Nick Hackworth

World Into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, British Museum

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Once the cradle of culture, the Middle East is now, in the eyes of most Westerners, merely a cauldron of bloodshed and political turmoil. World into Art serves as a reminder that beyond the headlines, life and art continue apace.

Built around the British Museum’s growing collection of contemporary Middle Eastern work, the show brings together 74 artists from across the region. Rather conservatively, the curator has stuck to art derived from the Arabic calligraphic tradition. There is another strand of modern Middle Eastern work — political video and documentary — that is not even referenced here. A strange decision, but one that spares the public hours of badly shot film.

The best pieces are austerely beautiful calligraphic ones, such as Hassan Massoudy’s exquisite book cover, an articulation of the following lines by 12th century poet Ibn al-Arabi: “I follow the religion of Love Whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.” Two thick, wave-like strokes of dark aquamarine ink, which dominate the page, curling down in ever fainter swirls, are enough to infuse the phrase with elegance and romantic promise.

Elsewhere, as in Nassar Mansour’s highly stylised rendition of Kun, characters that spell “be”, we see the subtle and profound tendency of Islamic art to push written script to the edge of abstraction, a style that recalls the austere and abstract qualities of the desert in which Islam was born and a reminder that beauty flourishes in many forms.

Until 3 September (020 7323 8299)