Book burning seems like a medieval relic, something out of an unenlightened past. But walk into the Collins Memorial Library at the University of Puget Sound, and you’ll realize it’s not. A traveling international exhibit of book art responds to an event that happened six years ago: the bombing of a street full of bookshops in Baghdad. And true to its name, “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” connects those burned books — and people — to all of us.
For a start, it’s connecting us to communities around the world where the exhibit is traveling. The project began in 2007, after a car bomb ripped through the booksellers and cafes of Al-Mutanabbi Street, killing 30 people and wounding more than 100. San Francisco poet and artist Beau Beausoleil and British scholar Sarah Bodman began asking artists to create broadsides, book art and poetry in solidarity with the devastated Baghdad literary community. Hundreds responded, including many expatriate Iraqi writers, and the exhibit has gone from London’s Westminster Reference Library to Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and San Francisco, with North American venues booked into 2015. It’s even going to Cairo, and it eventually will be donated to the National Library of Iraq.
Of the 250-plus works in the show, 52 are in Tacoma at the UPS library. It’s a poignant venue, reminding us how we take books — and their protection — for granted. It’s also ideal because of a couple of other well-timed exhibits: a traveling “Bridging Cultures” shelf of Islam-themed books – such as “The Arabian Nights” and Orhan Pamuk — sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a fascinating show of otherworldly Gulf Coast landscapes by Kristin Giordano at UPS’ Kittredge Gallery.
There’s even a local artist connection: Tacoma’s Jessica Spring was one of the original printmakers commissioned by Beausoleil. Her broadside “The Orchard” — which she was paired with Saadi Yousef to illustrate his poem — matches subtle calligraphy with art deco borders in a dreamy, green-yellow palette. Sadly, it’s not on display in the UPS show.
Like most book art, “Al-Mutanabbi Street” doesn’t reach out and hit you between the eyes. You have to spend time with each of the eight cases of work — and the poetry anthology by the entrance — delving deep into the loss, lament and affirmation that runs through the exhibit. Some works perfectly marry form and content: Celia Stanley’s “Street Map” is exactly that, a fold-out map marbled gray on the outside like pavement and shot through with a twisting rage of white street-ribbons and exploding red blotches on the inside. Miriam Schaer’s “Witness” is in the shape of an oath-taking hand, thickly bound, each charred page recounting the bombing in a different language. Erin Schmidt’s “tea and water pipe” fills an accordion book with fragments of text, visible through a parallel accordion of intricately cut vellum — word memories seen only through a screen, like women in a zenana.
Some are sculptural, like Kristen Hoops’ “Just Another Suicide Bombing,” an 8-by-4 grid of tiny, perfect, half-inch-high books, their covers forming a jigsaw of chaotic images shot through with fire and dust and death. Julie Chen’s “Memento,” part of the library’s collection, makes a tiny book into a locket, housed in a gray damask box like a Victorian keepsake and set with woven words that come from the preamble to the constitutions of the U.S. and Iraq — freedom of words as the ultimate treasure.
Many of the books, though, rely purely on words. An accordion book by Iraqi-American Dunya Mikhail runs a superbly ironic poem about war’s bravado in English on one side, Arabic on the other. “The Written Word Remains” by Nikki Webb and Ken Daley puts quotes such as Pablo Neruda’s “They may cut all the flowers but they cannot stop the spring” into a large letterpress folio, with the bright green letters from the quote tumbling and floating over the edge of the page like leaves. There’s a song from a needle to the book it stitches; a thank-you from the West to ancient Mesopotamia for all its cultural inventions; a hymn to pain printed on a papyrus-like scroll.
Then there are purely art books: An accordion by Karen Kunc — “Fragile” — spreads over a smoky, blurred landscape, shot through with cracks, between blood-red covers. Elizabeth Raybee reproduces a stained-glass window, made post-Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, in vivid indigo and red.
Not all the works in “Al-Mutanabbi Street” are wonderful. Some are unsubtle, like a pop-up street inside a blood-stained score of Mozart’s “Requiem,” or a clunky broadside proclaiming that Qurans, Bibles and encyclopedias burn equally.
A quibble with the show is how it’s laid out. It’s hard to display book art, especially in a highly trafficked venue such as a library, so glass cases are necessary. Yet some kind of backdrop would help these small, sculptural paper objects stand stronger visually, and arranging the cases into a “street” could have been intensely evocative, less library-ish.
Yet that this show exists and is here inside one of our calm, wealthy, safe Tacoma libraries is important. A street named after a 10th-century poet, holding literature most of us have never read in a language many of us associate with theological fanaticism, became in 2007 a street where humans and their written ideas were destroyed. The response of our artists — a lament for lives and words — reminds us that book-burning didn’t die out with the Inquisition, and that its violence against thought injures us all.
Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here
Where: Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma
When: 7:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Sundays through Oct. 31
Special events: Artist talk by poet Carletta Carrington Wilson, 4-5 p.m. Oct. 10; curator talk by Beau Beausoleil, 7-8 p.m. Oct. 16thenewstribune.com