Cities Under Quarantine: Art In a Mailbox

Cities Under Quarantine: The Mailbox Project, conceived and curated by Lebanese multidisciplinary artist Abed Al Kadiri of Dongola Limited Editions in Beirut, presents a personal and creative archive of responses by artists to the COVID-19 pandemic. This exhibition is on view at Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art, till March, 2024.

Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art opened on 26 October 2023 four captivating exhibitions showcasing the breadth of contemporary art across the Arab world. We have explored and critiqued three of the exhibitions and here we throw light on the fourth exhibition which is a long-range thematic collaboration carried out by artists from 20 countries.

Book by Mohammed Kazem from Dubai. “Scratches”—abstract works of white paper that have no figurative subjects—Horizontal Sounds presents a field of view divided horizontally, somewhat reminiscent of musical staves.These extremely simple structured areas of white carefully convert the surface of a sheet into fine reliefs that are almost invisible at first glance.

A project born out of the pandemic’s enforced isolation, the initiative explores the polarities that defined this moment in history: life and death, certainty and uncertainty, safety and exposure, loneliness, and friendship.

The idea was born from a quotation from artist John Baldessari, which said, “It is difficult to put a painting in a mailbox.” Taking this quotation as a challenge, artist and creator Al Kadiri mailed books to artists in 22 cities around the world to solicit their creative expressions. And thus created 59 handmade, hand-stitched books with bespoke covers designed by Reza Abedini, created in-house at Dongola. Each one of the handbooks has a work completely different from the other yet every work explores the mental condition of the artist in this difficult period as they hoped for a better tomorrow.

Artists Raed Yassin, Mahmoud Obaidi, Mona Saudi, Mohammad Kazem, Taysir Batniji, Faisal Samra, Ziad Dalloul, Dia Al-Azzawi, Hani Zurob, and Nadia Kaabi-Linke have used collage, photography, painting, drawing and other media to transform the books. In 2021, the project was given its debut at Villa Romana in Florence, Italy.

Bahraini photographer Ghada Khunji used this mailbox project to keep herself afloat and creative at this phase, “Days went by and I was suffocating under a mask. For many artists art is a therapy. But stuck at home, we had no ways of creating and then suddenly Al Kadiri sends this book and asks us to create.”

“With Ramadhan approaching and the sight of our holy land, Mecca, void of people, and pilgrims not being allowed to worship there, the idea struck me … This virus was in its own way making us fast: depriving us from so many facets of life that we are accustomed to. I imagined the collected examples “corona” in Arabic as pilgrims performing Tawaf, the ritual of Muslims going around the Kaaba seven times. I arranged the words in a circular motif, all facing outwards, almost like a magnet repelling as opposed to attracting. Instead of the pilgrims circumambulating, it was the Kaaba, defying the essence of God. This was like no period in history ever imagined and thus this installation tries to show this. Love and happiness are all that matters and that should be the uniting factor for all humanity,” she says.

Said Baalbaki – Every Square Building is a Kaaba for the Mailbox Project.

Another interesting take on the art by mail is this Kaaba like notebook created by Said Baalbaki who created a Kaaba with the notebook. According to the artist, “The project is based on the tenth-century text Fiqh al-Lugha by Tha’labi that I memorised as a child during the civil war in Lebanon. Memories surround you, you imagine history repeating itself, and relive your childhood memories through your children’s eyes. During the pandemic, your room turns into a dungeon, and its walls, with their works of art, are pages from your autobiography. “

Dia Azzawi says of her work, “My fragmented human figure with a cloud of different colours surrounding him is a call to stand firm and to have optimism rooted in our souls. It is my manifesto to welcoming life. Forget your fears and enjoy turning these pages in the hope of beautiful days to come.”

Hoda Tawakol – Passage Quarantined in Hamburg; For Cities Under Quarantine – The Mailbox Project

Huda Tawakol tells about the condition in which she received the project. “The lockdown in Hamburg started end of March 2020. It was unclear how long it would last and how threatening the pandemic would be. Besides the effects of the pandemic on our day-to-day life, many exhibition projects were cancelled, and I stopped working for a while. The atmosphere was quite oppressive. When I was asked to participate in the project, I had spent four weeks in complete quarantine. Abed’s call was like a ray of sunshine after a long dark journey. The project made me feel more hopeful and less isolated.”

Raed Yassin – Untitled Quarantined in Berlin; For Cities Under Quarantine

“In my practice, the female body is at the centre of my work. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, I was working on subjects such as procreation, death, and the cycles of renewal. The crisis meant to me the end of an old order and the beginning of something new. In my book I wanted to relate to this crisis stressing the idea of renewal, rebirth, and life in connection with the female body and its ability to procreate and nourish,” she says about her work, “My intervention was similar to my practice as I decided to use fabric, one of my favourite mediums. It is like a colour palette, and it can be sensuous, like a second skin. Moreover, stitching on fabric is a gesture of repairing and preserving.”

Images Courtesy Dongola Limited Edition