“The Shape of Birds” takes the theme of displacement, remembrance and adaption from Nizar Qabbani’s poem “A Lesson in Drawing” which begins with “My son placed a paint box in front of me / and asked me to draw a bird for him. / Into the color gray I dip the brush / and draw a square with locks and bars. / Astonishment fills his eyes: / ‘…But this is a prison, Father. Don’t you know, how to draw a bird?’ / And I tell him: ‘Son, forgive me. / I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.’”
The artists in “The Shape of Birds” are from nine countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Azerbaijan. Some continue to live in their countries of origin, while others have immigrated to adopted homelands of Europe or the United States. The exhibition is arranged in three galleries: the large Ilgenfritz Gallery and its Corridor, the smaller Wright Gallery, and in one gallery in the Cushing Building where four films are presented.
“The Shape of Birds” is organized by Francine Weiss, Ph.D., Newport Art Museum’s senior curator who, during a casual gallery interview, explained that the exhibition was in the conceptualization phase for many years. Weiss felt strongly that a presentation of art from the Middle East was necessary given the region’s impact on Western culture. Weiss explained that she approached the selection of artwork, which includes New Media — Films — from her interest in symbolic communication and semiotics: images as language. While curating the artists, she was focused on presenting an exhibition that demonstrated the regions diversity.
“Although this exhibition focuses on a region, it does not suggest that this group of artists has one essential or homogenous experience or identity. Rather, this exhibition emphasizes the importance of presenting and evaluating art within its historical, cultural, and geographic contexts,” Weiss wrote in her exhibition statement. “It is not lost on most of us that context is not just the personal context or the artist; it expands to include our current cultural climate. And, as this show came into being, it seemed all the more germane to current discussions of cultural identity, borders, migration and immigration.”
The exhibition is arranged into five thematic sections: Tradition & History; Home/Migration/Diaspora; War & Memory; Texts & Codes and The Body. As a critic, I recommend that visitors view the New Media Video + Film selections in the Cushing Building first. Not only do the four selected short films — ranging in length from three to 12 minutes — set the themes in place, the physical process of watching the films offers a moment of contemplation before moving into the visual abundance found within the rest of the exhibition.