PRINT November 2019



Kamal Boullata, Paris, March 1997. Photo: Serge Picard/Agence VU/Redux.

GRANADA STILL BEARS WITNESS to the golden age of Islamic culture in the palaces of its Alhambra, in the gardens of Generalife, and in the neighborhood of Albaicín, which grew across the Alhambra hills right before the fall. Inscribed in our collective memory as the last Andalusian city to be conquered by the Catholic kings in 1492, it is the perfect place for an Arab or a Muslim to meditate on exile. For centuries, poets, essayists, and moralists recalled Granada as our paradise lost—that is, until the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) sank in. Then Palestine became the fresh wound, the last loss, actively remembered and ideally reimagined. Perhaps because of its dreamy beauty and the antiquity of its tragedy, Granada became our erstwhile lieu de mémoire, summoning a resigned nostalgia and exaggerated visions of past grandeur.

I first met Kamal Boullata in the Alhambra in 1998. He, the Palestinian exile who carried his native Jerusalem in his heart, had come to show a suite of silk screens, Twelve Lanterns of Granada, 1996, five centuries after the last Nasrid king, known in the West as Boabdil, looked back at the Red Castle* on his way into exile and heaved his fabled final sigh. But Boullata’s lanterns, crossed with vertical and diagonal stripes in harmonious hues, were not peddling the gloom of loss. He had leaped over half a millennium of lamentation to recapture the essence of what the place should conjure: not sorrow, but a glorious joie de vivre—precisely what the Alhambra was known for in its prime, and how it would best be remembered.

Kamal Boullata, Twelve Lanterns of Granada, 1996, twelve silk screen prints on paper, each 14 5⁄8 × 14 5⁄8".

We became close not only because of our mutual love of Islamic art and architecture, but also because of our shared understanding of the Arab past, one that rejects both the religious wrappings of what is, after all, a normal human history and the defeatist reading of it mired in the ongoing impediments of the present, from colonialism and occupation to civil wars. Boullata fashioned his perception of Islamic art into letters, colors, and shapes whose meanings floated up from the depths of history to rest on their surface. As a child, he could see the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, completed in 692 CE, from his family’s home. He was captivated by its geometry: pure, poised, sublime. This impression stayed with him during the years he spent living and working in the United States, Morocco, France, and Germany. His interest in the innate ability of an underlying structure to activate the organic and fluid form it supports was inspired by his memories of the Dome and by Arabic calligraphy, which was Boullata’s first introduction to abstraction. 

He had leaped over half a millennium of lamentation to recapture the essence of what Granada should conjure: not sorrow, but a glorious joie de vivre.

He remained committed to referential abstraction for the whole of his life. Perhaps it helped him overcome the cruelty of reality. Perhaps it let him express what he wanted to without painful disclosures. Perhaps, too—and this is almost certain—abstraction was a gateway to the universal humanism that shaped both his politics and his aesthetics. Though exile could easily have made him retreat into a wounded national identity, he instead created an oeuvre of art and scholarship as engaging as the poetry he loved and embodied, collaborating with greats such as the Syrian poet Adonis.

Yet throughout his work, Jerusalem is ever present. It was his first inspiration and his last refuge: the scene of childhood memory, the motivation of youth, and the reflection of older age. In this, Boullata is very similar to Italo Calvino, that son of Venice, whose writing—all of it, really, but in particular his novella Invisible Cities—was a love song to his city. Boullata, however, could no longer visit his beloved homeland as Calvino could. Indeed, for Boullata, Jerusalem was an invisible cross he carried, and from which he extracted pure drops of longing that luminously tinted his art. That he was laid to rest in the place he could not visit during his adult life is a beautiful irony. 

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.