While wandering through “Midad: The Intimate and Public Lives of Arabic Calligraphy” exhibition at Dar el-Nimer, a visitor cannot but be intrigued—the space, the lighting, and the people all come together in an intimate set up. However, it is the Folding Talismanic Object that particularly catches the attention.
The small hexagonal papers feature a graceful Arabic script on the middle square amongst the various other squares that are framed in purple. It is not a single characteristic that stands out but rather the mélange of minute yet necessary details.
This exhibition covers themes such as calligraphy, domestic/public lives, and poetic writings. “Midad”, a type of ink, is a means through which calligraphy and Arabic script have evolved. The title stands as an engaging entry point that suggests this exhibition as a construct. It is also an invitation to delve into the diverse assemblage of 75 pieces spanning across the eighth and 20th century, in addition to contemporary commissions by local artists. The objects were used mostly within the Islamic context and had variable usage, from a fountain inscription, laws, and administrative documents, to religious parchments.
Here, within the realm of what earlier in time was a domestic space, objects belonging mostly to the Islamic context are displayed within a museological framework. The visitor walks freely. Within this continuous flow between the walls, the physical experience of the user is defined. It is constrained and limited at times. For example, the visitor does not have the possibility to gaze while seated.
Arabic script is described in the pamphlet as a “mirror” to public/private lives. Themes of political/personal, performative/poetic and other dualities are intrinsic to the understanding of this exhibition. How is this duality expressed physically? One might see this between two sections, a wall only separates these categories from each other, separating the five centimeter domestic used miniature Quran from the two meters Quran parchment cloth. The difference of scale also materializes through this wall. By placing them one next to the other and through this audacious treatment of a green wall, the spatial layout allows the viewer to access both the use and “decorative value” that lies now within these objects.
Each glass box containing the works acts as a living scientific arrangement for the object, a controlled setting that hinders our direct interaction with the objects. This setting becomes at the center of the visitor’s experience. These boxes are quite heavy and sometimes distort the understanding of some of the objects. The Quran parchment is a refined and delicate object that is produced from very thin sheets of paper, yet these heavy glass box can hinder the understanding of the intricacy and sophistication of writing techniques.
The question then becomes: does the visitor need a mediator? Behind the seamlessly flowing layout of the space, the curator Rachel Dedman drives a constructed narrative. What are you looking at? How and from where are you gazing? She becomes a mediator, setting up the conditions through which we understand the exhibited collection.
Dedman apprehends the connection between Islam and Arabic script, and to avoid ambiguity, she identifies the “intrinsicality” of their association and attempts a “tracing” of their development. The catalogue and pamphlets embody many of the institutional aspects in an exhibition. The pamphlets were provided to all visitors. Written in Arabic and English, they democratize the use of “Midad” and address a maximum of visitors from connoisseurs, students, to first timers. This pamphlet becomes a tool used by the institution to easily—through small size, clear graphics—disseminate a background knowledge that can accompany the visitor across the space.
Another layer adds to these experiences, the personal construct. It is important for the visitor to acknowledge the personal venture to the exhibition as part of a construction. Connecting the encounter with the Talismanic Folding Object to a contemporary work by Roy Samaha upstairs might be thought-provoking.
Samaha’s “A Book of Six Directions” is a video installation that looks at this talismanic object and attempts to understand the ritual of unfolding this book. Samaha’s work challenges somehow the notion of “mummification” developed by Grabar while emphasizing the practicality of such an object. Inevitably, questions such as: is this a replica or the object itself start to emerge. The questions raised by these same objects are essentially what exhibitions produce: questions, interrogations, and fascinations that keep visitors in awe to come back, an ongoing construct.