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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Professors’ Work Featured in International Book Design Exhibition

In 2007, a car bomb exploded in Iraq killing 30 people and injuring more than 100, while virtually destroying Al-Mutanabbi Street - Baghdad's historic center of bookselling.

The carnage occurred far from the relative safety of southeastern Virginia, but the vicious attack inspired Old Dominion University professor Ken Daley and adjunct assistant professor Nikki Webb to answer a call for responses from book artists around the world.

Now, their submission to the "Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here" project has been chosen among 260 total submissions from 26 countries to be displayed at various exhibitions in the United States and internationally. A sampling of 130 of the submitted books will eventually be housed in the National Library of Iraq.

"Our book is a tribute to the legacy of one street in Baghdad where writers, artists, bookbinders and sellers gathered for centuries," Webb said. "It's about the power of words and artists who use words in their work. My piece, a quote by (Lord George Gordon) Byron, in its simplicity speaks to the importance of a single drop of ink having the power to make people think."

The Al-Mutanabbi project is the brainchild of book artists Beau Beausoleil, of San Francisco, and Sarah Bodman, of England. The call for submissions ran from September 2010 to September 2011, and artists were given one year from the time of their response to complete their contribution.

In project-related materials, Beausoleil described Al-Mutanabbi Street, named after a 10th century Arab poet, as being filled with bookstores, cafés and outdoor stalls - "the historic heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community."

The submissions were asked to reflect "both the strength and fragility of books, but also show the endurance of the ideas within them ... work that reflects both the targeted attack on this 'street of booksellers' as well as the ultimate futility of those who try to erase thought," Beausoleil wrote, in the original appeal.

For their "artistic interpretation" of a book, Daley and Webb invited advanced undergraduate student Leslie Renn and recent graduates Rachel Gaus, Heather Prestage and Cate Morrison, along with fellow art department faculty members Heather Bryant and Ivanete Blanco, to each submit a page that offered reflections on the meaning of the book's title: "The Written Word Remains."

Webb said she and Daley initially "tossed ideas around" for about a year, and actual work on the project took another five months. The finished book was submitted in September 2012, and exhibition organizers notified them of their selection in early February.

In all, they created 13 books for the project - three for submission, one for each ODU contributor and a copy to be housed in the university's Elise N. Hofheimer Art Library. Daley designed and letterpress-printed the book covers. Graphic design major Rali Manouk translated Arabic words that were hand cut by Daley for the cover.

Pages were created using metal type, hand set letter by letter and printed on a Vandercook press. Each book was hand bound, Webb said.

"This tedious and methodical process gives you the time to think about each word printed," she said. "Setting type letter by letter, printing a page by hand and binding a book by hand connects me not only to all the other participants in this project, but also to the writers, printers and book binders of centuries past."

In noting how books are not only a vehicle of information and meaning but also a symbol and source of power, Daley wrote: "Such power is always a target of ideological iconoclasts who would attempt to destroy all manifestations of opposing truth. But neither the burning of books nor the murder of booksellers and the readers of books will ever prevail. The written word cannot be extinguished through violent acts, nor can such acts ever be justified. Their moments of mayhem only live in infamy as symbols of wasteful, pointless and useless ignorance."

The Al-Mutanabbi Street project will be on display through May at the San Francisco Center for the Book. Additional scheduled exhibitions include The Center for Book Arts, in New York City; Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton; and the American University in Cairo, Egypt, among others.

For more information about the Al-Mutannabi Street project, go here. Excerpts from "The Written Word Remains" can be found here.

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