I AM: A peace-building exhibition

 Hanaa Malallah, I Have Learnt Something You Did Not Know, 2015, black and red Ink on paper, 60 x 100 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Hanaa Malallah, I Have Learnt Something You Did Not Know, 2015, black and red Ink on paper, 60 x 100 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Where the dove, a formally Christian symbol, has become a universally accepted image of peace, Hanaa Malallah has reclaimed the hoopoe, a bird that appears in many Islamic religious texts, as a metaphor for the struggle to survive.

Malallah reluctantly left her homeland of Iraq after decades of war threatened her survival and is now based in London. Her 2015 work - I Have Learnt Something You Did Not Know – is one of 31 pieces on show in the St Martin In The Fields church in London’s Trafalgar Square in an exhibition aimed at peacebuilding by connecting east and west.

It is an ambitious goal but certainly a commendable one and whilst the works vary in quality, they all attempt to reveal the complexities of Middle Eastern women, who, like any other humans on this planet is much more than the stereotyped box she is so often forced into.

Malallah’s work is one of the strongest on show. It is a moving piece with the bird sketched in precise ornithological detail surrounded by patches and splattering trails of red ink. In some places, the ink forms the shape of roses but across the artwork the flowers are smudged and blurred so that they appear to be blood stains weighing down the page from which the bird is straining to escape. In this context, the work’s poetic title is more than a statement, it is almost a warning and a reference to the unspoken horrors of conflict that live on in a survivor’s heart and memory.

War is only one of the subjects raised across the several works, which hang among the bricked archways of the ancient church’s crypt and out into the corridors. The artists address womanhood from a plethora of angles. One – Ghada Khunji (Bahrain) – paints a version of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with a female at the centre and another – Faten Gaddes (Tunisia) – depicts a transgender woman posing in a domestic setting.

 Maitha Demithan. Mother, 2017. Scanography. 100 x 80 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Maitha Demithan. Mother, 2017. Scanography. 100 x 80 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Many women broach the subject of domesticity and motherhood. Jordanian Hilda Hiary’s Pregnant Woman presents the mother as a strong warrior and with multiple layers and Maitha Demithan (UAE) uses her scanner to show herself holding her two sons. Demithan is one of many of the artists who produced a newly commissioned work for this show. She is one of the UAE's most promising emerging artists and the way she approaches portraiture is poetic.

 Rania Matar, (L) Jacqueline and Juliette, Beirut, Lebanon and (R) Wafa’a and Samira, Bourj El Barajneh Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon. From Unspoken Conversations, 2016. Archival pigment prints mounted on DiBond. 60.9 x 50cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Rania Matar, (L) Jacqueline and Juliette, Beirut, Lebanon and (R) Wafa’a and Samira, Bourj El Barajneh Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon. From Unspoken Conversations, 2016. Archival pigment prints mounted on DiBond. 60.9 x 50cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Rania Matar (Lebanon) presents two images from her Unspoken Conversations series. Each photo shows a mother and daughter in the same frame to capture the universal idiosyncrasies of that particular filial relationship. Their clothes are the most obvious first reference point for most viewers – one pair wear loose dresses and headscarves and the other pair are clad in tank-tops with the daughter in cut-off denim shorts. But, despite their obvious differences, their humanity is apparent as are the shared experiences.

The exhibition is organised by Caravan, an international NGO that originated in Cairo, Egypt in 2009, with the objective of building bridges through the arts between the creeds and cultures of the Middle East and the West. 

Titled I AM, a phrase that expresses the tension between individual and shared experiences, the exhibition is curated by Janet Rady, a specialist in contemporary art from the Middle East. Rady says the exhibition focuses on metaphor to move away from stereotypes.

“This exhibition is not about faith; we deliberately wanted to mix the faiths of the artists and instead put the focus on their individual identities and the positive aspects of diversity. This is particularly important when showing art outside of the region.”

  • I AM premiered at the National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, Jordan from May 3 – June 14, 2017 under the patronage of Queen Rania Al Abdullah. It ran at London's St. Martin in the Fields from July 2 – August 20, 2017. It will tour North America from autumn 2017 until the end of 2018 beginnign in Washington, D.C. at the Katzen Arts Center of American University from September 5-October 22, 2017.