LEFT: Oxalá (2001) oil on canvas 102cm x 143cm
RIGHT: Proclamation, No.1 (2004) collage 35cm x 30cm

Oxalá relates to misunderstandings between language, culture and religion. The Arabic statement “Inshallah” (translated into English as “God willing”) is a common enough refrain in the Arab-speaking world and is represented here as if an Islamic banner. The artist wanted to explore how the escalating fear and misunderstanding of Arabic countries in the West was often based on assumptions made with little or no knowledge of culture, policies and religion.

The banner painting was therefore conceived to be mildly threatening to a non-Arabic speaker whereas in reality its written message is benign. The title adds a further cross-cultural meaning as “Oxalá” is an expression in the Portuguese language descending from the Arabic, “Inshallah”. Although commonly used in this European state it has been secularised and its ancestry largely forgotten.

The themes of misunderstanding and cultural diversity were further explored in a series of collages the artist made in subsequent years after 9/11. The so-called ‘War on Terror’ – military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq polarised the situation to an intolerable level which continues to this day. The text comes from issues of Alhayat, a newspaper produced by and for the Arab Diaspora.

The artist’s inability to read Arabic text meant that he ‘translated’ the reporting through the news images alone – which always seem to be protests against military actions or the aftermath of a devastating air strike. Text from the paper was cut and randomly reassembled. This was scrambled as a metaphor for mis-understanding, mistrust and the impossible search for truth. The disjointed text resembles a ransom demand or proclamation.

Calvin Crowe is an artist whose work here interrogates misunderstandings between different cultural communities, and the fear derived on the impossibility of understanding a foreign language because assumptions are made with little or no knowledge of that culture and religion. Calvin is Head of Collections at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich.