A Post-Orientalist Leighton House

- By Sophie Arni

Raed Yassin's solo show, titled Kissing Amnesia was a delight for the eyes and a ticket across the world compacted in two sumptuous rooms. What a fantastic show.

Let's first talk about the setting: the iconic, historic, Leighton House Museum. This is an absolute must-see for anyone in London: a small, boutique museum for the cognoscenti of interior design and art. This was the residence of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), a Victorian artist and President of the Royal Academy. Built to Leighton's requirements, he kept decorating it over his lifetime. Today, the house stands as a product of 30 years of collecting and arranging. It's truly a unique gem.

Lord Leighton was not an orientalist, but a passionate collector and fervent admirer of Islamic Art. To put it bluntly, he transposed a mini version of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia copula in his living room. But he also enjoyed East-meets-West dialogues. Walking around the rooms made me realize that East-West dialogues that are not a 21st-century invention. He had Old Masters and 19th-century Victorian prints and paintings juxtaposed to Greek columns and nude sculptures, alongside Ottoman textiles and Safavid tiles walls. A quintessential red brick London home becomes an art-filled Marrakech villa. Blue Kashan and Kutahya ceramic tiles on his walls, Ottoman mosaics, constructing corners nonchalant Arabian-style sitting-down areas throughout his house, cushions and gold details worth of an Islamic palace... the Leighton House is a surprise that no one can possibly anticipate when walking along the Victorian houses of Holland Park Road. It was one of the best pleasant surprises I have had in a while.

The house is open to the public and hosts a number of exhibitions per year. On right now is Raed Yassin's Kissing Amnesia. It comprises three major pieces: a music installation, a series of embroidered paintings, and a set of ceramic vases. I particularly appreciated the variety in media. "Variety" is probably the word I would choose to describe the show.

Yassin's music installation, titled Ruins in Space, replays en boucle the Arab music queen: Umm Kulthum. The Egyptian singer is one of the Arab world's most recognizable voices and has been such a huge inspiration to Arab contemporary artists. I was expecting a simple celebration of her music: but what do I find? Again, another surprise. Her vinyl disk has Korean inscriptions written on it. The wall text reads that Yassin bought the vinyl on eBay, and it is a remnant of a short-lived 1980s Korean radio fascination with the Umm Kulthum. I smile.

Next up are the embroidered paintings. A series of extremely well-crafted, vibrantly colored rectangular flat embroideries of daily Middle Eastern family scenes. Some are quite cinematographic, like Kissing (2013) and Kissing 2 (2013), and reminiscent of Egyptian cinema posters from the 1940s and 1950s. Others are scenes of children, wives, and husbands, sharing a meal and spending time together. Yassin makes an ironic comment on the Western fascination with the 'Arab world' and how 'they live their daily life' amongst 'bombs and grenades'. He depicts another, more real version of Arab daily life, which is joyful, loving, warm. His compositions make viewers want to jump inside these still lives and join these families. But he does more: these characters stand in a cloud of dreamy patterns. The craftsmanship is another strong element of these works. One would see these types of patterns on fine porcelain or luxurious textiles: instead, Yassin uses them as a backdrop of contemporary painting. Next are Chinese Ming-style porcelain vases, produced in China in 2013 under the commission of Yassin himself. These vases reveal more than their usual floral patterns: handpainted on these fine porcelain vases are scenes of Lebanese civil war. Drones, tanks, planes crashing, ruins of Byblos' columns and remains of Roman architecture, and crushed concrete West Beirut buildings can all be detected in cobalt blue ink. Quoting Yassin's interview with Ibraaz in 2012 about these pieces: "I wanted to do a project about the Civil War that really makes it more like a decorative item [...] By putting [the civil war] on decorative items, I get rid of it, in a way – it becomes like a vase, for the house."

Every person reading the wall label of the piece was seen a second later examining, knees bent, every detail of this fascinating news-worthy and timely scenery. Yassin is not only bridging Lebanon and China, as in East and East instead of East and West, but he is celebrating the "Eastern" way of looking at art. With painted and glazed ceramics, hand-painted miniatures, embroidered textiles, and carved metalworks, the beauty of Yassin's works is in the details. Appreciating a piece of art from a meter's distance may be a Western concept after all: "Eastern" art appreciation is best handled with a magnifying glass.

Strong conceptual practice, powerful political message, and exceptional craft: rare are occasions these three meet. Raed Yassin was born in 1979 in Beirut and studied theatre at the Beirut's Institute of Fine Arts. He had shows worldwide and won the recognized Abraaj Prize. The Leighton House Museum is open (almost) daily and can be accessed via the Notting Hill tube station.


Open daily except Tuesdays 12 Holland Park Road London W14 8LZ

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