There’s a scene in the poet Adonis’s famous work, ‘The Funeral of New York’, in which the city is described as a woman. In one hand she carries the rags of liberty and in the other, the poet depicts, she is strangling the world. This poem, like the collection of Adonis’s collages currently on show at the tucked away Hunar Gallery in the suburban backlands of Al Rashidiya, deals with the artist’s vision of modernities.
Turning away from a mechanised, ragged, violent (largely Western) modernity – the ‘city on four legs/heading for murder’, as he describes it in ‘The Funeral’ – the poet presents another kind of ‘modernity’ in these collages, the kind he’s discussed throughout his long and prolific literary career. It’s a creative movement unanchored to any period in history but which can be found in the archetypal world of pre-history, the ecstasy of Sufis and the medieval Arab mystics. In Adonis’ vision, modernity is a state of mind.
Adonis was born in the Latakia region of Syria, famous for the site where the earliest examples of the alphabet, by Phoenician linguists, were discovered. Latakia is also close to the heartland of pre-Hellenistic fertility rites – the cults of Adonis.
When he was still Ali Ahmed Said (before adopting the name of the Greek god at 19) he read a poem to Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli, who was touring rural towns at that time. With destinal drama, the president, impressed by the boy’s reading, offered to grant the young Adonis one request – to which he replied that he wanted to go to school.
Adonis studied philosophy in Damascus before embarking on a literary career. From his involvement in pan-Arab movements during the ’50s (which saw him imprisoned for a year for political activity) through to his explorations into the language of mysticism and Sufi thought, Adonis has made his prolific literary quest a search for an indigenous modernism in the poetics of the Middle East. He’s regarded as the eminent living poet of the Arab world and for the past four years there have been rumbles of a nomination for the Nobel Prize.
In the collages at Hunar Gallery, we see line after line of Adonis’ elegantly penned Arabic with stones, pressed flowers, scraps of felt, ripped mesh and wool carefully laid across. The repetition of the script has the look of a musical score, infiltrated by bizarre, fundamental evocations of men, beasts and boats which he creates with these found materials. Each image could have been unearthed from the ground.
The script, spontaneously filtered through the images, has the appearance of an ancient tablet. Combined, the collages have an organic simplicity similar to a cave painting, but one that’s meaning appears to have been lost over time.
The blanket of tightly written Arabic is isolating to a non-Arabic speaker and the shapes he creates are so fragmented that the immediate response to each of these images is that we need to read Arabic to appreciate these works.
Wanting to know more, Time Out tracked Adonis down, first pestering him in Jakarta, where he was speaking as part of Salihara arts festival, to following him up the red carpet at the Hunar launch last week.
Now in his late 70s, Adonis has naturally drifted from his namesake, but there’s an animation, a laughing spiritedness to him as we talk. He doesn’t want to speak English. ‘I’m very sorry,’ he says. ‘We’d only be able to talk on a very superficial level, my English is so very bad.’ But we persist – can a person who doesn’t read Arabic appreciate these works? His response is illuminating and surprisingly blunt: ‘These are not illustrations,’ he states and gestures at one of the works, that depicts two wool figures looking down to the browning veins of a pressed flower. ‘There is no organic relation between the forms and the writing.’
Looking back at the collages after this terse interview offers a slightly different perspective. No longer anchored to the text, the images float free. Once we forget the words or what we’re missing by not understanding them, we gaze at each composition with simple, comprehending eyes. A patch of found felt, torn near the bottom, becomes a pair of hips. Strips of ragged orange wool become the sun.
The simplicity of these images, then, is really their brilliance. They are archetypal; we can somehow sense the loneliness of the wandering figure in black who strides across a landscape of sharp, inexplicable markings. We can see abandon in the body that leaps across the canvas with arms stretched. It’s as if Adonis, after a lifetime of relying on metaphor and language to express the shapes and forms of the world has now tried to aim back to the source. Scouring for materials, looking at the human form, examining what is an archetype and why we understand it. Primitive, organic and basic they might be – but the spirit of communication and appeal to the archetypal senses, that he’s described as the modernist state of mind in his poetry, is very much alive in this huge collection.
Hunar Gallery (04 286 2224). Until December 30