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Where the sidewalk ends

Honoring an Iraqi street with the art it inspired
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  March 5, 2014


"AL-MUTANABBI STREET" by Mary McCarthy and Sherley Veenema; inkjet prints on accordion book of
Ingres paper with handmade paper covers.

On March 5, 2007, a car bomb exploded on Al Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, killing 26 people and injuring more than a hundred more. Named for the 10th century Arab poet, the street had been a cultural epicenter for Iraqi intellectuals and artists, teeming with bookstores and cafes and facilitating the open exchange of ideas among both Sunni and Shia Muslims since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

A month after the bombing, a San Francisco artist and bookseller named Beau Beausoleil led a coalition of international book artists in a letterpress project, intending to raise awareness about the violence of the region and to honor the culture of Al Mutanabbi Street. The result is an exhibit of 130 handmade books -- one for each person harmed in the bombing -- that form an internationally traveling collection called “Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here,” currently on display at the University of Southern Maine’s Glickman Library.

Mounted on the walls and arranged in rows of glass cabinets, the incredible detail and creative spatial dimensions of the artists’ books invite careful inspection, collapsing the cultural significance of the bombing into folded assemblages of fraught poetry, pictographic memorials, and textual materiality. In “Still Alive,” a box containing binders of small 3-5 centimeter books linked together with string and shrouded in veils and wax, the Greek artist Pieretta Sakellariou is able to conjure two discrete images -- the book as gift and the book as political samizdat. In “Sunt Lacrimae Rerum” by the poet Amaranth Borsuk, a box unfolds into a 3” by 3” by 3” accordion of white acrylic paper, the typographic shapes of the artist’s spare idiomatic poetry incised onto the surface of each page. In “Al-Mutanabbi Street,” an accordion book of illustrations of the interior of a bookstore opens to several 5” by 7” surfaces, while artists Mary McCarthy and Shirley Veenema take the conceit further by sheathing even smaller books within the flaps of its outer pages. Without even getting into their literary content, each of these books tap into an element of Iraqi street culture by virtue of their material design alone.

When the works do begin to incorporate literary elements is where things get truly affecting. Barbara Henry’s “Random Reports: Mutanabbi,” a letterpressed volume in linocut-printed pages, is opened to a poem dated 3.14.07, recalibrating the imagery of the bombing’s aftermath into a declaration of physical love. In Nancy Bardos’s “We Shall Always Return,” a sculpture of a “deconstructed book” made from clay, inks, and handspun Uruguayan wool, several “book seeds” are pasted atop a thick, affectively charred copy of a Goethe tome. Or perhaps the significance of literary ideas is best framed by the starkest depiction of its negative, as several artists brilliantly assemble “books” which contain the cold hard absence of all literary referents -- Amanda Williams’s pages of images of empty shelving; Lyn Dale’s fat-like mixture of paper, card, and thread; and an “interactive” book by Anna Cox and Kerri Cushman, which embeds a viewfinder within the tattered contents of a hardcover.

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