Art as a privileged viewpoint on Islamic culture Featured

The persistence of traditional Islamic themes in contemporary art takes many forms, reflecting centuries of unified culture

by 11 November 2010

Over the last few years, artists from the Middle East are increasingly featured in exhibitions in the West, possibly because of the idea that contemporary art could be a way of informing the Western audience about culture in the Islamic world. Many artists in the Middle East are opposed to this idea, as they think that putting geographical labels on their work detracts from its pure artistic value. To what degree, then, do traditional aspects of Islamic culture appear in the most contemporary expressions of art?

Art in the Muslim world has been considerably unified by the Qur'anic message of tawhid (the concept of monotheism in Islam) over centuries of history. At the same time, Muslim artists have always been amazingly inventive in overcoming the limitations imposed by this message. The Muslim faith, which includes the concept that God is the unseen and resembles nothing, had no need of figurative imagery to illustrate its concepts, and so artists were initially prohibited from depicting God or any prophet. In some countries, this was extended to any representations of the human form, sometimes living creatures, and even to figurative art in general.
The result was that the principal features of Islamic art became calligraphy, the arabesque, and geometrical patterns, used to invite viewers to observe, meditate and learn by means of revealed and hidden messages. Calligraphy developed from the need to set down the Holy Qur'an, using different forms of Arabic text that were progressively made more decorative by means of leaf and flower shapes incorporated into the script.

Contemporary calligraphy is still practised and appreciated, both in more traditional styles, and in expressionist and symbolic calligraphy, in which the characteristically Western approach to art, in terms of a highly personal and subjective form of expression, are applied to Muslim calligraphy. The results often receive criticism for their distance from the traditional tenets of Islamic art. The same is true of so-called Pseudo-calligraphy or pure abstraction, in which artists create motifs resembling letters or words, but they have no literal meaning, and become pure elements of visual decoration.
The arabesque and geometric themes in traditional Islamic art include analogies with minerals and crystals, and with fractal geometry. Geometrical forms were often used in mosques because they encourage spiritual contemplation, and so it could be said that Islamic abstract art based on mathematical shapes and forms developed centuries before Western art reached this point in the 20th century (one could think particularly of Kandinsky and Mondrian by way of comparison).

Arabesques, which are interlacing patterns of lines and curves, have been used extensively in the Islamic world, whether geometric, or floral, or both combined. Again, the root concept was to induce contemplation, free the mind from earthly things, and gradually become aware of the divine presence.
While many Islamic artists working today are still creating faith-inspired works that descend directly from the long tradition of Muslim art, though with contemporary influences reflected in design, colour and technique, living in the United States or Europe has influenced other artists. Susan Hefuna, daughter of an Egyptian Muslim father and a German Catholic mother, uses traditional elements of culture to encourage comment on contemporary society, as in "UI (You I)," which is a reflection on the Mashrabiya, the window screen that enables people to look outwards without being seen. The understanding of "you" and "I" depends on which language you speak and on which side of the screen you are.

The concept of repetition appears very often in work by Islamic artists today. When used with contemporary motifs, such as aircraft or boots, it provides an interesting combination of new iconographical symbolism with traditional decorative techniques. Other artists utilize objects that have long been important in Islamic culture, such as carpets, and work on them directly to create new shades of meaning. They are therefore working in a genre that is very close to the conceptual art that has become so important in the Western world (Koons, Hirst, Cattelan), and incorporate a good deal of ironic humour that makes their pieces perhaps more palatable to a Western audience than to the areas from which their originating culture is derived.

It has to be remembered that there are innumerable facets to Islamic culture worldwide, and traditional themes are inevitably used in many different ways, whether in terms of irony, critique, and comparison with other areas of the modern world. Developments in the world of art are generally good indicators of the way in which society is moving, and so contemporary Islamic art offers a fascinating overview of the currents emerging in Muslim society.