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Indefatigable enthusiasm in Saeb Eigner's book "Art of the Middle East: Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran"

While one may not be familiar with some of the book's more niche digressions, Eigner's dexterity in referencing the ancient past never fails to impress

The deeply-knowledgeable Saeb Eigner was instrumental in creating the definitive British Museum “Word into Art” exhibition of 2006, which introduced artists such as Dia Al-Azzawi to a wider public, and now presents the fruit of a long love-affair with art. The introductory general survey is especially strong on the post-revolutionary period in Egypt, where Eigner was born. It is followed by a wide-ranging overview of art in public and private collections from countries as diverse as Iran, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, though Turkey is not included. Eigner includes a brief note on each artist, and though one senses that “explicability” has been a factor in most selections, Eigner’s sensitivity to close associations with tradition comes over affectingly. He observes, for instance, Shaker Hassan’s references to ancient Mesopotamia, illustrates the ruby-coloured drama of Chant Avedissian’s “artistes” with images of Ottoman velvet and notes how the painted textiles of Zaman Jassim evoke memory and touch. Inevitably, a personal selection is sometimes very eclectic: I do not share, for example, Eigner’s admiration for bizarre contortions of Arabic script, such as the configurations of Ahmed Moustafa and Charles-Hossein Zenderoudi’s singularly pointless infinite repetition in Arabic letters of the name of a small Swiss town. The reader may sometimes puzzle over the lover’s choice, but his passion is infectious.

Merrell, £39.95 (hb) ISBN 9781858945002

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 214 June 2010