69. The tobacco and the painted matchbox


c. 1920 CE
c. 1388 AH
Bought from a Mecca antique shop, 2011

I, delicious, rich tobacco from Istanbul, was once carefully made – designed, cut, packaged – in Istanbul for the city of Mecca. Come close and you will smell another era, when smoking was permitted in the heart of the city and old men would sit on their stools on street corners, chatting and smoking. Now, you cannot smoke, let alone see packages of tobacco, although I hear there is a black market for those who are desperate. For I give you that beautiful rush to the head, taking hold of you from the first draw of breath, leading you towards a moment of harmony.

We matchboxes were carefully painted with scenes from familiar Mecca neighbourhoods. If you look at me closely, you will see a clue to the city. The Binzagrs, who made me, have lived here for hundreds of years, working trade routes and selling spices through the Hejaz. These paintings that adorn me tell of a Mecca and a Saudi that are now long lost.

This work transcends the objects. Ultimately, what I’m working with isn’t only the artefacts themselves, but the stories attached to them. For me, each tale is the manifestation of the object, and each object is a tangible materialisation of an underlying narrative. The work finds its equilibrium somewhere between the stories and chronology they’re chaptered into, the objects becoming knots or points along the timeline, woven into stories as part of the language of this artwork. Each story draws out a tale that intends to trigger imagination and memory, mixing fact with fiction, with the ultimate aim of straddling, conflating and confusing fixed notions of history to open up the unofficial histories that shape the character of place and memory.
Ahmed Mater
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