Addressing themes that transcend geographical, political and socio-cultural boundaries with sensitivity and sophistication, Muslim artists continue to establish themselves among the world’s best practitioners of the arts. Sheena Baharudin finds herself in awe as she manoeuvres her way through breathtaking works designed to stimulate and provoke thought.
When Pablo Picasso succinctly described art as something that ‘washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,’ he revealed the intention of artists to offer alternative ways of observing and appreciating life around us. In the world of Islam, diverse works of art, ranging from eloquent poetry to impressive architectural feats, were also created to celebrate different cultures as well as the unifying faith held by the Ottomans, Umayyads, Moghuls, Abbasids and others. Fast forward to the 21st century; this rich tradition continues.
Aquila Style presents a selection of celebrated Muslim artists who have made an indelible mark on today’s world of art.
Having already held 20 solo exhibitions all over the world, from Tehran to Paris, multi-discipline artist Farhad Moshiri recently became the first Iranian artist to achieve a price of over US$1m, for Eshgh – Love, a work he created from crystals and glitter on canvas with acrylic.
This graduate of the California Institute of the Arts is also best remembered for his series of monumental jars and bowls painted on canvas with calligraphy superimposed on them. An example is his Drunken Lover, in which the words are an extract from a poem written by Sufi poet Umar Khayyam. An artist with his ear to the ground on pop culture, he became the first fine art collaborator to work with Louis Vuitton on the window displays of their Dubai and Abu Dhabi stores.
Best known for her works in photography, video and film, Shirin Neshat fuses art with images to examine the contrasts and complexities of Islam. Her first major work was sparked by a return in 1990 to her native Iran from the United States. The vast social and cultural changes she observed during her first visit since the 1979 revolution spurred the Women of Allah series. Created between 1993 and 1997, it explores the role of women living in an ideological society.
The Women of Allah series features haunting black and white portraits of women overlaid with Persian calligraphy, most of it quoted from the poet Forugh Farrukhzad. A widely acclaimed artist, she was awarded the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2006 and was named Artist of the Decade by Huffington Post critic G Roger Denson. Her works continue to be exhibited in countries across the world — Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, England, Austria and many more.
A distinctively meditative quality persists in Hadieh Shafie’s works, perhaps stemming from her decision to focus on ‘repetition, process and time’. Some admirers have even compared her works with those of the iconic Jasper Johns, an artist credited with influencing younger artists before and during the rise of pop art and minimalism.
She is known for her signature paper scroll series, in which thousands of little paper scrolls, with the word ‘eshghe’ written inside of them, are tightly and meticulously wound before being assembled into ‘paintings’ that resemble circle art. Influenced by Islamic art and traditions, Hadieh reveals that ‘the concentric forms of text and material take direct inspiration from the Sama dance of the whirling dervishes’. Considered one of today’s most promising young artists, her talent was recognised when she was shortlisted for the 2011 Jameel Prize from an initial list of nearly 200 nominated artists and designers.
Haji Noor Deen
A renowned master of Arabic calligraphy as well as an expert in the art of Islamic Chinese calligraphy known as Sini, Haji Noor Deen fuses these two calligraphic traditions to create art pieces that are truly in a league of their own.
The works of Haji Noor Deen have appeared in exhibitions at the British Museum, Harvard Art Museums and many others. His mastery of Arabic calligraphy was officially recognised in 1997, when he was awarded the Certificate of Arabic Calligraphy, making him the first Chinese national ever to receive it. Aside from conducting research on Islamic Culture at the Henan Academy of Sciences, he currently lectures at the Zhengzhou Islamic College in China and Zaytuna College in California.
As a French Tunisian growing up in Paris, eL Seed’s works are said to be a quest for identity. Although he also works on canvas, eL Seed’s genius is most evident in his ability to merge the art of calligraphy with street graffiti.
He has even coined a name for it — ‘calligraffiti’. He explains, ‘I feel I’m carrying cultural traditions into modern reality while keeping my heritage alive.’ eL Seed further reveals that he follows the early traditions of Arabic poetry, during which the pieces were written, more often than not, anonymously. This shows that it is the message conveyed, rather than the source, that is important. In his effort to promote an art that is easily recognised by people regardless of their backgrounds, he can be found attending talks to discuss this Arabic calligraphic street art and participating in important cultural programmes such as the Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival.
A descendant of an ancient Algerian Sufi family, Rachid Koraïchi’s works show a profound connection to Islamic mysticism. He considers them to be equally and intimately linked to Arabic script and poetry, a passion that possibly contributed to his collaborations with poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Michel Butor.
For many years, this artist has produced pieces using a wide range of media that include ceramics, metals, silk, paper and canvas. An outstanding example is his much talked-about installation entitled The Path of Roses, which consists of steel sculptures and fold thread embroideries on silk. His works are included in major private and public collections worldwide including the British Museum, the National Museum of African Art and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. In 2011, he was awarded the Jameel Prize, which recognises outstanding artists who combine contemporary designs with Islamic traditions.
A well-known installation artist whose works were once called ‘frightening’, Mona Hatoum creates installations, sculptures, video and works on paper that are intended to provoke and stimulate discussions. An example of her work is Homebound, in which everyday objects such as utensils, chairs and a table were charged with electricity, rendering them dangerous.
Although born in Lebanon, Mona Hatoum remains loyal to her Palestinian heritage through her works, specifically in the early 1980s. They are often seen as dealing with her identity as an exile that ‘struggles to survive in a continuous state of siege…’. A recipient of the prestigious Joan Miró Prize in 2011, Mona’s most recent solo exhibition, Projection, is in Barcelona until September 24th.[Source: This article and photographs originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Aquila Style magazine]