x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Dubai celebrates international contemporary Islamic art with Ramadan show

Islamic art is becoming more collectible, and the London-based Ahlan Art gallery has brought a selection of desirable pieces to Emaar for Ramadan.

Diversity by Siddiqa Juma is one of the works on show at Emaar Pavilion. Courtesy Ahlan Art Gallery, London
Diversity by Siddiqa Juma is one of the works on show at Emaar Pavilion. Courtesy Ahlan Art Gallery, London

This Ramadan, Dubai celebrates the spirit of modern Islam with an international contemporary Islamic art exhibition – in the heart of its urban Downtown area.

The collection, from the London-based Ahlan Art gallery, has taken residence at Emaar Pavilion’s the Gallery, and its Ramadan tent.

Hassan Mawji, the co-founder of Ahlan Art and the charity Mount Elimu, welcomes Ahlan Art’s first exhibition at the venue. “We’re about promoting unique Islamic artists and giving them a voice and a platform to expand.”

He says the gallery is a necessity, as Islamic art is still relatively obscure despite there being “so much passion and beauty in the art”.

Ahlan Art, established in London just over a year ago, has a roster of more than 25 established and emerging artists from across the world, including non-Muslims. It has brought 20 of its roughly 500 pieces of Islamic art to the Pavilion’s Ramadan tent and placed another eight inside the Pavilion itself.

Mawji says the piece to look out for is the one right by the entrance – Diversity, by Siddiqa Juma. The image depicts the Ka’aba, surrounded by a sea of different coloured dots. “The piece is very colourful and very vibrant,” says Mawji, “and the colours represent diversity.”

Diversity celebrates the way in which Muslims from across the world are brought together for the Haj pilgrimage, a microcosm of the Muslim community at large. “There are usually around four to five million there; people from different places, from different regions, with different languages and different cultures.” The message appears to be one of conciliation, for Muslims to come together as one – in peace.

This is, at least, what the piece’s artist, Juma, says it represents to her. “Diversity is about the unity of the Muslim community – called ‘Ummah’ in Arabic.” Juma says she was inspired by a “yearning for the Ummah to be united and speak with one voice and walk shoulder to shoulder”.

“This is something that happens during Haj, where your station in life, or your colour, or your particular brand of Islam, do not play any part in your position, as you walk together.”

She says she finds artwork to be a spiritual practice. “For me, my art represents my cultural heritage and connection to God. Ramadan,” she says, “is a time when I feel I am able to reconnect with my spiritual inner self. It is a time for contemplating and reflection.”

Another artist with his work on show is the British calligrapher Lord Richard MacLeod, also known as Ibn Bahjat. His piece, Atqakum, or Atqakum Epic as he calls it, a reflection on the Prophet Mohammed’s message, is another key piece on show. MacLeod, a researcher of Islamic art and history, also uses colours in his piece – though in Atqakum, they represent the “eternal fight between faith and anti-faith”. The right half of the image is blue, which represents faith, while the left side is red, which represents “anti-faith”.

However, within these colours are blemishes – representing the imperfect nature of humanity. “All humans are not perfect and in my view that is part of our beauty.”

Meanwhile, a square of letters in the middle represents preachers. “Some of the letters, or preachers, are almost invisible and the more visible they are, the more effective they are. Some of them are of true 23-carat gold, but you will notice that the letters are in perfect form. This is to represent the truth of them.”

MacLeod says his style is “greatly influenced by Japanese calligraphy and its use of white spaces within calligraphy strokes”. It is also influenced, he says, by his passion for fine art, watercolour and abstract painting.

Living in the West, he says, he tries to tune into what is culturally “trendy” to better convey the message of “Islam, peace, love, harmony and coexistence” in his art. The British prime minister David Cameron is among his collectors.

To him, Ramadan is a time for reflection and “spiritual cleansing as an inherent form of worship and straightening my relationship with God”. On a more pragmatic note, he adds that it is a time for families and friends to come ­together.

Mawji says: “Even a lot of non-Muslims will find a relationship with Islamic art.” He says many feel at peace when observing Islamic art, regardless of their faith. Islamic art is becoming highly coveted and the pieces in the gallery range in price from US$2,000 (Dh7,350) to $13,000.

• Until August 28, times vary, The Gallery at Emaar Pavilion, Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, 04 367 5585, www.emaargallery.com

Hareth Al Bustani is a features writer for The National.

halbustani@thenational.ae