In CULTURE

 

American poet and bookseller Beau Beausoleil has amassed a vast collection of original artwork in the service of celebrating the literary heart of Iraq

Beau Beausoleil has never been to Baghdad, but for the past eight years the American bookseller and poet has spent his days mentally wandering Al-Mutanabbi Street. Named after the 10th century poet, the narrow street lined with bookstores and stalls was the literary heart of the city for more than 800 years, until, in March 2007, a car bomb exploded outside the iconic Shahbandar Café, killing 30 people and wounding 100. Reading about the attack in his hometown of San Francisco, Beausoleil was determined to make ordinary Americans sit up and take notice.

“I became an organiser like a lot of people become organisers – first I waited for somebody else to do something,” he recalls. “When no one did, then I knew that I had to do something… I knew that if I were a bookseller in Baghdad, that’s where my bookshop would be, and as a poet I knew that would be my cultural inheritance, so this whole distance between myself and the Iraqi people just fell away.”
Beausoleil got in contact with local artists and writers and in August 2007 he organised a commemorative reading, accompanied by an exhibition of 43 original broadsides. “That’s when I knew that I didn’t want to stop there – that the Iraq war was still going on and that people were still enduring it and that we needed to show solidarity with this cultural community,” he says.
Named Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here for its emphasis on asking people all over the world to identify the Baghdad street with their own beloved cultural centres, the project grew by leaps and bounds. Beausoleil contacted British book artist and printer Sarah Bodman, who agreed to help coordinate the project in Europe. Together, they collected 130 broadsides, then immediately put out a call for artists interested in creating a set of three original artist’s books.

Kathy Aokl, I Read, Photo polymer Intaglio, 2014. Courtesy of Art Hazelwood and the artist

Beau Beausoleil has never been to Baghdad, but for the past eight years the American bookseller and poet has spent his days mentally wandering Al-Mutanabbi Street. Named after the 10th century poet, the narrow street lined with bookstores and stalls was the literary heart of the city for more than 800 years, until, in March 2007, a car bomb exploded outside the iconic Shahbandar Café, killing 30 people and wounding 100. Reading about the attack in his hometown of San Francisco, Beausoleil was determined to make ordinary Americans sit up and take notice.

“I became an organiser like a lot of people become organisers – first I waited for somebody else to do something,” he recalls. “When no one did, then I knew that I had to do something… I knew that if I were a bookseller in Baghdad, that’s where my bookshop would be, and as a poet I knew that would be my cultural inheritance, so this whole distance between myself and the Iraqi people just fell away.”
Beausoleil got in contact with local artists and writers and in August 2007 he organised a commemorative reading, accompanied by an exhibition of 43 original broadsides. “That’s when I knew that I didn’t want to stop there – that the Iraq war was still going on and that people were still enduring it and that we needed to show solidarity with this cultural community,” he says.
Named Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here for its emphasis on asking people all over the world to identify the Baghdad street with their own beloved cultural centres, the project grew by leaps and bounds. Beausoleil contacted British book artist and printer Sarah Bodman, who agreed to help coordinate the project in Europe. Together, they collected 130 broadsides, then immediately put out a call for artists interested in creating a set of three original artist’s books.
“I knew the only way to keep the project going, to keep it relevant, was to add other art disciplines,” says Beausoleil. “I had come into contact with some people who make artists’ books and they put so much of themselves into each one of them.” He and Bodman soon gathered a total of 260 sets, all of them beautifully conceived and crafted, and each utterly unique in its approach to the topic of culture, destruction, rebirth and memory.
In 2013, Beausoleil and Bodman sent a complete set of the broadsides to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad, where they were exhibited to the public before becoming part of the library’s permanent archive. At the same time, Beau and seven coordinators put out a call for printmakers to participate, under the title Absence and Presence. Prints have been submitted by 160 artists from more than 20 countries and are still pouring in, accompanied by artist’s statements that provide poignant reflections on the importance of literature and culture.
Beausoleil and British poet Ama Bolton recently began asking artists to create bookmarks, which are printed in editions of 50 and left in public places to spread the project’s message more widely. The next step, says Beausoleil, will be to work with photographers.
As a poet and bookseller, Beausoleil is most at home with the written word, but he chose to work with visual artists for a reason. “I wanted something that would hold people for a few seconds, where they couldn’t just close the book,” he says. “There’s a constant noise that surrounds our body when we’re in an urban setting, and one of the things that really good visual art can do is to suddenly quiet that noise.”

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Hassan Alnawar, To Change, archival digital print of original oil painting, 11 × 15cm. Courtesy Cathy DeForest and the artist

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Emily Martin, Not A Straight Line, 2011. Courtesy of the artist

The incredible collection of artwork has spent the past few years touring universities and galleries around the world. From the American University of Cairo – where the exhibition was extended from two months to six, thanks to its popularity – to London’s Mosaic Rooms, to an exhibition of more than 500 pieces across multiple venues planned for Washington DC next spring, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here is connecting with global audiences. Beausoleil also hopes to organise more exhibitions in the Middle East in the coming months and years.
In the end, the project aims to ensure that the 2007 bombing and all that it represents is not forgotten. “What we’re trying to do is keep Iraq in people’s memories,” Beausoleil says. “We’re trying to use this artwork to dismiss the idea of ‘the other.’ Al-Mutanabbi Street is not just in Baghdad but in cultural streets all around us… My government was fine with us protesting the Iraq war, as long as we went home. I wanted a protest that didn’t go home.”
To find out more about Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, please visit al-mutanabbistreetstartshere-boston.com and markerofwitness.wordpress.com.

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