Sunday, 1 February 2015

Ashes to Ink

Ashes to Ink, mezzotint and etching, 30 x 20 cm

Today I'm pleased to share a print that I made for The Al-Mutanabbi Street Project. This project is a reaction to the 2007 car-bombing in Baghdad's book-selling quarter. This neighbourhood has long been the heart of the intellectual community of Baghdad, a place where people come to meet and share ideas, engage in free debate, and search through a rich diversity of written material. In its various iterations -- an anthology of essays and poems by writers from Iraq and the rest of the world, a series of letterpress broadsides, a collection of artist books, and now the contributions of artist printmakers -- The Al-Mutanabbi Street Project seeks to address this attack on intellectual freedom.

A little over a year ago I was invited to take part in this project by Catherine Cartwright, the project's UK co-ordinator, and I was immediately intrigued, though I felt quite intimidated by the prospect of a project dealing with events in a place that I have never even visited. The printmaking project came with a one-year time frame, and I spent most of that year in research and in coming up with ideas and then scrapping them completely.

I began my research by reading Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, the anthology that was created as part of this project, and which I highly recommend. When reacting to the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi street, many of the contributors to that project mentioned the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258. In Iraq, apparently, it is said that in the days after the Mongol attack, the Tigris ran red with blood, and then it ran black with ink. The tragedy of such an attack on human life and ideas seems to have weighed on the collective imagination of Iraqis for a long time. Since the theme of the printmaking project was 'absence and presence', I decided to investigate the event in this historical context.

In my print, women are gathering inky water from the Tigris and distilling the ink from it. They are grinding up the ashes of burnt books to make even more ink. From all of this ink, they are making new books. Overlayed on this scene are images drawn from manusripts that would have been produced -- perhaps on this very street, as Al-Mutanabbi Street has been a centre of scribes, as well as book sellers for hundreds of years -- during the heyday of the Baghdad School's manuscript production in the 13th century. Time and ideas overlap; regeneration follows destruction.

One of the ideas behind this project is that while Al-Mutanabbi Street is a specific location in Baghdad, it is more than just that, it is the spirit of that place -- the openness to debate, the freedom to dream, the striving for understanding and expression that has been fostered in the caf├ęs and bookshops there. It is something that should be of the utmost importance to all of us. And so, in that sense, Al-Mutanabbi Street is wherever we sit down to write, to read, to talk honestly. We find it when we open up our jars of ink, or sometimes even our laptops. I hope that I have managed to bring you a little breeze from Al-Mutanabbi street today.