Signs Of Our Times at leighton house museum
By Syma Mohammed
I first heard about Leighton House two years ago at Lure of the East, a British-Orientalist art exhibition. I discovered that the works of Victorian artist, Frederick Leighton, had come from his home in London which he ‘arabised’ after travels to the Middle East. Ironically I visited it for the first time last week when I went to see the work of another artist.
The house fuses English and Middle Eastern artistic traditions, and so plays perfect host to Egyptian Fathi Hassan whose work is rooted in Arabic tradition. Nearly all his paintings feature, or are made up of, Arabic calligraphy which immediately appear to preclude the vast majority of non-arab visitors from understanding his work.
Initially I was at a loss at how to decipher his paintings. I wasn’t the only one. I saw dozens of people leave looking more confused than when they had arrived. One visitor I spoke to told me she thought the pieces were beautiful but didn’t understand what they were about.
On closer inspection, it becomes evident that the work is barely accessible to those who can read Arabic. Most of the text is illegible and that which is decipherable contains only fragments of meaning. In the ‘Haram Aleikum’ series which faces you as you walk through the door, there are certain words or phrases that it is possible to understand. These include: “I feel with the poor”; “the black slave”; “wealth and happiness”; “loyalty”; and “shame on you”. The latter (the translation of haram aleikum) is the overall title of the series. The use of the this title indicates that Hassan is reprimanding all of us for the injustices that take place in the world – poverty, racism, oppression and our disloyalty to our brethren. All the phrases and words are painted in black mixed media and contrast with a stark white background, giving further weight to his words.
The most frequently repeated word I could decipher is “Huwa” or “He”, a reference to God. Hassan’s works feel spiritual as well as socially conscious.
Other paintings feature objects constructed of Arabic words/ calligraphy such as Crescent Moon, Felluca and Bread Basket. Crescent Moon depicts a wall-size new moon made up of Kufic script. This symbol can sometimes be seen to represent Islam, but not in this case. In the painting is the phrase Qamar al-zamaan – the moon of the world. Materials such as replica leopard print skin, ribbon, cotton fabric and a leaf are used to construct the piece. For me, the leopard skin and the Kufic script represent Africa and the Middle East, and are allusions to Hassan’s Nubian/ Sudanese/Egyptian heritage.
His work also features hieroglyphs, Indian and Roman numerals. White Tear, Felluca and Bread Basket contain hieroglyphs of swords and antelopes. On researching Egyptian hieroglyphs I could not find any corresponding symbols. I feel it’s safe to say that in Hassan’s work, language is a medium that is incomplete – meaning is hinted at, rather than explicitly stated. This allows the viewer to infer their own meaning, regardless of background.
For example White Tear portrays one white tear in a sea of black tears. Does it imply the tears of black people outweigh those of white people due to imperialism and racism (both common themes), or is it more amorphous? Indeed, Hassan has chosen to live in Italy for nearly thirty years and has painted a self-portrait of himself as black and white – an allusion to the fact that he feels he belongs to both Western and African/ Arab cultures. Given that nothing is clear-cut, I suggest that you go to Leighton House and make your own mind up, because that’s exactly what Hassan would want you to do!
The exhibition runs at Leighton House until December 18, 2010.