In March 2007, tragedy struck the heart and soul of Baghdad’s cultural and intellectual community. Al Mutanabbi Street was destroyed by a car bomb which killed over thirty people and wounded more than one hundred. The winding street filled with bookshops and outdoor stalls has for centuries been a meeting place for poets, political dissidents and literary aficionados, and is named after the famous 10th century classical Arab poet, Al-Mutanabbi.
In response to the attack, a San Francisco bookseller, Beau Beausoleil, rallied a community of international artists and writers to produce “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” — a collection of letterpress-printed broadsides (poster-like 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.
This exhibit has been traveling across the US and I recently caught word of the inaugural symposium being hosted at IUPUI up in Indianapolis, an hour away. How could I not go? (I’m no writer and you know how short my attention span is so this isn’t an attempt to review the conference, just a few thoughts jotted down before they’re forgotten…)
The symposium started off with a viewing of Stephanie Sauer’s video/book/performance piece, “I dare you”. The video shows her making a book with basic every day materials and the narration consists of cities and dates from the earliest BCE to present day. Some city names are repeated. You understand that since the beginning of books, there have been people afraid of their power.
One attendee asked a question forming in my own mind, “How do you prevent stagnation [in the show]?” On one hand, it’s important to keep the show focused on this specific bombing to avoid diluting the message. On the other hand, people respond to change, growth, and there seems to be a continual supply of new tragedies worthy of our attention.
Beausoleil is content to let the exhibit take a life of its own rather than make plans and goals for it beyond the series of three conferences and finding permanent homes for the collections. In the end, I agree with this stance, though think it’s important for others to pick up where this leaves off. It brings to mind the Occupy movement that saw so many people excited and willing to create change but which fizzled out without vision and leadership.
Beausoleil stated repeatedly that this project is one of “witnessing and memory” not healing. It has not cured or solved, nor is its role to do so, however, healing has a more mysterious energetic process, which often can include witnessing and remembering. (This is something I’ve been studying in-depth during this year’s spiritual healing immersion course and in my artwork.)
Despite all the traveling I’ve done this year (hello Farm of Peace! Iceland!) I still felt stuck in a rut in this sweet town and was beyond excited to jump out of the everyday ordinary.
The conference was exhilarating! I left brimming with inspiration: love for my craft renewed; reminded of the powerful roles artists can play in shaping society, initiating conversation in which people can feel heard and respected; and on a personal level, reminded of my need for new ideas, change, dialogue in order to feel fulfilled. Spending two days engaged in conversation with scholars and artists about their (our) work has got me thinking of the new direction I intend to head in the New Year. More later. Much to look forward to.