a small exhibition fee and a submission deadline. In this respect there is some value of an open democratic process in the meeting of the works on show. However, how representative is the show of its community and what artistic serendipity is to be found in an exhibition which seeks to speak of silence?
Serendipity is a word of Arabic origin. In English it is attributed to Horace Walpole. In 1754, Walpole took an old Arabic pronoun, Serendip, from a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. He took and developed the word to denote the coincidence of chance and good luck, as the heroes of the tale were always making fortunate discoveries. The word may have been further etymologised by Dr Johnson and Walpole’s ‘coinage’ (enriched by a resemblance to the etymologically unrelated Latin word, ‘serenity’) may indicate some of the nature of the artistic exploration and discoveries to be made when visiting the show.
Majed Shala’s 2 painted collages, ‘Me’ and ‘Hope’, are softly spoken images meeting visitors as they enter The Red Room amidst the murmur of its situation. While the meeting might be understood by some as a welcome, others might be unsure of, even estranged by the language or interplay of the images' layers of languages - painted, printed and pasted as they are.
Inscribed shapes, perhaps figures, reside in ambiguous landscapes or settings of marcasite and lazurite hues. Around the figures, scratched and scraped surfaces emanate from the grounds as a subtle play of elemental striae. Being drawn into the intricacies of colour and surface exposes the structure of the figures as layers of fragments; torn paper and corrugated card painted over and bonded in a flinty coalescence. Projecting from the facets of the figures are inky and incomplete pieces of calligraphic curlicues intersecting in a polyphonic melee. What do I know of the story or lyric of the illuminated inscriptions? What am I witness to? What can I read? I wondered if the characters were present as a consequence of disintegration; a lament perhaps, or more hopefully a re-articulation and reclamation of a language and voice.
I've recently read an essay by Jean Fisher (JF), Diaspora, Trauma and the Poetics of Remembrance, which I've drawn on to help interpret Shala's contribution.
Contemporary history is embroiled in cultural dispossession and the trauma of cultural mutilation. The fragments or legacy of this mutilation may atrophy, out of which lamentation and recrimination can come to dominate representation. What then, ‘is irreducible to representation, unavailable except as a void of meaning to which the only ethical response is silence’? (JF) Who and what am I to countenance such silence?
In fellow exhibitor Valerie Groves’, Random Library, there is a book, Voices of Conscience, Poetry from Oppression (Iron Press). In it, a poet, Adonis, (Syrian poet, Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) speaks of ‘a mirror for the twentieth century’ in which is reflected,

A rock
Breathing with the lungs of a lunatic


What if this melancholic poem (and others) was the content of the cut up script inscribed on the figures in Me and Hope? Hope may be embodied by the acting out of melancholy ‘transformed through remembrance and reflection towards liberation of the self.’ (JF) Some historians and cultural theorists regard memory as the womb of history and accordingly, motherhood is an important metaphor in Majed’s solo exhibition. If, as Stuart Hall says, ‘Identity is not in the past to be found, but in the future to be constructed’ there is an opportunity to see Me and Hope as part of a constructive process of liberation. It is important to point out that while serendipity is an appealing concept in terms of a fairy tale, how Majed and his paintings have come to be in London owes a great deal not so much to luck but to his determination and deliberation, and that of his friends and colleagues. Saying this though I am mindful of will and its conscience.

While quietly minding the show, I asked myself what each art work could make of another and what conversations could be had between the authors of each work. Which conversations would be forward looking and if such hope would be a consequence of serendipity.

Quotations from:

Jean Fisher, Diaspora, Trauma and the Poetics of Remembrance, in Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, edited by Kobena Mercer. Iniva - Annotating Art’s Histories. 2008.


Adonis, A Mirror For The Twentieth Century, (from, The Desert) in Voices of Conscience, Poetry from Oppression, Iron Press.
Translated by Abdullah al-Udhari, whose translation is available to read here

Another translation is available to read on-line here. I prefer the translation in Voices of Conscience.
Waltham Forest Arts Club, The Long Conversation: Poetry and Painting, continues at Ye Olde Rose & Crown until May 28th.
Majed Shala, Breathing the Air, continues at The Arab British Centre, until May 27th.

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