Monday, 9 November 2015


I reviewed two of the many exhibitions and events at the interesting Nour Festival of Arab culture  as at for the Festival Blog... The Festival (20 Oct - 8 Nov 2015) has finished, but both these shows run on to late November and are well worth visiting.

Marwan: Not Towards Home But The Horizon

Marwan Kassab-Bachi at Nour Festival of Arts
          Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Untitled, 2014

The Mosaic Rooms, a well-appointed privately funded institution, makes an excellent showcase for the work of the Syrian painter Marwan Kassab-Bachi, generally known just as Marwan.  Based in Berlin since 1957, he settled in Germany by chance but is now well integrated into German society.  In fact, fellow student Georg Baselitz is a more obvious influence on his artistic development than any Arab forebears. Marwan has children with his German wife, and became the first Arab member of the prestigious Akademie der Künste in 1994.  That said, Marwan has kept in touch with his roots in Damascus, and his paintings might be seen as applying western modernist methods to Oriental concerns.
The exhibition is spread out over three rooms: the first contains seven large oil paintings of semi-abstracted heads, the subject on which Marwan has concentrated for the past forty years; the second is dedicated to the series of etchings 99 Heads; while the third gives fascinating background material through paintings from the 60s, recent works on paper, and sketchbooks.  The large untitled examples shown are from 1977, 1987, 1992, 2001, 2019, 2010 and 2014.  The earliest has a more clearly delineated head, and established more volume than the flattened planes of the later works – though, even they retain a ghostly echo of the cubist language which sought decidedly opposite ends.  Longer-term, there is a move from the dark, dense, multi-layered build-up of paint towards a more open, fluid, brighter and thinner application, becoming gradually more lyrical as we move through to this century’s work.

Marwan Kassab-Bachi at Nour Festival of Arts
Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Untitled, 1992

The faces aren’t hard to perceive, given the brain’s pareidolian instincts, but they are abstracted enough to come in and out of focus, so that image and surface take turns at the front of our perceptions.  This to and fro imparts a restless energy, which might suggest ‘inner faces depicting mental conditions always in flux’, in Jőrn Merkert’s words.  This leads to the question: what conditions are being expressed here?  You might say that Marwan uses the face merely as a ground for abstraction, were it not that the face is such a strong subject that it almost automatically picks up an existential aspect.  The titles of Marwan’s shows have tended to play on this:  ‘Topographies of the Soul’ preceded ‘Not Towards Home, But The Horizon’.  Merkert is in no doubt: ‘Marwan is obsessed by faces because for him they are a means of expressing the dramatic depth of life.’

Marwan Kassab-Bachi Exhibition Installation Shot
Installation shot
Such readings are in tune with the fragmentary presentation of figures, and the anonymity – and hence universal applicability – of the faces.  While the show’s catalogue states that: ‘though the nature of his work calls attention to the surface, Marwan is in fact concerned in revealing what lies beneath’, I’m not persuaded that this is in the paintings themselves.  One cannot read facial expressions or emotional states into these landscapes of the mind – if that is what they are – so any ascription of feeling must come from the viewer.  I suspect the existential aspect is a projection built from statements about the work, and given additional weight by the fraught nature of German and Arab history over Marwan’s lifetime (he is 81) and the current trauma of Syria in particular. 

Marwan Kassab-Bachi Exhibition Installation Shot
Not Towards Home But The Horizon, Exhibition Installation Shot, The Mosaic Rooms 2015

The etching series 99 Heads, 1997-98, making its London debut here, pushes the heads further towards the unrecognisable than do any of the paintings.  That’s largely a function of small scale and lack of colour to guide the eye, assisted by the insertion of horizontally aligned heads, and half-seen heads looking over tables, as well as the usual frontal portrait formats.  The series references Sufism and the 99 names of God, a place always being left to represent the 100th name as a place of God’s light.  Curiously, although there are 99 etchings arranged as a grid which covers a suitably sized room, some contain more than one face.  Consequently there are in total more like 105 heads, which left me scratching mine with regard to the match with 99 names.

Marwan Kassab-Bachi at Nour Festival of Arts

                          Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Munif Al-Razzaz, 1965

The third room has early – graphically and directly expressive – figures and marionettes, drawings, sketchbooks, large watercolours not dissimilar in effect to the most fluid recent oils, and my favourite part of the show: heads painted in rapid impasto directly onto the small boxes in which the paints came.  The sculptural projection, everyday material and direct link to the studio process all feel appropriate.  As in the etchings, the severely reduced scale works naturally with the lack of image resolution, leaving us with the spontaneous essence of Marwan’s project.


The Guardians

Leighton House Museum to 29 November

Adel Quraishi - Saad Adam Omar, 2014
The Guardians. Saeed Adam Omar (Late Sheikh of the Guardians) by Adel Quraishi. Courtesy the artist & The Park Gallery, London

As his contribution to the Nour Festival, Saudi Arabian portrait photographer Adel Quraishi has focused on what must be one of the most affecting groups available: the handful of surviving Guardians of the Prophet’s burial chamber at Medina. Prophet Mohammed lived, died and is buried there, and every Muslim aims to visit the site at least once. Since the Ottoman Empire, the keys to this holy site have been kept by eunuchs – originally from Abyssinia, later wider in origin.   They are eunuchs who entered the role long ago, and are now at least 80 years old – one is said to be 110, which would fit with research suggesting that reduced testosterone gives eunuchs increased life expectancy. Nonetheless, three of the eight pictured in 2014 have died since the photographs – the only ones ever permitted – were taken, and only three remain fit to carry out their full duties. The Guardians are eunuchs, not because they have access to women’s accommodation, but for the spiritual aspect of a faith that is undistracted by sexual desire and uninfected by ritual impurity. They are revered as mediators who cross boundaries, and there’s also a sense in which time is suspended for them, as they have never gone through the changes of adolescence. That state matches the suspension of time said to occur in the well-preserved state of the Prophet’s body.
No new Guardians are being taken on, so where once there were hundreds responsible for all aspects of running the mosque complex, the remaining few spend their days in a small room connected to the burial chamber itself. They pray, clean the floor with rosewater and look after the set of keys which must be used in a closely-guarded sequence to access the chamber. Even Quraishi was not allowed to photograph the keys, but he was able to take an image of the chamber through which a constant stream of pilgrims pass: we see the architectural and decorative detail, but a long exposure time converts the worshippers to abstract marks passing through. Quraishi’s project, then, makes the most of the photograph as record: to look at the eight faces ranged – life sized or somewhat larger – around the ideally suited dimensions of Leighton House’s contemporary exhibition gallery is to look at the only pictures ever taken of an 800 year tradition which is set to disappear.

So how do the eight portraits operate as images?  The late Sheikh (or Chief) among them, Saad Adam Omar, and his successor, Nouri Mohammed Ahmed Ali, look to have a more assertive presence than the other six, among whom there is less sense of personality. These are pious and self-effacing men, who have spent at least the past 60 years in ritualised routine. Quraishi describes them as humble and balanced men who put him at ease. They come across as dignified, but subordinate to their roles. Quraishi could have emphasised this by employing a serial, standardised set-up in the manner of the Bechers. However, though the octet are all shown against a plain white background (as photographed in their small and little-used office) and though all prints are an imposing 191 x 135cm (commensurate with important subjects), there is considerable variation.  The scale at which the Guardians are shown, the degrees of crop, and their poses all vary.  So do their clothes: they wear state dress, but have no uniform as such, nor is there any indication of rank: they are given a new robe each year, and choose which one to wear and with what. All wear a green belt, visible in several photographs and characteristic of Medina (whereas their equivalents in Mecca wear red belts). Otherwise, the colours are restrained: browns, golds, whites.

Adel Quraishi's Exhibition The Guardians for Nour Festival of Arts
The Guardians. Ahmed Masibo Saleh by Adel Quraishi. Courtesy the artist & The Park Gallery, London

The portraits, then, are more varied than might be expected, but only to set you wondering: is that an indicator of the men’s underlying variation, or the extent of it?  The effect might be contrasted with Thomas Ruff’s passport-style photographs, which pretend to impose uniformity on a patently disparate group; or with August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, which revolves around the range of jobs performed. Overall, The Guardians is a compelling representation of the totality of a rare group, and Leighton House Museum, with its Arab Hall lined with an extensive collection of Islamic tiles, is an appropriate and atmospheric location for it. That the portraits were taken at all made that impact likely; and though Quraishi could undoubtedly have carried the project out differently, the way he has done enhances the effect.

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.