Ahmed Moustafa, Horse and Horseman, 1996-8, mixed oil and acrylic on canvas. Copyright of King Abdulaziz Public Library.
LONDON - Visiting two important exhibitions at the British Museum this week made me realize just how far back in time the relationship with the Greater Middle East extends, and in what special ways it has impacted British culture and history. Of course we know this to be true in a vague and casual way, but these two captivating exhibitions remind us exactly how.
A landmark exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World, boasts a portrait of an Arabian emissary, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun who may well have inspired the Bard’s portrayal of Othello. The magnificent robes and impressive sword plays right into the Orientalist notion of the composite figure – this man could be North African, Ottoman or Arab. But despite the outward splendour, the eyes hint at the potential threat underneath – Shakespeare’s Moors (Othello and Aaron in Titus Andronicus) invariably turned into villainous, scheming characters. The historical roots of misgivings about the exotic Orient found an articulate exponent in the greatest literary figure of the English language.
Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, ambassador to England from the King of Barbary (Morocco), unknown artist, England, c. 1600. Oil on panel. Copyright of Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon (University of Birmingham).
More positively, the small but exquisite exhibition of The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot traces the roots of the domestication of the horse, and reminds us that three Arabian stallions introduced to Britain in the seventeenth century produced the Thoroughbred breed which now accounts for 95% of all modern Thoroughbreds - hence the foundation for today’s horse-racing world. I always feel particularly proud that Sotheby’s held the first ever auction of Arabian horses in 1989 – a fact easily forgotten today. When speaking to the show’s co-curator, Dr John Curtis, about his favourite work in the exhibition, he points to a portrait of Lady Lade that he thinks brings together all the elements he has painstakingly addressed – the past, the present, Arabia and Britain. For me, the work by Ahmed Moustafa was especially striking: a regal rider and his trusty steed evokes heroes past and present. Closer inspection shows the whole image to be composed of calligraphy – a barely-disguised attempt at circumventing the Islamic prohibition of figurative art. Other works that caught my eye included a wonderful painting by Iranian artist Afsoon who cleverly brings life to an old Persian expression (“staring a gift horse in the mouth”).
George Stubbs’ Laetitia, Lady Lade, 1793: Copyright of the Royal Collection.
Both of these exhibitions will draw large British and Middle Eastern audiences. After all, what is more well-known about England than Shakespeare, and more instrumental in the evolution of mankind than the role of the horse? That we find such early cross-references in the histories of the two cultures should come as no surprise.