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Mike Newton Aug 17, 2013

"Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here"

Center for Book Arts
International Print Center New York
Alwan for the Arts
Columbia University’s Butler Library
Poets House

Through September 21

Al-Mutanabbi was good with words. He may have been too good: the famous 10th century Iraqi poet was killed by a man he had once insulted in verse. Though it was named in his honor, Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street — known in the modern imagination for its rows of bookshops, book stalls and cafés — is said to have been an intellectual hub since some time in the 8th century, well before the poet’s death. Even with the pressures of Saddam Hussein’s rule, international sanctions, and the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation, al-Mutanabbi Street was renowned as a part of Baghdad where intellectual life flourished and people from all of Iraq’s diverse communities mingled. Intellectuals browsed through rows of books, students discussed ideas in cafés, and writers found inspiration in rare and beautiful bits of literature.

Al-Mutanabbi Street was filled with words, and for some, that was too much. In March of 2007, the street was hit with a devastating car bomb, killing 30 people and destroying shops, cafés and countless books. It’s a sad truth: for all its charms, paper burns fast.

The touring exhibition “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here,” currently on view across five different venues in Manhattan, began as a project by San Francisco poet and bookseller Beau Beausoleil (the exhibit is organized by Beausoleil and UK book artist Sarah Bodman). In a 2010 interview, Beausoleil explained how it began: “I felt this connection between al-Mutanabbi Street and here, and myself, on a visceral level. If I were an Iraqi, a bookseller, a poet, I would be on that street. I felt we needed some sort of response from our own arts community.” Beausoleil reached out to an international array of letterpress printers, poets and book artists, and the exhibition includes a collection of some 250 artists’ books and 50 letterpress-printed broadsides made in response to the bombing.

Beausoleil’s initial focus on letterpress printing — a method rooted in the earliest days of printed books — makes sense as a commemoration of a place whose intellectual lineage predates book-printing by more than half a millennium. Many of the books in the show aim for a similarly old-fashioned aesthetic. Though the event that prompted their creation feels like something intractably and terribly modern — an anonymous car bomb in the midst of a 21st-century military occupation — the works employ age-old methods and materials, including woodcut printing, hand lettering, handmade paper, coffee grounds, sewing thread and charcoal. The effect is sometimes strained, but the goal is to make something that feels timeless, to reinforce the point that books and ideas have the enviable power to outlive us all.

The exhibition itself doesn’t present any sort of official position on the war in Iraq, nor on war in general; in its press materials, Beausoleil’s Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition claims that this is not an “antiwar” project. Looking at the artwork, though, it feels quite clear that this is an antiwar show. The destruction of cultural objects — the burning of libraries, the looting of museums — is a common, and arguably integral, element of war (think of the U.S.-led forces’ failure to prevent the ransacking of Iraq’s national museums and library less than a month after the March 2003 invasion). Much of the artwork in this exhibit proudly takes the side of pens, paper, printers’ ink and written words, and tells us that these things are natural enemies of violence and that a culture of ideas is not a culture of war. Or, to quote from a boldly-colored accordion-fold book by Helen Frederick, Peter Winant, Susan Tichy and Lutfiya al-Dulaimi: “Fire burns paper / Paper absorbs ink / Ink drowns fire.”

The project’s overall position — not a focused political statement, but a broad display of artistic solidarity — is sensible but also limiting. Beausoleil says that the name “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” points to shared intellectual experience: the idea is that al-Mutanabbi Street can be anywhere someone writes a poem or creates a book. But of course, that’s not really true. Al-Mutanabbi Street is an actual place, located in a deeply conflicted region, where dozens of people were once killed by a bomb. Even if there are aspects of the tragedy (and the war) that this show can’t hope to tackle, it’s still a remarkable memorial project and a strong reminder of the perseverance of creativity in the face of violence. As Barbara Tetenbaum’s hand-printed book insert puts it, “A bomb explodes just once. A book, a thousand times.”

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