A cultural blueprint that roosts in the pages of an ‘exploded’ book

It looks like a book has exploded into sheets that flew onto the walls to roost: in a State Library rotunda they envelop you, brooding with meaning.

Artist Deanna Hitti’s new work A is for Alam (pen) is an ambitious installation of 156 panels of printed cyanotypes, the original blueprint, one of the oldest printing processes in the history of photography, first used in the mid 19th century to create an album of botanical specimens.

Rather than algae, Hitti is using it to preserve language and memory: a cultural blueprint that explores her Lebanese heritage, her multicultural identity, and the disappearance of language in the Lebanese diaspora.

The panels (which together fold down into a single book) flow from her childhood Arabic reader, which instructed her how to scribe English letters, and which she and her cousins scribbled on as kids. They develop right to left into a memoir of home: a childhood group photo with her family, rosary beads, bread, backgammon, a wine bottle, a pot that her grandmother brought over from Lebanon that Hitti later broke.

It’s a very personal work, she says. All the text is in Arabic – she doesn’t mind that many visitors won’t be able to read it, it adds to the mystery and a theme of linguistic denial, Hitti says: if I put in the English for everything and explain it all, I feel as though it kind of defeats the purpose of the project.

Part of that purpose is mourning the disappearance of language, she says: the phenomenon of the children of migrants losing their parent’s tongue, that process of a culture fading over time like a yellowing photograph.

The work stars in a new exhibition currently under construction and due to open on June 24 at the library: for Handmade Universe they commissioned seven artists and designers to create works inspired by 68 rare and remarkable items from the library collection.

Senior curator Linda Short says she wanted to create an exhibition around objects that share knowledge, but in a different way to a traditional book.

It might be that knowledge is encoded in a piece of lace or embroidery, she says. There are discoveries and inventions that position us in the world, in the grander scheme, but celebrate the knowledge and skill that’s gathered close to home and emerges through a creative process.

She loves the layers in Hitti’s work. There are layers of craft in the paper, the chemical process triggered by light itself, in the textbook and the souvenirs, but also layers of meaning to do with language and science and migration.

Hitti has superimposed the text onto images of Orientalist paintings from art books: the often patronising or just plain inaccurate images that 18th and 19th century Western artists made to convey the exotic East.

I’m interested in the representations of Middle Eastern people throughout history, and how it still permeates today, Hitti says. Our images of immigrants and refugees are still filtered through a cultural lens, there is still this deep misrepresentation.

But the core of the work is the alphabet: as found in the textbook that she and her cousins studied when they were really young.

Hitti deeply loves books: their creation often features in her work. And she feels that passion reflected in people who see her work. It’s not a fetishism, it’s deeply rooted in our love of physical objects that the digital world can never reproduce.

She is a virtuoso printmaker, Short says.

Handmade Universe: From craft to code and the spaces between opens on Friday June 24 and runs until February 2023.

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