Kamal Boullata: Jerusalem in Exile

Harper Doyle 18 February 2020

It would take only a trifling detour from your weekly Sainsbury’s shop to discover an intimate exhibition in the Jesus College gallery that offers a glimpse into the fascinating career of Jerusalem-born artist Kamal Boullata. The show, curated by Claudia Tobin and the artist’s wife Lily Farhoud, focuses on the interrelation between architecture, colour, text, poetry and visual images. Comprised of silkscreen prints and handmade artist books, the exhibition centres on Boullata’s collaboration with Syrian poet Adonis, in The Granada Scroll. Though small, this collection perfectly captures the interplay between visual artwork and the written word, between poetry and abstraction – an idea that permeated Boullata’s artistic career, and lead many of his creative explorations.

The selection of silkscreen prints also captures the artist’s fascination with Kufic scripts, an early form of Arabic calligraphy, manipulated by Boullata into colourful and striking geometric compositions. Studying these images, striving to decode the characters buried within the vivid, abstracted creations, draws the observer into an almost trance-like state. The remnants of calligraphy guide the shapes that one is able to decipher, but they are given a new significance by their alteration and positioning within Boullata’s experiments. Colour and text merge to form a fresh optical experience.

Expanding on the relationship between word and visual art, The Granada Scroll, placed in the centre of the room, looks at the explicit link between architecture and poetry. A collaborative work, in response to the architectural wonder of the Alhambra in Granada, this portfolio combines poetry and hand-cut paperwork. The three-dimensional cut-out elements are particularly interesting here; each one appears unique and intricate, reminiscent of the muqarnas of Arabic architecture. The repetitive way in which they are employed within The Grenada Scroll also creates a dialogue with the visual repetition of patterns in the prints surrounding this work. The meticulous geometry of the Scroll’s architectural insertions seem to replicate those of Boullata’s embossed prints and colourful creations on the walls of the space, highlighting the unity within this collection – also a vein running through the artist’s entire body of work, of which Jerusalem in Exile offers us an insightful glimpse.

What is perhaps most striking about this exhibition is its sense of intimacy – of a closeness to the artist and his most prominent interests. Heightened by the combination of the small gallery space, Farhoud’s involvement in the curation process, and the handmade delicacy and materiality of the works themselves, Jerusalem in Exile displays a collection in conversation with itself. Each of the works presents a thematic interplay, but also offers clear visual links and responses to its fellows, be it through calligraphy, architecture and coloration, all of which reference Boullata’s fascination with script and visual communication. The products of an artist engaged with history and shaped by exile from his homeland, this exhibition is certainly worth experiencing, if only as a small glimpse into a man’s lifelong artistic endeavour.