Review: Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here


4 stars

In 2007, a car bomb exploded on Al-Mutanabbi Street in a mixed Sunni-Shiite area in Baghdad, killing 30 and injuring more than a hundred. This street just so happened to be the historic center of Baghdadi bookselling and a popular shopping district, where you could sip cardamom-spiced coffee and savor the banned book you just bought from the local bookselling stand. This tragedy is commemorated by an exhibition of work selected from the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition, sponsored by the Harrison Center for the Arts and the IUPUI University Library — the only permanent repository of this collection in the U.S. The Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition was founded, according to the promotional text for the show, by San Francisco-based bookseller, Beau Beausoleil.

According to the text, "Beausoleil rallied a community of international artists and writers to produce a collection of letterpress-printed broadsides (posterlike works on paper), artists books (unique works of art in book form) and an anthology of writing, all focused on expressing solidarity with Iraqi booksellers, writers, and readers."

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One of the works that captures the violence of the car bomb explosion is entitled "Looking Backward, Winward, and Celebration" by Stephanie Mahan Stigliano which uses sewn, collaged and painted vintage postcards sewn together in book form, but seemingly exploded outwards as if this book was there in the moment of explosion. 

And this work captures the paradox of trying to capture the violence of a violent act.

Whether it's Al-Mutanabbi Street or the fall of the Twin Towers or the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, these are events that can be measured in seconds. It might take years to recover from such an event – if recovery is possible. 

The work that best captures this particular paradox is "Remembrance" by Julie Shaw Lutts. Consisting of four small accordion books, made from maps of Iraq, each fold acts as an entry in an Arabic-English dictionary.  But this particular dictionary of knowledge and loss, of recovery and healing is divided into four parts, the first of which "To Seek to Know" gives definitions of Al-Mutanabbi Street before the attack.  The other books are "A Sudden Attack, "Pain and Grief," and "Recovery."   Since the artist didn't know Arabic before composing these entries, it was a struggle for her to find the right definitions.  The final book "Recovery" is housed in a glass box which, according to the artist, symbolizes "the delicate balance of peace." And it's a balance that, as Islamic State attacks continue in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere make clear, can be disrupted again at any time. 

Harrison Center for the Arts

Through Aug. 28

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