Berkeley News: When language comes under pressure

four people stand next to eachother
April 11, 2023

A new student-curated exhibition in Doe Library’s Brown Gallery showcases artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia and their artworks that reflect the complexity of what it means to inherit language.

It was a Sunday morning in fall 2022, and seven students from UC Berkeley Professor Anneka Lenssen’s art history course, Exhibiting Calligraphic Modernism, were driving to Sacramento to meet with Iraqi artist Saleh al-Jumaie.

“I always feel that if there’s a relevant resource anywhere nearby campus, we should take advantage of it,” said Lenssen, whose research focuses on modern art in the Middle East and North Africa. Al-Jumaie, who relocated to Northern California in the early 1980s, has long explored the uses and cultural meanings of Arabic and other writing systems in his creative practice.

When Lenssen and her team of students arrived at al-Jumaie’s house, they admired decades of his artwork — from huge painted works on aluminum to ceramic vessels to oil portraits of his family to reams of lithograph, block and mixed media prints — that filled the walls, hallways and rooms of his house.

“It’s his own personal gallery of work,” said Teddi Haynes, a third-year art history major who was part of the project. “To go inside an artist’s home and see all of their work everywhere was really special. You just can’t get the same experience seeing art online as you can seeing it in person.”

But the students weren’t there to just meet al-Jumaie. They were there to interview him — about his process and what has inspired his artmaking over the years.

“I had never interviewed someone like that before,” said Haynes, who plans to minor in journalism. “The pressure was on a little bit to ask good questions and also to listen really attentively.”

Although many artists prefer to focus on current and future projects, said Lenssen, al-Jumaie was happy to look back and share his insights with the students. Not only did he talk about what his works mean to him, he also shared the pain he felt at having been driven out of his home country by the intimidation of the Saddam Hussein regime. And his experience of loss didn’t end in the 1980s: Al-Jumaie also spoke about the catastrophe of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and its damages.

Three of the students who were involved in the interview — Haynes, Reyansh Sathishkumar and Jasmine Nadal-Chung — turned it into a six-minute documentary called Printing Silence, now part of a UC Berkeley Library exhibition curated by Lenssen’s class, Letters | الحروف How Artists Reimagined Language in the Age of Decolonization.

The small team worked together with Lenssen to write the script and figure out which images to include in the documentary. Then, Haynes edited the audio, Nadal-Chung did the closed captioning and Sathishkumar put it all together.

Although they could only include a fraction of what they learned about al-Jumaie from the interview in the documentary, said Haynes, learning about his life helped them more deeply understand his work.

An experimental artist in Iraq

Al-Jumaie was born in 1939 in Al-Suwaira, Iraq, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. He was part of a younger generation of artists who centered the values of experimentation in their art.

Although Iraq was in the midst of ongoing political upheaval, al-Jumaie pursued an advanced education in art and pushed the boundaries of what was considered art. In 1962, he was part of the first generation of artists to graduate from the new Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He went on to study abroad in the U.S., in 1965 completing a printmaking course at the California of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He later returned and completed a BFA at the school, finishing in 1978.

n Baghdad in the 1960s, al-Jumaie formed, with other artists, The Innovationists, a group that aimed to encourage artists to rebel against traditional art styles.

After the Arab-Israeli War in 1967, the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party retook power in Iraq. The military, already present in daily life, began to monopolize the conditions for political participation and took control of the media.

“It wasn’t a pleasant life,” al-Jumaie shares in the documentary. “Everything turned gloomy. Everything.”

In 1968, al-Jumaie and others started the New Vision artist group, a collective that hoped to revive commitments to innovative artistic practice with revolutionary politics. However, disillusionment was already setting in.

Printing Silence highlights al-Jumaie’s discontent with official speech and manipulated language, in particular.

“Calligraphy was there in our daily lives, everywhere you go,” he says in the film. “The beauty of Arabic calligraphy — it really influenced everybody. But when I used it, it was in a cynical way.”

“I had become cynical about the writing, about using the language to deceive the people,” al-Jumaie continues. “There were writers who wrote unbelievable lies. They twisted the history. We witnessed these events … these political events that happened in Iraq, we know it because we were kids, and we were in the demonstrations.”

When Saddam Hussein formally came into power in 1979, a climate of political intimidation and violence drove many artists out of the country, including al-Jumaie. He first took his family to Beirut, but as the Lebanese civil wars intensified, they moved again to Northern California.

“I was honored and surprised by how open he was,” said Haynes of al-Jumaie. “In art history, we might learn about artists who have been forced from their homes, and about how the experience manifests in their art, but I think it takes talking to the person to more deeply understand the impact it has had on their life.”

Breaking apart language to create new meaning

Many of the prints that al-Jumaie created after arriving in the United States incorporate the Arabic language, printed with woodblocks on paper in a format that resembles a newspaper layout, said Lenssen. But when you examine it more closely, almost all of the writing is indecipherable. Each print is a ghostly texture that resists, rather than invites, reading.

That was the aim of Lenssen’s course, Exhibiting Calligraphic Modernism — to unpack why and when language comes under pressure and how different artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia have responded in their own creative work.

“We normally think of language as a carrier for information,” said Lenssen. “You read language, and in a way, in reading it, it dissolves and reveals information. Many of these artists, especially in the decades of decolonization after the Second World War, were instead using language as an image or showing how language is something that remains opaque.”

The exhibition, which runs through August 2023 in Doe Library’s Bernice Layne Brown Gallery, explores artwork by more than a dozen artists and poets. It includes displays of accordion-folded leporellos by Lebanese American poet and visual artist Etel Adnan; a mosaic by Turkish painter and poet Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu; and silkscreen works by two of al-Jumaie’s contemporaries in the New Vision group, Dia al-Azzawi and Rafa al-Nasiri, among other highlights.

Not only is the exhibition impressive in its presentation, said Lenssen, it also has potential to be an important resource for researchers.

“This is a real contribution with some new arguments and new materials and connections that students made,” Lenssen said. “I’m really excited about it. The depth of the investigation that the students achieved goes beyond a lot of the existing literature.”

And without the scholarly librarians at Berkeley, who have built up the campus’s rich collections over decades, the exhibition wouldn’t have been possible. The class worked closely with art librarian Lynn Cunningham and Middle Eastern and Near Eastern studies librarian Mohamed Hamed.

“I think it’s a genuinely unique educational space for students,” said Lenssen.

For Haynes, curating her first exhibition was a milestone.

“It’s really exciting to see our exhibition every time I walk into the library,” Haynes said. “I like going to museums, and I used to take notes on what I thought about the curation. I was definitely a lot more judgmental of the curation choices before this project. Now, I see how hard it is.”

The exhibition, said Lenssen, showcases artists and their artworks that reflect the complexity of what it means to inherit language or lay claim to particular signs and systems. In many ways, it’s the story of life after colonization and survival in uncertainty, she said, one that she hopes visitors can recognize themselves within.

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