Born in 1979, Henry Hemming went to school in London, followed by university in Newcastle. Two months after graduating with a 1st in History he began a year-long journey through the Middle East in a second-hand Toyota pick-up truck called Yasmine, together with another artist friend, Al Braithwaite. Using Yasmine as an eye-catching distracter is a used trick, (see my blog entry on the Adventure Capitalist). Yasmine drew much curiosity and diffuse potential animosity the locals may have. The boys had to roughen up Yasmine’s body to give it a weathered look and paint a Mashallah across its body to bless its journey because Yasmine look too new not to be a coveted item.
At school Henry and Al had talked – albeit in the slightly dreamy unrealistic sense of the word – about the idea of travelling the world as artist-explorers (with patchy beards (see below). Both believed in the value of making work in situ and allowing their setting to interfere as much as possible with their artistic process. The journey through the Middle East that followed was, more or less, the first time they’d put this idea to the test.
The idea was in part foolhardy and in part eye-opening. The boys are turned back by the Slovaks border guard as suspected Islamist. Henry witnessed the practice of swirling dervishes, hung out with the pious and the American worshippers in Iran, mingled among Jordanian family and incensed crowds who are angry with the attack on Iraq. Using art as his passport, travels from the drug-fuelled ski slopes of Iran via the region’s mosques, palaces, army barracks, secret beaches, police cells, nightclubs, torture chambers, brothels and artists’ studios all the way to Baghdad. Visiting Baghdad in its highest alert, missing a curfew and risked being killed by cross-fires and 4th of July party with the GIs in Saddam’s Presidential Palace etc. Memorable.
Henry presents a crystal irony of the belief of GIs fighting for freedom and liberty, and the outrage of the Arabs. He lifted the veil of stigma and stereotypes about Middle East and revealed that at heart the Middle Eastern pursued the same yearnings as everyone else on earth, the right to speak their minds, to practice their religions and to express themselves in beauty and art.
For me, Al and Esam, the experience of thinking of ourselves as artists had, among other things, conditioned us with a sense of artist-ness that owed a lot to the universal caricature of the artist as the expressive, liberal, belligerent, sex-crazed and emotionally tortured loner who smokes a lot and whose if you opened it up would be a crazy, flighty, Joycian stream of consciousness. “Oh, you’re an artist. Right. Well, that explains the beard.” Or, “You’re not that weird for an artist.”
Like a Palestinian being told over and over that the only language he fully understood was that of violence, or a Muslim being told that the “Islamic world” was under attack because of its Islamicness, it is hard not to believe in a myth if it is projected on you consistently from a position of authority. Even more so when there are images that appear to confirm the myth. Once enough people believe in the myth it becomes self-perpetuating and before long, as somebody who makes art for a living you feel compelled to act a bit tortured or have moments of weirdness so that you feel, in a passive and societal sense, more like an artist. Ditto as a Palestinian.
Henry found a common ground with the locals through his art. One notable scene is where Al and Henry sat painting an Iraqi artist and the Iraqi artist painted them in turn. All sat painting one another, in them, Henry and Al found “themselves”. Everywhere we went in the Middle East we had been drawn to places and people in whom we saw ourselves.
It is refreshing to read travel writing through an artist eyes. More so when this artist, Hemming, came to the Middle East armed with a thorough knowledge of the culture and the religion of Islam.
The main problem was the term “Islamic world”. With some 15 mil European Muslims living north of Granada and West of Istanbul, it felt anachronistic or just wrong to talk about the Islamic world as a geographical unit. It was much better and more accurate to talk about a body of believers, the ummah. That way you would not imply that any Muslim living outside a predominantly Muslim country was in some way an exile or part of a diaspora community.
The other problem with the label “Islamic World” was neither the people we were meeting nor the places we were seeing were “Islamic”. “Islamic “means of Islam; that is, of the Qur’an or the hadiths, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, it implies something immutable. While most of the Muslims we had met were trying to follow Islam, they were not Islam itself. As one man pout it to me, “You must think of Islam itself as a beautiful bright light and we the Muslims are the moths that are all drawn to it”. The faith of no two Muslims was the same. But, put simply, the fact hat someone described themselves as a Muslim did not imbue them with any given characteristics. This felt important. So instead of talking about the “Islamic world”, were we making a “portrait of the centre of the Muslim world”? or perhaps it was better to talk about the plain old “Middle East? Better still, the “post-9/11 Middle East”?
“O Mankind! We have created you from a Male and Female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another ….” – The Quran, 49:13
Born in 1979, Henry Hemming went to school in and around London, followed by university in Newcastle. Two months after graduating with a 1st in History he began a year-long journey through the Middle East in a second-hand Toyota pick-up truck called Yasmine with another artist, Al Braithwaite.
At school Henry and Al had talked – albeit in the slightly dreamy unrealistic sense of the word – about the idea of travelling the world as artist-explorers (with patchy beards (see right). Both believed in the value of making work in situ and allowing their setting to interfere as much as possible with their artistic process. The journey through the Middle East that followed was, more or less, the first time they’d put this idea to the test.
In August 2003, a year after they set out, they returned to London having nearly being killed in Baghdad (Al more than Henry), with a large body of work in the back of their truck as well as three successful exhibitions completed. These took place in Tehran, Muscat and Amman. They sent a proposal for a slightly off-kilter visual account of this journey to Booth-Clibborn Editions and a year later Off Screen was published. A series of international exhibitions coincided with its release.