On 3 September 2002, three artists set off on a year-long journey across the Middle East, their aim to transmit through their art their immediate experience of the Islamic world. The result is Off Screen. Tactile reflections of form and colour, layered collages of Persian and Arabic type and iconography interwoven with diary extracts and ephemera communicate a visually rich, deliberately subjective and very accessible record of a journey and a fascinating portrait of cultural identity in the 21st century. The book follows in the footsteps of Al Braithwaite, Henry Hemming, Stephen Stapleton and Georgie Weedon as they work their way through Turkey, Iran, Kurdish Iraq, UAE and Oman, across Yemen to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, post-war Iraq and Israel. Throughout, they collaborated with local artists, took part in workshops and staged exhibitions in Tehran, Musqat and Amman, thus setting up a cultural dialogue wherever they went. Crucially, they got to places that foreign journalists, writers and tourists don't get to: they worked in remote villages in militarily tense eastern Turkey; they were in Kurdish Iraq on Christmas Eve and visited the alcohol- and drug-fuelled ski slopes above Tehran; they sat out the war with a Bedl family in Petra and made portraits of artists in Baghdad just eight weeks after Bush declared hostilities to be over. Finally, they visited the Dome of the Rock during a brief lull in its closure to foreign visitors. Their aim was to remove misconceptions about the Middle East, and explore and define the reality of life in this part of the world. They wanted to make their own contribution to the much-needed exchange of understanding through their art, specifically by making art in situ, what Braithwaite refers to as 'context-obsessed spontaneous expression'. Each double-page spread of the book stands as an individual artwork, reflecting their collective experiences of the streets, mosques, homes and deserts and capturing the modern face of Middle Eastern society - pages about artistic protests in an art college in Iran, drinking tea, being a woman in a patriarchal society, making art in Baghdad in the summer with the power off, a fish and chip van in Yemen, portraits of McDonalds workers in Oman, fast-food Islamic geometries, short stories, celebrating the 4th July in one of Saddam's ex-palaces and making art in a building formerly used by Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party to torture Kurdish freedom fighters. For many the culture of the Middle East is still foreign. Off Screen: Four Young Artists in the Middle East out to humanise it and to help erode prejudice. The individual attributes of any culture attest to a common humanity in which many elements are shared - an appreciation of beauty is just one. The efforts of this enthusiastic group form an important voice, defining the future of our cultural presence in the contemporary world and bringing us a step closer to understanding and embracing the exciting diversity of all nations and cultures. Of moving beyond the basic 'us' and 'them.'
Henry Hemming is the author of 'Misadventure in the Middle East', 'In Search of the English Eccentric', 'Together' and most recently 'Churchill's Iceman: The True Story of Geoffrey Pyke: Genius, Fugitive, Spy'. For more, see henryhemming.com