Capsule Reviews

Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art Before you stammer in disbelief, yes, Iraqi artists are making contemporary art. And, yes, it's good. This show educates and enthralls through form, disabusing you of any misconceptions you might have had about Iraqi culture while indulging your eyes and emotions. The book art showing in Dafatir, an Arabic word that translates as "notebooks," was made by 17 Iraqi artists, all of whom were born in the 20th century. Though the pieces in the show are modern, they emerge from a tradition of "illuminated and manually inscribed books" that goes back to the 13th century. The show begins with a facsimile of Maqammat al-Hariri, an illustrated medieval book that accounts the everyday events of the head of the police in 13th-century Basra. While this text is replete with human and animal figures, the rest of the pieces in the show are largely abstract. Notably it is an abstraction born not of the traditions of Islamic art but of modern art made in the 20th century. The artists have combined the local tradition of inscribed books with outside artistic influences, such as the vibrant color palette of Color Field painting, Surrealist figures of Picasso and the graphic tradition of Pop Art and collage. What this tells us, along with the fact that all of the artists are university-trained, is that before the American invasion, Iraq was far from a desert wasteland of underdeveloped barbarianism. This work is evidence of a highly refined and educated middle-class art culture. It is equally proof that the Iraqis are an open and cosmopolitan people. The work ranges in scale and method, with some standing on edge, interconnected pages unfolded like accordion appendages, some sitting face-open with burnt paper and wooden pages, some with pages made from collaged maps, some that are large-scale and monochromatic and others that are small and brightly colored. Though some of the pieces are more political than others, none is propagandistic in nature. Dia al Azzawi's "Book of Shame: Destruction of Iraqi Museum" is an open book with two pages, one holding a three-dimensional fragment of a building (presumably from the actual museum), and the other, a set of scorched pages from Maqammat al-Hariri, the 13th-century text with images of the police department in Basra. Kareem Rissan's large-scale "Graffiti of Occupied City" reads like a book of walls, with pages serving as architectural backdrops for slogans strewn in Arabic and in English. The lugubrious figure of a man using his fingers to pry open a keyhole in Moaid Nana's "The Big Brother" is a colorful testament to the new pall of paranoia that has rested over the country. The difficult thing about these objects is that they invite touch. You'll feel compelled to rub your fingers across the surfaces of the pages and turn them individually with your own hand. The two video monitors showing the pages of the books are helpful, but you'll be more satisfied having the young art student behind the desk don her white gloves and turn the pages for you. This is an excellent show that is worth the trek to Denton. Through November 22 at The University of North Texas Art Gallery, in the Art Building, Mulberry at Welch streets, 940-565-4005. (Charissa N. Terranova)


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