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Poetry and exile at the British Museum

I wear you and take off the days.
There is no history before your hands.
There is no history after your hands.
They call you the alternative.
I do not have language, between myself and my name is a country.
And I want to incarnate the trees.
I bear witness that I have covered my name with silence,
Near the sea…

Many artists have been inspired to paint after reading Mahmoud Darwish’s poems. Three of Mona Saudi’s reflections on his words, on display at the British Museum and entitled ‘Homage to Mahmoud Darwish’, depict rectangular, intertwined figures balanced on top of blocks, surrounded by lines of his poetry. The drawings were intended to be a gift for the poet’s birthday in 2009 but he died in August 2008.

Mona Saudi herself is a leading sculptor from Jordan. Her drawings are not only reminiscent of the stone structures she creates, but are similar to posters she designed as part of the Plastic Arts section of the PLO; reproductions are also displayed as part of ‘poetry and exile’ at the British Museum.

Mona Saudi; Homage to Mahmoud Darwish, 1979As for the subject of Saudi’s works of art, Darwish, he was displaced along with his family from the village Al-Birweh in Galilee to make way for the state of Israel in 1948. As a political activist the Israeli authorities regularly detained him until he left. In his own words the late poet said of his exile:

“When you are in your home, you don’t glorify your home: you don’t feel its importance and its intimacy, but when deprived of home, it turns into a need and a lust, as it is the ultimate aim of the whole journey.”

What better place to start, then, for an exhibition on exile than the revered Palestinian poet. Of his poems displayed, The Poem of the Land and That’s Her Image and This is the Lover’s Suicide (written above), tell of the poet’s deep connection to his land. Though the poems are overshadowed by Saudi’s large pictures, they are far more powerful than the images.

Mona Saudi’s works are part of a wider exhibition at the British Museum, ‘poetry and exile’, which is a collection of the work and personal experiences of five artists from the Middle East and North Africa who consider the effects of leaving and living outside a country where you are born. The contemporary art display makes an interesting contrast to the ancient archaeological material from the Middle East that surrounds it.

Mireille Kassar; Homage to Giotto, Conference of the Birds, 2013     Mireille Kassar; Homage to Giotto, Conference of the Birds, 2013

Mireille Kassar’s images offer a subtle approach to ideas of exile. Created with ink on handmade paper one image depicts a human body tied by his hands to the top left corner of the paper. The middle of his body, though, appears to have been rubbed out, or is fading, perhaps a reflection of gaps in the artists’ memory of her homeland. Kassar was born in Lebanon but left to live in France. Her family fled Iraq doing the Ottoman massacres of minorities in the late nineteenth century.

A closer look reveals that Kassar’s drawings are entitled ‘Homage to Giotto’ and evoke the famous Italian Renaissance painter, Giotto, and his portrayal of the suffering of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata – that is the marks that replicate the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ.

Opposite Kassar’s work, inside a display cabinet in the centre of the room lies a collection of photographs that have been hand-stitched onto synthetic silk with metal wire. One is of a female refugee at a camp for Kurds, another is a black and white image of figures trekking across a mountain with the words ‘farewell Kosovo’ written across it. Another is of Cambodian refugees returning near Phnom Penh in 1967. A particularly disturbing image shows a boat full of refugees, looking into the camera. Written across the image is: ‘peddling for days to escape Liberia.’

The book Refugee, the images it depicts of crossing borders or leaving a homeland behind, is the product of Turkish artist Ipek Duben, and brings attention to worldwide, forced migration. The recent refugee crisis from the Middle East alone is said to be worse than that of the Second World War. With such widespread displacement continually taking place across the world, ‘poetry and exile’ draws much needed attention to the issue of forced migration and forces the viewer to consider the emotional impact of living in exile.

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