Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500

Ivory pyxis with poetic inscription, Cordoba, 960s. Copyright the Hispanic Society of America, New York

On Saturday 20 April 2013, scholars gathered at The Courtauld Institute of Art for Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500, organised by Sarah Guérin (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Mariam Rosser Owen (Victoria and Albert Museum) and sponsored by the Barakat Trust, the Economic History Society and Sam Fogg. Guest blogger Anabelle Gambert-Jouan shares her views.

The upcoming opening of the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranée in Marseilles this summer will invite the public to take a new look at the culture of the Mediterranean. In light of the attention that will soon be turned in this direction, Saturday’s symposium appeared to me as a perfectly timed opportunity to reconsider my perception of the region’s rich history. Instead of approaching the Mediterranean in its entirety, the day’s presentations offered in-depth and varied explorations of the notion of a shared medieval culture in the Western Mediterranean and in the territories beyond the sea’s southern shores.

The first session took us on a peregrination from Morocco to Nigeria, passing through Mauritania and Mali. Sam Nixon drew our attention to the trade of raw materials, including gold and ivory, as well as that of glazed pottery, glass vessels, beads and copper, to name a few. This archaeological consideration of the connections between North and West Africa shed light on the trans-Saharan exchanges of production practices, material culture and architecture. Moving along the Niger River Basin, Kathleen Bickford Berzock introduced us to the area’s rich visual culture, with a particular focus on sculptures of horse and rider. These objects’ symbolic association with wealth and power speak of local articulations of status, which found a resonance in a wider Islamic context.

From one Mediterranean shore to another and across the boundaries of the Sahara, the study of the movement of objects, technologies and ideas asks us to reconsider notions of centre and periphery. The analysis of data related to shipwrecks established a regional maritime landscape that consolidated the perception of the Western Mediterranean as a distinct cultural entity. The creation of new centres may prove problematic in the long run. In the meantime however, work like Ronald A. Messier and Chloé Capel’s study of the development of the medieval city of Sijilmasa (Morocco) in comparison with Tedgaoust and Kumbi Saleh (Mauritania) creates a much-needed balance in terms of scholarship devoted to lesser-known regions.

To delve into the details of all fourteen presentations would be impossible in a single post. Topics ranged from the transmission of techniques of carving rock crystal and sand-casting bronze doors to the dissemination of specific motifs. Each speaker’s individual approach enriched a wider discussion on the nature of the connections between Western Mediterranean sub-regions. With subjects spanning over eight centuries, the day’s lectures led us from North/West Africa to Norman Sicily, Southern Spain and finally to Castile during an impressive presentation in which Jessica Streit discussed possible architectural ties between the Assumption Chapel at Las Huelgas (Burgos) and Almohad mosques.

The Sahara and its neighbouring regions are rarely included in the art historical narrative of the Middle Ages. The consideration of the movement of objects, artistic practices and techniques across areas perceived as natural barriers challenged preconceptions. The lectures drew out the lines of less studied, albeit extremely rich, networks of cross-cultural exchanges across the desert and beyond. By stressing the complex and changing nature of these links, the conference successfully avoided creating overly rigid boundaries that would prevent a larger scale dialogue between Western Mediterranean regions and other parts of the medieval world from taking place.

Derek Boshier: From Doris to Chemical Coyboys

A Response

The reason for the sheer enjoyment I find in artists’ talks is that they take you away from your books and remind you about the reality of artwork in the context of the person who made it. Derek Boshier has delved into a huge variety of both ideas and working practises during his career and the presentation he gave to the Research Forum was a whirlwind whistle-stop tour of his life and work. He unfortunately had to begin by apologising for having to squeeze what was usually an hour and a half talk into a mere 45 minutes, certainly not long enough for me who thoroughly enjoyed all of his stories ‘From Doris to Chemical Cowboys’.

Speaking to the audience mainly using anecdotes, he highlighted some of the key themes of a career begun at a crucial point of transition for British art. Coming out of the Royal College in the 1960s (alongside Peter Blake and David Hockney), he insisted that impetus for their Pop Art was that they just wanted to paint the things they knew around them, the things that interested them. As he put it, not wine bottles and fruit, but films, music and sex. This freedom expanded into his subsequent multidisciplinary practise, which took as many forms imaginable, each with a very unique style.

It was his more atypical work that interested me the most. Of his image-based work, one of the projects Boshier discussed that particularly appealed to me is his 16 Situations (1971). This was an intervention into a series of photographs with a pair of repeated sculptural forms, playing with locations and scales from the micro to the macro (figs. 1 & 2).[1] They appear as a departure from the immediacy of his brightly coloured Pop painting style, yet I think they still communicate the continually present playfulness of his work. This was reinforced for me by his lively delivery style, which excited a sense of immediacy on each topic, regardless of which era he was discussing.

His description of a 1968 collaborative happening with Joe Tilson The Smith/Novak Event (fig. 3) had a sort of timelessness, and certainly would not seem out of place if enacted again today.[2] This took the form of a gesture of friendship between the two most common names in the London and Prague phonebooks, put into place through a workshop involving as many members of the public with those names who would take part. His comment on this work being that in the autumn of that year Soviets moved into Prague and as far as he knows most correspondence was halted.

Each slide is an artwork with a strong personal memory attached, meaning that each projected a strong personal perspective on social and cultural conditions, from what was showing at the cinema, to the state of feminism at the time. I would argue this was one of the most compelling artists’ talks I have attended and urge anyone to see him speak if you find an opportunity.

I would also like to encourage you to attend the series of artists’ talks and workshops organised by the East Wing X committee to compliment the Material Mattersexhibition, ‘Material Insights’. We are inviting artists to engage and discuss with us the materials in which they work. The first event is a talk delivered by Tom Hunter, whose Anchor and Hope is on display in Seminar Room 3. This will take place in SR3 on Monday 6th February at 6pm.

Fig 1: Derek Boshier, Situation 1 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 1: Derek Boshier, Situation 1 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 2: Derek Boshier, Situation 15 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 2: Derek Boshier, Situation 15 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig. 3: Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson, Postcards from The Smith/Novak Event, photograph, 1968

Fig. 3: Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson, Postcards from The Smith/Novak Event, photograph, 1968