CUT PAPER: Word+Image

rav•el, 2016 

v. -eled, -el•ing (esp. Brit.) -elled, -el•ling, v.t.

1. to disentangle the threads or fibers of; unravel.

2. to make clear; unravel.

3. to entangle; enmesh; confuse.


4. to become unwound; fray.

5. Obs. to become tangled or confused.


6. a tangle or complication.

[1575–85; < Dutch rafelen]

    –The Free Dictionary


A chair's seat offers a place of comfort. A woven seat is a metaphor for the intricate social tapestry in which we live. Displaced peoples, terrorism and political machinations embody upheaval. Constructs ravel, unravel.

Reflections on Wisdom (Hikmah), 2015

Reflections on Wisdom is my response to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. It questions who we are as individuals, our values and motivations. Through word and image, art coalesces cultures.


The Arabic word hikmah, wisdom, conveys my thoughts. It connotes knowledge as discernment and understanding through experience. I cut this single word over and over. Its repetition becomes a mantra.


To those unfamiliar with Arabic, the cut image resembles the shape of a bird. Its exaggerated repetition looks like a flock, even murmuration. Each work in this series comprises two sheets. The cut, front sheet alludes to this “dance” and associated group behavior. Mimicking water and sky, the film on the second projects the text back in multiples.


Reflections on Wisdom is created in two sizes, seven large, seven small. It references illuminated manuscripts whose function dictated scale.


Joy (Bahjah), 2014

Traditional Arabic calligraphy elicits an emotional response from me. It seems musical and like a dance. Illuminated, Joy glistens like the state of bliss.

In the collection of Incendiary Arts.

My Poem Becomes Theirs, 2011

My Poem Becomes Theirs is part of al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, an international exhibition of artists’ books that responds to the bombing of the booksellers’ street in Baghdad, 2007. 

Mashrabiya, carved screens that ventilate and filter light, are commonplace in the Near East. Shanasheel, “hanging silk”, is a variant known in Iraq. Typically evidenced on upper floors facing the street, mashrabiya divide space. In the traditional Islamic setting, these permit women—unseen in public—a view of the world outside. Paradoxically, in separating space, screens also connect space.

My Poem Becomes Theirs is such a screen. Like silk, panels of vellum let me peer into the world of the booksellers’ quarter in Baghdad. While we read and hear about the events of al-Mutanabbi Street, most have not personally experienced them. A barrier remains. How else can I, both outsider and woman, view what transpired?

As a book, my work alludes to the Mu’allaqat, a compilation of poetry in the Ka’aba at Mecca. Derivative of ilq, meaning precious thing, the Mu’allaqat, represented the best of the pre-Islamic poets. Written in gold on linen scrolls, it hung from the walls of the Ka’aba. The 10th c. poet al-Mutanabbi, after whom the booksellers’ street is named, was surely aware of it.

When I began this project, I searched for what al-Mutanabbi valued in poetry. One couplet stands out, the meaning of which rings true for all things precious. It underscores the irrevocable bond between reader and word. I cut in Arabic:

My poem becomes theirs in its setting           On beauty’s neck adorned with necklace.*

Excisions---marking what is lost---collect on the floor. Clear and elusive, projections of text opalesce like pearls. They speak of perseverance.

This book is made in an edition of five. Book four is in the collection of Mary Austin, Co-Founder of the San Francisco Center for the Book.

* Poem 112 of the al-Shawmiyat of the Diwan. Translation by Arthur Wormhoudt, The Diwan of Abu Tayyib Ahmed ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi, 2002.

© 2016 Helga Felleisen

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