In the eye of the beholder: what is Islamic art?

In the eye of the beholder: what is Islamic art?
An example of work that’s considered under the Islamic art catch-all by Mohammed El Banna. Courtesy of World Art Dubai

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.


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