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Newcastle exhibition commemorates Baghdad bombing

Work by artists from around the world forms an exhibition commemorating an atrocity. David Whetstone talks to North East contributor Theresa Easton

Theresa Easton at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle
Theresa Easton at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle

To most of those reading, watching or listening to the news around the world, it was probably just another bombing in Iraq - albeit a devastating one.

Thirty eight people were killed and more than 100 injured when the car bomb exploded on Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street on March 5, 2007. Despite the terrible death toll, this will not have leapt out as particularly unusual – just the latest atrocity in a country widely regarded as a war zone.

But al-Mutanabbi Street was no ordinary street. It was one of the cultural centres of a cultured city, a place with closely packed bookshops, stationery shops, tea shops and cafes.

It was, according to Beau Beausoleil, “the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community”.

As well as the grief of the victims’ relatives, ripples of anguish at the destruction on al-Mutanabbi Street travelled across the world.

It reached Mr Beausoleil in San Francisco where he runs a second-hand bookshop and writes poetry. He felt for the people of Baghdad, wondering what the effect would be of a similar attack on his own shop or at the historic heart of any other city.

He took the view that the al-Mutanabbi bombing, which took place in a mixed Shia-Sunni area and for which no one has ever claimed responsibility, was a blow to booksellers and artists everywhere.

Disappointed when the bombing did not provoke a wave of outrage in the media, he initiated a series of artistic projects to raise awareness.

One of these involved a call-out to artists and writers to create hand-made books as a response to the atrocity.

There are now more than 200 of them in An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street and 50 of them can be seen at the Literary & Philosophical Society, on Westgate Road, Newcastle, until the end of September.

The Lit & Phil is a good place for such an exhibition.

Artist Theresa Easton in the Lit & Phil
Artist Theresa Easton in the Lit & Phil
 

The artists’ books – all one-off creations – are displayed in various places among the library’s own collection of thousands of conventional volumes.

Not all are behind glass. You are invited to pick some of them up as long as you slip on the white gloves provided.

Among those you can handle is The Tower, a lovingly created gem by North East artist and print-maker Theresa Easton.

Theresa, who has a studio at 36 Lime Street in the Ouseburn Valley, Byker, responded to Beau Beausoleil’s call and was also responsible for bringing this section of An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi to Newcastle, one of many cities to have hosted parts of the collection.

Here you will see books that look like books, books that look like origami, books with charred edges and even one that has a bullet hole through it.

“That street was where students and writers and intellectuals would meet to talk about politics or religion, but also where lots of ordinary people would go,” says Theresa.

“You could get everything there, from Shakespeare to A Clockwork Orange. It was a book lover’s paradise. That was why this was such a shocking thing to happen.

“This street even survived Saddam Hussein. He never touched it, never even tried to close any of the bookshops down.”

Theresa was one of the artists, poets and print-makers from around the world who made books to encourage people to reflect on what happened.

“I think what’s really powerful about this project is how it’s brought this community of artists together,” she says.

Theresa Easton with a display of books commemorating the Iraqi bombing of Al-Mutanabbi in 2007
 

“I’m now in correspondence with people from around the world who I would never had any contact with otherwise.

“It has made the world seem a much smaller place. But within our community we are all determined to put what happened to that street on the agenda.”

An artist’s book, explains Theresa, does not have to consist of paper pages bound within two covers.

“It can be a piece of art that references a book and it can be made of any material – glass or even ceramics. It’s the connection with what a book is that’s important.”

Theresa is a versatile artist and a long-time champion of the artist’s book, making them herself and encouraging others to make them.

She used to be studio manager at Northern Print, before it relocated from North Shields Fish Quay to the Ouseburn Valley, but then decided to concentrate on her own work as an artist.

She studied for a masters degree in glass in order to move away from printmaking.

“I was getting frustrated with putting work on walls in galleries,” she recalls. “I felt there had to be more to it.

“It took me into working with architects and interior designers and it freed me up really.”

Theresa’s book, The Tower, recalls the ancient Tower of Babel, referenced in the Book of Genesis, and the myths surrounding the ancient city.

“I tend to look at history and heritage as a starting point for inspiration and I tried to imagine what this monument, which people have been interpreting for years and years, would have looked like and the significance of it,” she says.

“I wanted to make connections with my own North East roots and iconic buildings that have meant something to me, such as the chimney of the glassworks in Lemington where I grew up.”

Ancient, modern, Middle East, North East – all come together in this one small element of a moving exhibition that reflects global solidarity in the face of violence.

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David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
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