Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadsides

Click the image for a high-resolution image from the Digital Library of FAU

To Salah Al Hamdani, November 2008

Printed by Ian Boyden, Crab Quill Press
Walla Walla, Washington
Sam Hamill, poet.
Letterpress with brushed ink and pencil and resist.
Edition of 15.

Artist's Statement

In 1258, Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols. During the siege, the hordes took the contents of the Bait al-Hikma Library—one of the most important collections of books to ever be assembled—and threw them into the Tigris River. The waters turned black with ink. The surviving citizens of Baghdad are said to have gone to the banks of the Tigris to drink the ink-stained water in the hope of capturing, and thereby physically embodying—some of the wisdom so painstakingly gathered over centuries and that was now being washed away forever. The burning and looting of the Baghdad National Library in 2003 and the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street in 2007 provide an poignant reminder of just how little has changed in the ensuing eight hundred years.

In this broadside, a skeleton reads the poetry of al-Mutanabbi as it swims through a river of ink. The skeleton is rendered with ink made of ground emerald. Its heart is composed of cinnabar—the material at the heart of alchemical transformation (from the Arabic word al-kimia: the etymology of which is interpreted as “the study of blackness”). I paid particular attention to the longing in Hamill’s poem as the correlate tone for my own image, including material choices, composition, and technique of rendering the text. Rather than being printed, the poem is actually engraved through the ink to expose the paper hidden beneath. The letterforms are voids in the paper’s surface, and thus are composed of the very air that we use to voice the poem. They will not wash away.