Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Star of the Orient captures the imagination of a new generation in unexpected ways

A mall is probably not the most auspicious setting to showcase the life and work of one of the Arab worlds’ most accomplished vocal artists; even if it is home to the flagship stores of Dior, Lanvin and Marc Jacobs.

Yet on January 10th, 2009 an intriguing exhibit discreetly opened on the second floor of Bahrain’s Moda Mall, chronicling the life of Oum Kalthoum; hot on the heels of a block buster show held at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe the year before. Yet instead of a rehash of the Paris exhibit, where the IMA’s curators took a more academic approach to map out the legendary singer’s life and career, the Bahrain exhibit by contrast explored Oum Kalthoum as a pop-culture icon in the region.

Instead of presenting objects by theme or time period; Oum Kalthoum's personal possessions, (including her trademark sunglasses and scarves, photographs, recordings and other archival material) were mixed in amongst the work of international artists and designers, who were all inspired by the legendary artist, known to many as the “Star of the Orient.”

These include portraits of the Egyptian diva reinterpreted through the artistic lens of contemporary Arab artists such as Youssef Nabil and Adel El-Siwi. This unlikely combination of artifacts not only brings to life the story of the accomplished singer, but also has the effect of demystifying the legend, especially to a new generation in the region.

Although Oum Kalthoum still retains a near mythical status among Arabs today, her music hasn’t always been easy on young ears. This was partly due to the fact that much of her lyrics relied heavily on interpretations of 10th-century Syrian poems by Abu Firas al-Hamadani, the stanzas of Omar Khayyam and the work of Ahmad Shawqi.

Sponsored in part by Kuwait’s Villa Moda, the curators of this sleekly designed exhibit (which stretched over two floors), had employed some novel ways to bridge that generational gap. These included a series of unassuming listening pods scattered throughout the exhibit area, as well as archival concert footage projected onto walls that encouraged visitors to stop and listen.

The exhibition also departed from its Paris counterpart in its intimacy, as visitors could get up close to some of Oum Kalthoum’s most private possessions; giving insight into her carefully crafted image. These include a stunning bouclé couture ensemble covered entirely in snowy white sequins. Kalthoum ordered the piece from the couture house of Jean Patou in 1967, during a trip to Paris to give a performance at the Olympia music hall (her only concert outside of the Middle East). While another exhibit case holds a pair of shoes with their matching handbag, which had been commissioned from Gucci with gold plated hardware.

Sitting in front of a large projection of Oum Kalthoum singing during a live performance, one Bahraini visitor recalled her earliest childhood memory of the Egyptian Diva. “On the first Thursday of every month she would give a live concert from Cairo that would be aired throughout the Middle East. The streets would clear that day, and my father would rush home to listen to her voice waft out of the radio. It was a magical moment.”

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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