In the eye of the beholder: what is Islamic art?
The third edition of World Art Dubai next week has a special emphasis on Islamic art throughout the fair and its Exhibition Islam section.
“Dubai is a geographical meeting point of the East and the West – this should apply to art too,” says Trixie LohMirmand, senior vice president of exhibitions and events management, World Art Dubai. “Exhibition Islam will serve as an educational platform enabling [people] to develop a deeper understanding of Islamic culture as interpreted through art and artists,” she says, laying the groundwork for a revisitation of what Islamic art really means.
“Islamic art” can be a bit of a misnomer, however. While any artistic categorisation is made in retrospect, the term “Islamic art” has only been used since the 19th century to understand aesthetically broad and geographically diverse (from Spain to China) artistic creation since the seventh century. Often associated with works referencing the Islamic faith, the category also includes art forms and architecture produced under the helm of the Islamic world – not necessarily by practitioners or to do with the religion – much like “Middle Eastern art” refers to works made by artists living in or from this region, without a predetermined theme.
Islamic art has underlying nuances, values and pockets of individualism that have raised a contemporary dilemma among scholars and institutions on how to appropriately label “Islamic art” – consider the Louvre’s Islamic Art wing compared to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which went with Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia. Neither is incorrect, but one presents Islamic art as an all-encompassing style, whereas the latter asserts that individual regional styles and cultures coexist within it and have influenced its umbrella-like terminology.
There are three common threads that underline Islamic art and architecture, past and present, allowing for structures in India and artworks in the Gulf to have similar resonances: calligraphy (Kufic or Naskhi), Arabesque (vegetal patterning) and geometrics. Islamic art is a cultural and artistic identity forged through time and shifting geographical boundaries – as Islam spread and encountered new peoples, the concept of its art broadened, appropriating new styles, technologies or simply updated techniques that resulted in an ever-evolving art identity.
The trifecta of Islamic art motifs are equally as strong as the other. Calligraphy is highly regarded, “the hero of Islamic art”, says Mohammed El Banna, who is exhibiting at Exhibition Islam. It differs from the text works of other civilisations because it’s decorative, with many artefacts and structures adorned with Quranic verses in stylised script that can also be creatively interpreted as images.
Its importance is also rooted in its emphasis on the centralisation of the Arabic language to Islam. Geometric patterning is a tool that allows viewers to reflect on life and the greatness of creation through its infinite and repetitious nature – a spiritual experience – also referencing Islam’s historical penchant for and skill in the science of geometry. This technique has also been applied to Arabesque, which incorporates flora motifs, in part because of the Islamic prohibition of the imitation of living creatures, but also a result of a uniquely Islamic quality of not needing figuration to represent spiritual and physical qualities.
This point is enforced by Sadaf Farasat, who will also exhibit at Exhibition Islam. “I paint Sufis which depict submission and self-realisation in the journey of finding the self and eventually, God,” Farasat explains of its soul-cleansing properties. “As Rumi says: ‘All loves are a bridge to Divine Love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know.’ It’s through love that one can win this world and finally find God.” Art, she elaborates, teaches us to love.
The imagery derives from the incorporation of Byzantine, Persian, Mesopotamian and African traditions. Many adopted techniques broached several centuries and locations. The Umayyad Caliphate (661 to 750), in one of the most formative periods of Islamic art, adopted Byzantine/Sasanian motifs, such as decorative patterning – which later become synonymous with Islamic architecture, as seen with the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. The Abbasid Caliphate (750 to 1258) was considered the beginning of the Islamic Golden Age that saw surges in science, poetry (including, in the 13th century, Rumi), and metal and wood crafts. The Ottoman Empire (1299 to 1922) saw calligraphy and a distinct Eurasian visual identity take precedence. The Mughal Dynasty (1526 to 1857) featured patrons of Persian-influenced ornate figurative miniatures, illuminated manuscripts and architecture (most famously, the Taj Mahal in Agra). And the Qajar Dynasty (1789 to 1925) involved idealised-realism portraiture from the preceding Safavid Empire (1502 to 1736).
While most Islamic art came in the form of books, writing and objects such as carpets or ceramics, their value wasn’t as heavily regarded in the West because of Europe’s view of “art” as painting or sculpture. Islamic art was acknowledged, but often in the form of architecture – the Baroque period in late 16th-century Italy can be traced back etymologically, as well as through the curviangular arches and squinches borrowed from 12th-century Islamic styles. Traditional craftwork is still present, but contemporary interpretations of Islamic art have moved towards more westernised forms, perhaps thanks to an art-market paradigm shift, as well as an academic decline in maintaining traditional techniques. Tunisian artist eL Seed, whose calligraffiti style fuses scripture and bright hues to make sociopolitical statements on the city walls of London, Paris, Cairo, Sharjah and more, is an example of the contemporary face of Islamic art as it undergoes a refreshed global circulation.
However, several institutions, foundations and individuals strive to uphold traditional modes, indicating that international awareness may need a boost. Mariam Al Suwaidi runs the Islamic Art Forum and Gadeemadis, which promotes Islamic art to reinvigorate its relevance because it “has a unique authenticity, glorious history and profound traditions”, she says.
Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) aims to educate the public, raise global consciousness, show its diversity and improve historical literacy to highlight Muslim civilisation and its role in bringing together cultures and human values.
“MIA houses one of the greatest collections of Islamic art spanning more than 1,400 years,” curator Mounia Chekhab Abudaya says in a statement. Through Imperial Threads: Motifs and Artisans from Turkey, Iran and India, its current exhibition on until November 4, “we hope to take art and history lovers on a unique journey to truly understand the connection behind these major dynasties”. Then there are community-based projects such as Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi, with exhibitions and workshops to enliven Islamic art concepts, exemplified by their current Lest We Forget: Emirati Adornment (until August 27) – the title says it all.
As the format of Islamic art evolves, it only highlights the fluidity and timelessness of it. It’s a fixed term, but with abstract aesthetic values and open-ended possibilities for individual expression from each culture. Speaking again of calligraphy, El Banna says: “Followers will find many changes have occurred, but even contemporary calligraphers such as Hassan Al Masoud still respect the beautiful, traditional proportions.” Even he has spent years digitalising the handwritten art to keep up with modernity, which again reinforces the quintessential element of Islamic art: “The flexibility to create numerous articulations and compositions.”
With plenty of room for aesthetic interpretation, Islamic art is a rich launching platform from which artists employ their individual techniques to draw on imagery and ideas from a shared Islamic art foundation – not manifesto – to build creative links between the past, present and future.
Art fair highlights
The third edition of World Art Dubai art fair highlights accessible and affordable artworks from a range of international artists.
“With the city’s arts and culture scene continuing to enjoy tremendous growth, Dubai is now among the top 20 leading marketplaces for contemporary art worldwide, and it’s vital we encourage this boom by promoting acclaimed and emerging local artists,” World Art Dubai’s Trixie LohMirmand says.
Given last year’s numbers (300 artists and galleries representing 50 countries; 9,758 visitors), the event has shown that an interest exists in art at a more grounded level. It provides an entry point to an industry that can be intimidating, offering a vast selection of artworks and artists (this year spanning five continents), as well as tips on artwork acquisition with its Affordable Art Buying Guide (available online), which, among other things, reminds you that it’s OK to ask questions.
Featuring 3,000 paintings, prints, sculpture and photographs priced between US$100 (Dh367) and $20,000, World Art Dubai will feature 150 gallery booths, talks and workshops to keep visitors engaged, as well as programme updates, including new segments such as Exhibition Islam. Highlights include creative-learning workshops, live painting sessions and Art for Every Wall, a pre-selection of original artworks between Dh500 and Dh3,000. Visitors can also sip coffee at the Blah Blah Lounge, attend art talks, visit satellite venue The Yard for a crafts and design market, and visit the Repton School art wall and the Zomato Gallery.
• World Art Dubai takes place at the World Trade Centre, Dubai, from April 12 to 15. For more information visit www.worldartdubai.com.
Updated: April 5, 2017 04:00 AM