In the monochromatic artwork of Ghada Khunji, she has depicted the character of Almitra, the female protagonist in Kahlil Gibran’s seminal text The Prophet who appears alongside the male prophet Almustafa. As a seer of divine vision, Almitra is cast in Khunji’s work as a holy spirit floating inches from the ground with her arms outstretched and wearing flowing robes with a halo of flowers.
Although the artist is employing direct Christian symbology, the piece actually holds reference across several faiths including Sufi Islam and Hinduism. Most notably, the central figure has an image of Gibran reflected onto her chest and in it, Khunji, a Bahraini artist, has captured the duality of Gibran’s philosophy. Inspired by a quote from his poetic novel Broken Wings, Khunji is interested in the unity of his messages. “Gibran preached the message of Oneness,” she says. “Without sorrow there would be no joy; without female there can’t be male; as AlMitra was to AlMustafa, each engaging in its uniquely significant role of two becoming one.”
The photomontage work is part of a peacebuilding touring exhibition that features over 38 contemporary artists from the Middle East who have been inspired by Gibran’s poetry, writing and art. Whilst Gibran’s work seems to be relevant across ages and geographies, it is particularly timely to host this exhibition in 2018 as The Prophet celebrates its 95th publishing anniversary this year. Smaller versions of this exhibition, titled Kahlil Gibran: A Guide For Our Times, were held in Bahrain in March, and in Cairo in April and May and both are now coming together, with a selection of work from new artists for this summer showing in London, where it will run from August 6-10 at Sotheby’s Mayfair galleries – just after the new musical of Gibran’s first novella, Broken Wings, premieres in the city’s West End theatre district.
London also holds a special connection to the late author who spent a few integral months in the British capital in 1910. At the end of a two-year period of art studies in Paris, the Lebanese-born writer came to London where he took inspiration from the mystical work of the poet-painter William Blake and the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Alongside two compatriots with whom he travelled, Gibran spent his time in London devising an ambitious plan to reconcile the faiths in the Arab world on a grand artistic scale. The trio sketched plans for an opera house in Beirut showcasing two domes, one resembling a church basilica and the other featuring mosque minarets, symbolising the reconciliation of the two religions.
Gibran’s distinctive attitude towards building bridges between the east and the west by accessing a seemingly universal spiritual dimension is what makes his legacy so long-lasting. The artworks in this exhibition all react to this in varying ways. With swirling strokes and threads of red traversing the canvas otherwise populated with sylph-like female figures, Egyptian Amal Nasr is attempting to depict the emotion of love, which was something that Gibran consistently wrote about. Another artist, also from Egypt who tackles this subject is Yasser Rostom whose incredibly detailed ink drawing depicts two birds, with anatomically human hearts and feet poised in a dance-like ballerina pose. The intricate work brings to life Gibran’s timeless advice on how to love:
“Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together. For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
Co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker, the exhibition is hosted by CARAVAN; an international peacebuilding arts NGO that hosts events and exhibitions all over the world to spread mutual understanding and awareness through Middle Eastern artists. The choice of Gibran as a role model, inspiration and also muse is pertinent because he is one of the world’s most famous Arab authors and spent his lifetime also trying to propagate tolerance and empathy.
Several of the pieces show Gibran’s portraits rendered in varying styles. Bahraini Jamal Abdul Rahim, who calls Gibran a fearless artist created a portrait adorned with some of his most famous quotes in Arabic calligraphy and Sarah Aradi, another Bahraini has rendered his image in charcoal and watercolour. “Gibran’s face said more to me then he has ever spoken about himself, a seeker of the true essence and meaning of life,” she said of her choice to paint his portrait. “Yes, he may seem calm on the outside like a still lake, but deep inside his chest lies a storming heart and that beam of light that made him to this day an influenced and a life changer to the many who read his books or have come upon one of his quotes.”
Lebanese artist, Zena Assi’s work, focuses on Gibran’s legacy in his own country. She sculpted a tower structure from the small elements in her hometown of Beirut that bear evidence of Gibran’s influence such as graffiti of Fayrouz (the famous Lebanese singer) who included a lot of Gibran’s poems and words in her music, as well as the replica of his drawings sold in shops and his words proudly used in slogans and advertisements.
“This work plays on the idea of belonging and raises the question of collective identity as it transforms every time we alter our individual memories through time and space,” she said.
What is clear from this collection of diverse and thought-provoking pieces is that almost a century after his most seminal text was written Gibran’s legacy is still alive and strong across the world.
Words: Anna Seaman Top Photo: Ghada Khunji Further Photos Courtesy Caravan
Kahlil Gibran: A Guide For Our Times. Sotheby’s, London. August 6-10, 2018 (Open to the Pulbic: Monday-Friday, 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM ). A CARAVAN exhibition sponsored by Barclays Bank Middle East / North Africa.