Copyright ©Khairat Al-Saleh
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1. On Art
2. Lectures and Speeches
1. ON Art
Artist’s Statement 1
My art is a journey and a quest. Because I was born in the Arab World
and crossed over to live in
Artist’s Statement 2
After the passing of the golden age of Arab civilization, a great darkness was ushered in due to conquest, great upheavals and political disintegration. Arab art was wrenched from the past into the present missing an interval, a beat, a continuity. I am in search of the lost bridge, the rainbow.
When I paint, I seem to leave the world behind with all its dissonance and contradictions. Perhaps I do take it with me, purified, condensed, and glowing. I have discovered that because I tend to respond to colour and light with intense animal joy, I cannot make journeys into the dark night of the soul in my paintings. Therefore, the ritual of painting for me has come to embody joy, celebration and praising in triumphant tones the beauty and the gradually
vanishing luster of our planet. I find myself clinging to the splendour of something that might vanish at any moment.
The summer like no summer
The light like no light
The trees like no trees
Where is that unimaginable joy
Where is that unearthly immortal summer?
I dream therefore my art dreams with me, not excluding pain, but courting the light despite the tragedies that overwhelm our world. I believe in the spiritual ennoblement of art.
2. Lectures and Speeches
From a speech delivered at SOAS of the University of London
…Since I owe allegiance to both East and West, and since as a questing questioning artist, I cannot attain spiritual health and maturity without reconciling these two principles in them and will continue to unite them, I must attempt to speak serenely and honestly. I do find it quite daunting. I am an artist' not an archaeologist. I am not a scholar in this field and my knowledge of archaeology is mainly visual. Indulging myself a little,
I tend to describe myself as an archaeological potter, a potter who creates by digging up the past in order to make all time contemporaneous. This evening in addressing you, I am going to use my own voice, for how else can I impart to you concepts and ideas which are very personal because they rule my vision and artistic entity. If art has taught me anything it has led me to believe that when we are most intensely personal,, that is in communication with our inner selves, the doors shutting us from our fellow human beings burst open.
I do not know when it started; I cannot exactly say when I set out on my journey towards and through times archaeological. I have embarked on my journey in order to be enriched and endowed. As I travel back in time and space, seeking the cradles of civilization, as I, overwhelmed with wonder, proceed in search of the treasures of our ancient earth, I find that I am enriching my own fragment of earth, and adding fresh layers of awareness to my experience. It has become a compulsion. I know that my artistic journey through time is largely a quest for meaning. Like many others, I believe that our contemporary existence is in need of rediscovering meaning. And we, each one of us, are travelers though we forget it.
Perhaps we are not alone. Ancient voices and ancient faces are all around us. If we summon them, they make themselves seen and heard. Ancestral murmurings and whisperings are not voices of the dead, but life stringing Itself in eternal continuity. In his great Poem, The Waste land, T.S. Eliot summons up the ancient gods and these life giving forces in order to fight off despair, "These fragments I have shored against my ruin", he says.
We conjure up the past in order to rebuild our houses and our lives. I go back to the past in order to search for our beginnings. The earth was young the with humanity still in its infancy, spiritually, intellectually and artistically. The joy of watching the dawning of civilizations is a unique experience, which could be achieved through leaps of the imagination. Everything was still waiting to be discovered and made.
revolution occurring in the
Civilization, is believed, began in
easy to become obsessed.
Pots are the greatest time and space travelers despite their amazing vulnerability and ephemerality. They have a kind of indestructible eloquence, which never falls to overwhelm. Like us, they are shaped out of clay, out of the primordial formless mud. Making a pot echoes the making of Adam. Yet their clay is more durable than our clay, and they hold time still in perpetuity. Ten thousand years old, as some of them are, and yet they are still with us.
Long before the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, which launched the Bronze Age in the Near
East, these early centers of population in
astonishing feats, which left to the potters o f the succeeding eras a considerably narrower scope for new achievements.
the ancient art of the potter, I am going to restrict myself to the pottery of
the culture of Tell Halaf, to be followed by a short
survey of the pottery of Tell Atchana. Then
I shall attempt a brief reference to the pottery of Minoan
Before I go any further and in order to provide some relief I would like to digress in order to stress the kinship with, and affinity with clay, man has always felt. The pot and the potter are not far apart. Therefore, I cannot resist the temptation to quote from Fitzgerald's Translation of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam. There is something truly fascinating about them, especially when we remember that the symbolism attached to pottery is very ancient indeed.
This jug was, ages past, a doleful lover
Like me - who had pursued a dream, like me.
This handle at its neck was once an arm
Entwined about some neck he loved too well
Yesterday in the market stood a potter
Pounding relentlessly his batch of clay.
My inner ear could hear it sigh and groan
Brother, I once was like you. Treat me gently
In the potter's workroom, shadowed by the wheel,
I pondered, watching how the master made
Handles and covers for his jugs and pitchers
From clay - from hands of king's, from beggar's feet.
I wandered down the Potter's Row
Continuously they tried new skills on clay;
Yet some devoid of vision, never noted
The ancestral dust on every turning wheel.
I saw at least two thousand pots, last night
In Potter's Row, not all of which were mute,
And one cried loudly "Friends, where is the potter
Where is the salesman, where the customer?.....
The elements that constitute a bowl
Hate all besotted murderers of bowls -
Bowls deftly moulded for the love of whom?
Then dashed to pieces, as a curse on whom?...
The clay from which this human frame was moulded
Forewarned a hundred wonders for me; yet -
Could I be worse or better than I am
Who was, even before He fashioned me?
(End of quotation)
Going back to the subject in hand, I would like to shed some light on the origins of clay. Clay itself is a repository of accumulated time. Most clay began as rocks, which were weathered and decomposed millions of years ago. The most important quality of clay is its flexibility, which enables it to keep a given shape when handled. Clay as it is dug is full of foreign bodies. It has to be purified before use. In ancient times, as it is today, this was done by mixing the clay with water and allowing the heavier impurities to sink to the bottom. Once a pot is made, it is left to dry. Incised and Impressed decoration has to be applied while the pot is still damp enough to accept such treatment. If desired, slip (diluted clay) can also be applied at this stage, because if the pot is too dry, slip will not adhere and it might flake during fining. Slip application is a taxing job even for the potters of today. A pot cannot be safely used until it is fired, but first painted decoration should be applied, if desired.
The potters of Tell Halaf and Ubaid, after them, displayed great mastery of the techniques I have mentioned, developing them, as they acquired more skills in their widely scattered settlements and villages. The pottery was hand-built, because the wheel was not invented in Mesopotamia until about 3400 BC, but it is thought that a primitive turntable seem to have been used, as Ann Louise Perkins points out in her detailed study of Tell Halaf pottery. In colour, the pottery was mostly buff or pinkish. And whether slipped or not it was often burnished or water-smoothed. In the early stages, decoration was exclusively monochrome and the paint a lustrous red-brown or brown. The well-fired ware was decorated with representational designs of animals and animal heads, especially stylized bull’s heads. The animals included leopards, horned animals,, scorpions and birds and fish. In addition, geometric design was applied like multiple zigzags, lozenges, and rows of stippling. However, the tentative early phase of Halaf, displayed in the middle and late periods considerable technical leaps. The ware now is monochrome and of a finer quality, thin-walled and nicely shaped. Kilns were discovered with ashes and wasters. Impressed and incised decoration was liberally used. Many seal stones and pendants were found with fine geometric design some of which, I believe, were used for stamp decoration.
The final phase of Halaf culture, about 4900 - 4500 BC, displays an accumulation of skills learned and tested. The vividly painted ware using mainly red and black paint over the common apricot slip, enhanced by the use of details in white over darker paints, shows vivid reliance on balance and symmetry. By now, the geometric design of Halaf has multiplied to include cruciform shapes, fish scales, dotted circles, wavy patterns, also double axe, herringbone and small diamond patterns. In addition, multiple rows of hatching and cross hatching, a variety of ornament, including the very popular chequer design and many textile-like motifs were also in vogue. The splendid thin plates of this period are among the most beautiful products of the Tell Halaf kilns, probably the first of their kind in the world.
On a visit
breath-taking quality of the brushwork. How did they do it? What methods of preparing and mixing the colours did they develop in order to produce
such consistency, and what kind of brushes did they use to achieve this complex, sophisticated quality which I and many fellow potters can only dream
of achieving. In describing the Halaf Pottery, Some archaeologists tend to emphasize qualities like static and formal in order to mean lacking in vigour
and inventiveness. However, what I see is beauty of composition and a sensitive admirable control. James Mellart comments, "Precise and neat,
minute but repetitive, the Halaf designs formed an overwhelming rich brocade'.
In studying ancient pottery and its designs, we ought to bear in mind that many ornaments had their origin in ritual. Decorated pots, carrying the
symbols of the deity, became cult objects because of their association with water. Water, of course, was linked with vegetation and the fertility of the
land, hence with the fertility cults and the worship of the Great Mother Goddess, Ishtar. As Ishtar's worship spread, East and West and countless
temples were built in her honour, her symbolism, names and attributes kept multiplying endlessly. Ishtar was worshipped for thousands of years. She
was Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte,
the virgin, the creator and the destroyer, goddess of nature and fertility, goddess of love and desire,, the protector of cities and crafts, the dreaded
one who ruled over fate, a force of life unbridled
and untamed, and yet a law-giver. In
Aphrodite strove to embody the omnipotence of Ishtar. The association of pottery with water as a receptacle and container of this life-giving force,
must have meant that the finest decorated pottery was reserved for sacred functions, as the many broken vessels found in temple rubbish-pits testify.
religious murals were discovered in the throne-chamber
believed, the ritual associated with the coronation of the kings of Mari. Two priests or priestesses are shown holding two jars overflowing with water,
parting to form four streams abounding in fish. The symbolism this mural projects is emphasized by the discovery of a statuette given the name "the
goddess of the fountain" or Urnina. Urnina is another name for Ishtar. She stands holding a jar, pressed to her naval. She herself, who is a vessel
containing the source of life, is holding the same kind of jar overflowing with water, depicted in the mural, but the stylized streams and fishes are
presented this time as part of the ornament of her dress.
Other symbols associated with Ishtar which appear on the pottery of Tell Half and other pottery, are rosettes, Four-lobed flowers and cruciform motifs in various shapes and patterns, ranging from a simple cross motif to what is described as the Maltese cross, in addition to some swastika patterns. Cruciform shapes enclosed in circles, symbolizing the moon or the egg, represented the mother goddess as a fertility goddess. Animals like lions, horses, cows, doves and snakes were also associated with her. Tell Halaf pottery shows an obsession with bull's heads and the double axe, associated with a male-divinity, the consort of the mother goddess, whose names also multiplied with the passage of time so that he was known as Dumuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis and Dionysus. The bulls’ heads in Halaf pottery are always stylized.
Now I shall make a time leap and move to Tell Atchana or Alalack, as it was known to the Hittites in its later phases. Atchana occupies a
site beside the river Orontes in
temples, where a great number of the pottery was discovered. Tell Atchana spanned the centuries between 3400 - 1200 BC, and is especially
important because, owing to the evidence that it was in occupation for more than a millennium, the methods of decoration vary widely. I shall
mention a few. Tell Atchana is credited with the first glazed pottery in eviden evidence so far, owing to the discovery of some glazed earthenware vessels ranging from the 13th Century back to the 17th Century BC, as Sir Leonard Woolley to whom I am indebted for this account states. This
means that glazed pottery became known in
One must also bear in mind that the Babylonian and Assyrian period had polychrome glazed pottery, glazed bricks for example, which reached
Most remarkable in the pottery annals of Atchana is the black impressed ware (c. mid 2nd millennium) created, some say, in imitation of metal prototypes. The clay, which is fired in a reduced atmosphere i.e. starved of air, is black and the design is not incised (scratched or engraved) but impressed using tools, mainly chisels, wedges, tubes and pointed drills. The patterns on the burnished ware were filled in with a white paste,
thus creating white and black effect. Many of the motifs are simple and repetitive echoing the geometric patterns developed so far everywhere in
or running circles, which also appear in Cretan
and Greek pottery, adds a rhythmical sense of movement. This style, in addition
to many influences streaming from Mesopotamia and
ware is distinguished by its decoration, white on a black painted background. Some of the most beautiful Nuzu pottery at Tell Atchana uses semi naturalistic motifs of whirls of water and waves, clusters of stylized papyrus plants and a tree with lotus flowers. Some attribute these charming
designs to-the influence of Crete, but I
tend to believe that the influence came from Egyptian design which in this
respect influenced both
Anatolia and in its later phases from
design must have influenced its neighbors. The elegance of the Nuzu Atchana Pottery and the cleverness of the artwork inspired me to create a series
of black and white pots which taxed all my ingenuity. One of the hardest things in decorating pottery is to achieve successful light-on-dark effects.
I have used the Tell Halaf and Atchna pottery to demonstrate that there was continuity in the development of the art of the potter. Althoug fashions
and styles kept changing endlessly, the accumulation of experience and knowledge spread geographically from one site to the next and from one
culture to another. As for the journey, even of the earliest techniques through time, the greatest proof I can offer is that they have reached us. No
tradition, no culture and no civilization is born fully-fledged, in isolation, and without a relation to the rest of the world it inhabits. It is because of the incredible ability of pots to travel that a constant flow of evolvement marks the achievements of the potters of the ancient world, especially in the
traditions, among others, which were developed in
of the Canaanites, inhabited the coastal plain of
to play a great part in the history of the ancient world. Even after incorporation into the Babylonian Empire in the fifth century BC, they continued
to influence world politics, in the Near East
through their fleets, and in the west through their powerful colony of
own culture, but the cultures of the peoples they encountered and mixed with. They fulfilled their destiny in the role of distributors, carriers and
enhancers of civilization. Their maritime adventures took them across the uncharted seas to very distant lands after they had developed the
oceangoing sea craft. Not only did they
explore the shores of the Mediterranean, including those of
rest of North Africa, but they are also credited with having circumnavigated Africa and sailed as far as Britain, even Further to America, where
some Phoenician inscriptions seem to have been discovered. The commercial and
cultural relations between
Phoenicians and the Aegean World, accelerated in the last half of the second millennium and the start of the first. This resulted in the transmission, largely by sea, of the artistic and religious traditions of the East to the Aegean World. Commercially, the ships
carried the wealth of the East to Crete and
The Phoenicians were among the peoples who settled in
Cadmus, looking for her, came to
was destined to become the mother of Dionysus. However, what is not a legend, although the Greek legend echoes it, was the fact that the Phoenicians
handed down their alphabetical system of writing to the Aramaeans and the Greeks who passed it to the Romans, thus forming the
basis of the modern European, as well as the Arabic scripts.
The Minoans in
The 12th century BC witnessed great upheavals and mass-population movements. The so-called lea-people, hitherto unidentified clearly,
invaded bringing terrible destruction to the Mycenaean and Cretan world, and wreaking havoc along the Phoenician coast of
the Sea. But the Mediterranean world soon sprang to life again salvaging what could be salvaged. Starting again was not a novel experience to
the peoples of the
conquerors? The first millennium
BC, which saw the emergence of
and exchange, encouraged greatly by the displacement of peoples. Perhaps the upheavals of the 12th Century BC ushered in a
new intensity and the desire to recapture what was lost to the powers of darkness. The return of stability to the Greek world saw the emergence
of a geometric art largely devoted to pottery. Some scholars tend to believe that, in comparison to the achievements of the
Mycenaean artisans, the potters of the geometric period, which flourished between the 10th and the 8th Centuries BC, produced lesser-in-
quality pottery. They also tend to think that the same value judgment applies to the Greek geometric pottery in comparison with the
black-figure style pottery, which succeeded it. But I am inclined to believe that the geometric period, not only produced an idiom
which, when no longer largely used in decorating pottery, was to influence architectural ornamentation, and created some very
distinguished pottery as well. In addition, it left a legacy of ideals; accuracy, rhythm and balance which were to govern the Greek aesthetics in years
to come. Some specialists too, it seems to me, tend to divorce the period of Greek geometric art from the geometric art of
the idiom of geometric
art which had developed in the
to each craft was constantly enriched by additions generated by other crafts, but also by a more general language of design which
continuously enlarged its vocabulary by borrowing from foreign and imported elements. To carry my speculation even a
little further, I also
believe that the combined legacy of
to re-emerge in Byzantine art despite the individual and unique character each achieved. Later, all these influences combined again to create
an intensification a concentration, and a system of endless multiplication and regeneration which, under the Arabs and Islam, resulted
in the creation of the
geometric art of Arabesque which blossomed on the walls of the Al-Hambra
and the mosques of
Eastern world. Both created a magnificent cultural lake where the confluence of the knowledge and the learning of the ancient world forged
an awesome fusion. Both fulfilled the role of repositories of civilizations and treasure house of diverse cultures.
And here I would like to point out that, in as far as I know my work in this field is pioneering because of the manner and the reasons I have
chosen to pursue my aim In every thing I am doing, I am trying to link the past to the present or to a past that is nearer to our present, like bringing
forward the geometric art of antiquity to the Islamic arabesques . I also would like to point out that all the designs I have created are
original. Yes, the vocabulary is as old as humanity, but the composition is my own except when I deliberately choose to quote from the
past in order to pay homage to, or celebrate a certain design. Nevertheless, always, what is very important to me, is never to impose a design on a
pot, The pot chooses the design, and I obey. The pots, which are most dear to me, are those ones, which reflect the marriage of ancient
design to the geometric art of arabesque, thus condensing about 5000 years of decoration.
My journey through time, in order to make all-time contemporaneous which I began by describing as a quest for meaning, enrichment, aesthetic development, and a desire to return to our beginnings, was also trigged by intellectual restlessness and the desire to interpret history and
art for myself. I had grown so dissatisfied with the interpretations modern history offers us that it became imperative for me to try and find out for
myself, despite my human limitations. Half truths, distorted and prejudiced truths, biased stereotypes, the manipulation of history and the past
to create divisions and absurd political absolutes made me doubt. I doubt, therefore, I must re-examine, re-discover,
re-read evidence and data in order to find my way back to comparative certainty. In the maze of political, ethnic, religious, cultural and
social divisions, which deform our modern civilization and pose deadly dangers to it, I decided to embark on a journey to the past in search
of the underlying unity of humanity and all civilizations. If we can excuse past civilizations for, some times, their lack of enlightenment and
broad-mindedness, how can we excuse our modem contemporary civilization which has at its bid inexhaustible sources of knowledge and the collective
learning of humanity, past and present. When I speak of unity, I do not mean unity as a destroyer of diversity but its very life force. A
garden full of roses is a garden full of roses. But a garden full of all sorts of flowers and blooms is the kind of garden that liberates us
and ensure Our mental and spiritual health because of its profusion and perpetual changes. We all need to make history integral and
civilizations chapters in the one book, in order to become wholesome enough to give a chance to all the peoples of the world, whoever they are,
the chance to breathe and mature in safety. If there is an underlying unity, we can speak as one voice and we are not afraid to face
the challenges posed by other cultures and religions. Words like alien, foreign, esoteric and outlandish will lose their threatening
connotations, enabling us to glory in alternative ways of life and patterns of thought and, in alternative arts and aesthetics. We can then celebrate
their differences without suspicions and fear. How can the West live without the East. Think how impoverished the world
would be without the Arabian Nights or better still, think how utterly boring the world would be with
one dominant master civilization.
The myth of two irreconcilably separate and opposing principles as alien to each other as fire to water, the Orient and the Occident, with the
first, culturally, historically and racially inferior has created terrible and untold suffering to the peoples of the Orient. This myth is also responsible
for having helped to spawn such disastrous concepts as Indo-European versus Semitic, created by 19th century Oriental scholarship and adopted
by many scholars. The intellectual nightmare, which was the inevitable outcome of such reasoning, has plagued archeological thought ever since,
and is still plaguing it in diverse ways. The artificial
severance of Asia and the Near East, historically and culturally from
the arbitrary, despotic racial classification of the peoples of the ancient world, have dealt, in my belief, a sever blow to world civilization and
its future. Western, in historical, cultural, and artistic terms has come to mean, to put it simply, that attributes like original, imaginative, dynamic,
explorative, and creative are inherent qualities of the Western mind, while static, repetitive, stilled, dogmatic, traditional, passive as opposed
to dynamic, and lacking in the spirit of creativity, innovation and imaginative visualization and regeneration are the qualities that best describe
the Oriental mind. Asia, the cradle of civilizations is Europe's otherness, its anima, its cultural and intellectual counterpart and competitor.
Only the people who share so much are liable to engage in the deadliest of combats.
We ought to free archaeology whose contribution to human knowledge cannot be overestimated from the constant need to issue value judgments and make rigid assessments, from the irresistible temptation to prove ourselves right and our theories infallible. What we most need is
humbleness. Drunk with our own cleverness, we fail to realize that the miracle of early Civilizations does not need our attempts to make them after
our own image. We ought to free archaeology from the compulsion to determine and finalize the past, crowding it with our artistic and
political ideology. How can we pronounce certitudes in our study of the past when what we know is far less than what we do not know, when
recent finds are constantly throwing doubt on the absolutes we like so much to indulge in. Besides, we must always remember that we cannot
even describe events that took place, say, five years ago with any measure of conclusiveness. The history of the ancient world should
remain tentative and speculative, owing no allegiance but to knowledge with its overriding principles of honesty , integrity and impartiality, which
many historians and archeologists do uphold.
If there are any students among us to-night, please doubt and question the ideas I have expounded above. I would like to strike a Gestalt note
And leave the last words about time past and time present to T. S. Eliot, because poetry can say in few words what otherwise takes us an
eternity to articulate.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is irredeemable…
….say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now
Copyright ©Khairat Al-Saleh
Sir Leonard Wooley,
Alalach: An Account of the Excavations at Tell Atchana, (
Ann Louise Perkins, The Comparative Archaeology of Early Mesopotamia,