Moallaqat

The historical phenomenon of the Moallaqat is a much-debated sub- ject. With very little evidence save oral traditions passed down from generation to generation to prove their existence, there are many schol- ars who claim that they are merely legend.

Previously translated as ‘The Suspended Odes’, ‘The Hanging Poems’ or ‘The Golden Odes’, the Moallaqat were originally a compilation of seven poems, the jewels in the crown of the most renowned poets of pre-Islamic Arabia; Imru’ Al-Qais; Antara Ibn Shaddad; Amr Ibn Kulthum; Labid; Zuhayr bin abi Salma; Tarafa and Harith bin Hilliza. Legend has it that they were written in gold on the finest Coptic linen and hung on curtains covering the Ka’ba, an event that is commonly thought to have influenced their title of ‘Moallaqat’, a term that de- notes suspension. However, it has also been suggested that the title was bestowed, not because they were suspended on the Ka’ba, but because their content, once read, would become suspended in your mind. An- other theory is that the term ‘Moallaqat’ originates from ‘ilq’, meaning ‘precious thing’, suggesting that it was something to ‘hang’ on to. (Rey- nold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs).

The structures of these poems were made-up by the classical qasida pat- tern, which preludes with the Nasib, where the poet would call to mind the memory of a former love; followed by the main body, which was composed of a succession of movements and descriptions of the poet’s horse or camel, as well as various aspects of Bedouin life and warfare; and finally the Madih, or main body, where the poet pays tribute to himself, his tribe, or his patron. It was once said that there were three causes for congratulations amongst a tribe; ”the birth of a boy, the foal- ing of a mare, and the emergence of a poet“. )Ibn Rashiq of Kairouan, d.1064(. The poet played a recognized and important role in society; he was defender of the honour of the tribe and protector of their good reputation. Their tales are not merely of love and escapades, but of the environment and social fabric of the time.

Fact or fable, not only is the influence of the Moallaqat on our under- standing of the history and culture of Arabia indisputable, but it remains of the utmost importance to how we view and understand ourselves today. Therefore, although it might seem incongruous to have chosen such a historical subject for such a contemporary exhibition, the title of ”Moallaqat“ was favoured for all that they represent; Clauston describes the Arabian poets as ”Impulsive children of the desert, whose passions had free scope for good and evil...capable of the most intense affection and the most bitter hatred, whose strong feelings found vent in flowing verse“ )W.A. Clauston, Arabian Poetry(. The poems can be described as a window unto our souls, as they manifest the full spectrum of human emotion without reserve.

Furthermore, poetry was no luxury for the cultured few. Although they were men of high poetical genius, the poets themselves could scarcely read or write. Poetry was a gift of nature and a unifying principle of the Arabs. The legend of the Moallaqat states that they were displayed in the most revered and widely visited spiritual location on Earth, the Ka’ba in Mecca, indicating that it was a gift that was meant for one and all to enjoy.

Therefore, the Moallaqat are testament that poetry was an art for the masses, at a time when the richness of the Arabic language was a com- modity mastered and appreciated by all, even amongst the illiterate. It is safe to say that in today’s world, the everyday language of Arabic has lost much of its depth, and the majority has not had the fortune to live life with an ear attuned to the beauty and complexity of verse. At a time when Arabia is in the media spotlight, and many preconceived notions about the region and the religion prevail, society looks to new heroes, new defenders that speak to the masses, and for the masses.

Poetry was a weapon, used to defend, to attack, but also as a diplomatic tool. Thus، art has come to adopt the mantle of diplomacy, and acts as an ambassador of truth, bridging cross-cultural rifts of misunderstand- ing.

The works exhibited reveal each artist’s own unique perspective, pro- cess and practice. The result is a broad and rich spectrum of possible interpretations and associations to the Moallaqat, ranging from the acutely abstract, to the discerningly literal. Nasser Al-Salem is seized by the mystery of the number 7, which leads him on an existential odys- sey, exploring the workings of the universe in his work An Adornment of Stars. Dania Al-Saleh’s geometric narrative Ahwak )I adore you( un- covers her wonder at the unreserved and unashamed nature of the po- ets’ declarations of love, immortalized in the Moallaqat, compared to the taboo that surrounds the concept of love in today’s society. As the Moallaqat poems were preserved orally and passed down from genera- tion to generation until properly inscribed, Dr. Effat Fadaag’s work Be- quests explores the phenomenon of the inheritance of knowledge, and the passing down of wisdom from generation to generation; a promi- nent feature in the history of Arab culture as a result of its oral tradi- tion as well as the tool used for preserving the history itself through the method of isnad. Similarly, Manal Al-Dowayan’s The Tree of Guardians delves into the topic of generations, an intrinsic aspect of Arab identity that considers one’s sense of self as strong as the depth of their patrilin- eal line. Aldowayan re-examines the concept of legacy.

This exhibition demonstrates that whilst the world has changed dra- matically since the time of the Moallaqat, there is nevertheless a way of life, modes of thought, and cultural foundations that have survived and that have been passed down from generation to generation along with the legend. You will, therefore, find that there is much that still resonates with our artists, and that there are certain constancies in life that survive the constant change, such as love, war, and family values. Once upon a time, poetry in Arabia was the only means of expression that successfully conveyed the breadth and depth of human emotions. ”Moallaqat“ is testament that art has lit the path to endless possibilities of such expression. 

PAST IS PROLOGUE

Exhibiting 24 works of Saudi modern artists, this group show provides a capsule glimpse into the history of 20th Century art in the Kingdom and sheds light on the foundations of the con- temporary art movement that is growing in acclaim today.

As a relatively young state (founded in 1932), the beginnings of the art scene in Saudi Arabia is correspondingly recent, experi- encing its first concrete stirrings during the 50’s. Yet since that time, it has followed fast on the heels and lived through most of the major art movements that were being pioneered in Europe and the West, which included Cubism, Expressionism, Surreal- ism, Realism amongst many others.

These Saudi artists were mainly proponents of existing artistic trends and styles that were being spearheaded abroad, and there was not much activity in the way of establishing a locally pre- cipitated trend. However, whilst the methodologies were emu- lated, the content and function of the Saudi art movement was beginning to take its own distinctive shape.

The oil boom in Saudi Arabia during the 70’s precipitated expo- nential modernization and urbanization, with the consequent growing concern that an entire way of life would fast change and gradually dematerialize from existence. Safeya Binzagr and Ali Safar considered their works a visual documentation of the social framework of the time, capturing local street scenes and family life on canvas. The artists’ role thus began to take the shape of documenter and archivist, of both scenes of eve- ryday life and particular moments in history, such as the first Iraq War and the occupation of Palestine, events that had great emotional impact on the local population. This is true of many of the pioneers, but is more evident in the works of Abduljab- bar Al-Yehya and his half-brother Abdullah Al-Shaikh, who both dedicated an entire period of practice to this subject. Dia Aziz Dia also addressed the humanitarian issues that arose in the af- termath of these events.

During these early years, there was little to no hope of a career as an artist, with virtually no arts infrastructure. With no mu- seums, institutions and practically no galleries, it was neigh im- possible to nurture an awareness or appreciation of art, or to build up a local audience. All exhibitions took place in sports clubs or academic institutions. Furthermore, there was limited

accessibility to artists’ materials, with many bringing back paints and pigments in bulk for all their fellow artist friends from their travels to Iraq or Egypt.

The only possibility of a foot through the door of a profession in the arts was through the government agency known as the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, which was the first public initiative to support the arts by sending generations of artists abroad. This began during the reign and at the behest of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz (1960’s). Sponsored by the Minister of Edu- cation at the time, Hassan Al El-Sheikh, many artists were sent, mainly to Italy, on fine arts scholarships. However, this was not to support a career in the arts in its own right, but rather on the condition that they return and teach the subject at local schools. This resulted in the introduction of arts programmes to the local education curriculums as well as various private arts institutes, where the returning artists imparted their knowledge of the basics of fine arts, thus effectively laying the foundations and infrastructure for the future and sustainability of a thriving art scene.

The Saudi art scene today is flourishing and has come a long way from desert landscapes, camels and horses. Having gained much ground over the past decade, many young contemporary artists who are currently at the forefront of the art movement have won international recognition and are setting the example for regional art movements.

However, the time as has come to dig deeper into the founda- tions and to question ‘when and how did all this start?’, for nothing comes from nothing. ‘Past is Prologue’ pays tribute to the early generations of artists who practiced during a time when recognition was not there to be had, who practiced for the sake of it and for the love of it. These are the trailblazers and foundation-builders to whom we are paying homage in this ex- hibition.