Tag Archive: Islamic art


In October I was invited to speak at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.

Starting in September DSU has been hosting an exhibit of some of the 99 Names sculptures, and in the last week of October (with the beginning of the Islamic New Year) they screened a number of films introducing Islamic themes.  The film I was asked to speak about was UPF‘s Islamic Art:  Mirror of the Invisible World.

Here’s the trailer and a couple clips:

Thanks to Teidra, Shane, Kathy, and especially Dr. Schultz, it was a great experience!

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“The vault of heaven is a perfect sphere, and our horizon as we look towards the heavens is always a circle.  Artists through the millenia continually symbolize God’s domain with this shape.  Circles and spheres have no beginning and no end, and are eternal.  All of us see the world through the circle of our iris – it is wonderful to me that every person is born so we see the universe through a perfect circle.  We begin our life with the key of understanding, seeing the world through the shape which is eternal, and a symbol of God.”

Dr. Lisa DeLong and I met at BYU’s Beauty and Belief exhibit, and this is how she began a wonderful workshop on the presence of the sacred in Islamic art.  She and Dr. Lance Harding graduated from The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in the UK; she is very much a Christian, and has found spiritual beauty and strength in exploring the structures of Islamic art.  Her teaching has taken her around the world, and as a Christian she has taught Muslim craftsmen the keys to better express themselves as Muslim artists.  My friend Dr. Omid Safi, Professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, tells me the reverse was also true in the Ottoman Empire.  “Ottoman leaders would find promising Christian artists and pay for them to study abroad and develop their talents.  This was done so when the artists returned, they could make beautiful Christian art.  The Muslim rulers respected their fellow Children of the Book to the point that they supported them in being better and more expressive Christians.”

I also love her paintings.  Her website is Whole Grain Art – integrated art which nourishes the soul.

Last night the Utah Community Cultural Center hosted the UPF film Islamic Art:  Mirror of the Unseen World, and I was invited to give the introduction:

God is Beautiful and Loves Beauty:

An Informal Introduction to Art in the Islamic World

A man, consumed with the desire to find the right church to join, fasts and prays with all his heart because he learned that the Bible teaches we must ask our questions of God, and He will answer.  While he is alone one night, an angel dressed all in white appears – this angel recites a message meant for this man, then returns two more times repeating the exact same words.  In the morning the man stumbles home and falls into a ditch, the angel appears again and fills his field of view.  The message he heard three times the previous night is repeated, and the angel commands him to return to his family and share this important message.

Of course, I’m speaking of Gabriel’s visit to Mohammed in the opening of autumn, 610 AD.  All of Gabriel’s visits were accompanied by a command to recite and remember his words, because although Mohammed started a religion which is known as the single most literary faith movement in the history of the world, he himself never learned to read or write.

Mohammed brought a level of stability to life in the Arabic peninsula that had not been seen before.  As one example, women in this culture were less important than livestock, and up to her teenage years she could be buried alive in the sand if her family thought she was a burden or too big of a nuisance.  Her hair was a symbol of her health and breeding ability.  Mohammed put a stop to the practice of burying children in the sand, and invited women to wear a hair covering so men would be forced to look them in the eyes and acknowledge their humanity.  Mohammed was also invited to come to Medina and broker a peace between the many different religions there.  What resulted, and this was in spite of Mohammed’s inability to read or write, was one of the very earliest constitutions calling for a representational government, including provisions for the legal constraints of many different faiths to work together.  He acknowledged all the holy prophets from Adam, and expressed surprise when Jews or Christians could not see that all three faiths were fellow “Children of the Book” meaning the Bible.

Islam now, 1400 years after Mohammed, is celebrated by an amazingly diverse rainbow of hues, by families all around the world.  Family traditions and understanding are fused with the faith, and there are as many variations of observance as there are in any other world religion.  One tradition I found that helped me learn was the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God.  Reading the Qur’an, visiting with Muslim leaders, scholars, and laity, and reflecting on my own beliefs, the sculptures I build of the 99 Names are celebrations of these many facets of Divinity – although the tradition is distinctly Muslim, the 99 Names are like the Beatitudes or Eight-fold Path of Buddha, and can be appreciated by anyone.

There are some points of departure between my Christian background and Islamic art tradition.  For Christians the Word of God was made flesh and lived among ordinary people in the body of Christ.  This goes a long way in explaining the rich history of figurative art in the West – depictions of God as Jesus were widely sponsored and sought after, and on some level every image of the human form is a reaction to that history.  In Islam, however, the Word of God was made legible as the Qur’an.  Rather than a human form symbolizing the Bridge between mankind and heaven, the written word became the Bridge.  So writing and the book arts become most important, for parallel reasons.

One common misunderstanding among Westerners is that figurative work has been forbidden Muslim artists.  Although it is considered inappropriate to limit God to physical form, depictions of people including Mohammed and Jesus were created.  In fact, when Mohammed cleaned out the Qa’aba in Mecca which had been filled with centuries of idols and pagan religious symbols, the only piece of art he left inside was a portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus.

There are a few other things to look for, that may help us appreciate Islamic art:  geometry, organic forms, the use of empty space, and color.

In Islam capital-T Truth is Divine knowledge.  Since God is infinite, this kind of Truth can never be adequately articulated by human beings, only alluded to; as a result of this perception, math and geometry became vitally important to the Muslim artist.  Using math the artist would develop a pattern with significance (using numbers like five and eight, for example – five being the number of the Pillars of Faith, and eight being the number of angels carrying God’s throne at the Last Judgment).  A tiling sequence would be distilled to a repeatable section, but an incredible effort was made so it was easy for a viewer to get lost in the expanding pattern.  As a person contemplates the intricate geometry, it became easier for him or her to become open to the spiritual meditation which should happen in a sacred setting.

Closely related to this fascination with geometry and math is the use of intricate organic forms and interlacing.  Although geometric “tiles” were also used in organic designs, the flowers and vines meant something a little different.  First, they serve to remind us of the promise of Heaven – bountiful, vital richness of growth and abundance.  Keep in mind that Islam started on the Arabian peninsula, one of the largest inhabited areas on the planet with no natural bodies of water which last all year around.  So displaying a rich network of plant forms is a great way to celebrate Paradise.  Second, the organic forms recall to mind the rich variety of Creation; God is bountiful and promises to provide the faithful with bounty in their obedience, and the universe is filled with richness and diversity far beyond our ability to comprehend.  And third, most of the organic patterns, as wildly complicate as they may grow, usually point back to a stylized vessel or starting point for the viney growths, whereas the geometric designs rarely have a strongly defined origin.

Have you ever heard the Buddhist phrase, “The sound of one hand clapping”?  Although this has been used many times to give an annoying student something to contemplate, it points to an important idea in Islamic art.  If there is no silence, we can’t appreciate music – without pauses, conversation would be very difficult to follow.  Without a moment to listen, we couldn’t hear anything truly important.  In art, we also use the term “negative space” to express the importance of the space around what we’re making, which helps to define the thing being made.  If we combine these two ideas we approach the purpose of the void (or emptiness) in Islamic art.  When looking at Islamic designs, also look at the space between or around shapes – often the artist is using this negative space to purposely accentuate what he is building.  This serves as a reminder that, although we cannot always witness the Divine Presence, It is still there, all the time.  And in the midst of the chaos of our living, the Divine is heard in the still small voice.  That silence, that presence, is what makes the experienced possible.

As we look at Islamic art there is also a strong presence, many times, of color.  Although artists always express themselves with a certain level of freedom, generally blue, green, and red have meaning in Islamic art.  For Christians blue is associated with God the Father and Mary, green with the presence of God as Spirit, and red associates with the Blood of Christ.  For Muslims blue usually symbolizes the eternal life-giving qualities of the Water of Heaven, or in Christian terms, the Living Water.  We partake of eternal truth and our souls live forever.  Green accompanies the richness of abundant growth, both of our spirits as we submit to Divine Will and the infinite abundance promised the faithful in heaven.  And red is the color of the blood of martyrs – and NOT what you think.  The real martyr in Islam is the parent, teacher, or builder who gives their whole life in service to others around them, not to die horribly but to die peaceably after a good, long life; a long life well and truly lived, filled with expressions  of love to family, friends, and strangers, is the true meaning of Jihad.  Teaching, not terrorism, is the highest calling in Islam.

In the movie we’ll be watching, look for these aspects of Islamic art.  The importance of the Word, the intricacy of geometric and organic design, the presence of space or the void, and the use of color.  But rather than making a checklist, keep in mind the single most important aspect of Islamic art.

This art is made by people with a belief, a belief and hope for a better and beautiful world.  God made us to help take care of the earth, the Qur’an teaches, and when we in turn make something we are emulating our own Great Creator.  Objects of Islamic art are not just beautiful things, but are also objects of worship.  And heartfelt testimonies of the hopes, dreams, and faith of those who made them.  Muslims all around the world believe they have a responsibility to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, by building strong and responsible families, by teaching their children how to behave and make friends, and by bringing more beauty into the world.  Mohammed said, “God is Beautiful and loves Beauty.”  I believe regardless of our differences, this is something all of us can agree to.

–Andrew Kosorok, 2014

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In February the Utah Cultural Celebration Center is hosting screenings of several UPF films, introducing the NEH’s Muslim Journeys Bookshelf to Utah.  On February 10 starting at 7:00 I’ll be introducing Islamic Art:  Mirror of the Invisible World.  Each work of art in the film is the personal testimony of the artist and craftsman who made it, and the works are tremendous.  Dealing with aspects of traditional Islamic art such as The Word and the use of Space, Ornament, Color, and Water in creating an environment inviting to the Spirit, the film also recalls to mind Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr‘s excellent work, Islamic Art and Spirituality.

UCCC Muslim Journeys Exhibit Panorama

Several sculptures from 99 Names Project will also be on display.  Come by, watch the movie, and let’s have a great visit!

Thank you for supporting the 99 Names Project

In February and March, Utah Cultural Celebration Center and Utah Humanities Council are holding a series of discussions, readings, movies, and exhibits to share the addition of the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf to several libraries in Utah.  Yesterday, Michael Christensen (folklorist at the Center and exhibits curator) and I set up an exhibit of several sculptures from the 99 Names project series, and I’ll be speaking a number of times during the next few months about my experiences as a Christian learning about Islam, Muslims, and Islamic art, and they asked me to also introduce one of the films in the series, Islamic Art:  Mirror of the Invisible World.  The films shown at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center and the dates are:

Feb. 3, Prince Among Slaves

Feb. 10, Islamic Art:  Mirror of the Invisible World

Feb. 24, Koran by Heart

The screenings begin at 7:30 pm at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, and I’ll be posting more information on the Muslim Journeys series.

And here’s some beautiful photos of the exhibit taken by the incomparable Michael Christensen:

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Most of us have an immediate aversion to graffiti.  Although it lends color and energy to the environment, graffiti punctuates the dystopian landscape with hopelessness–tags to mark turf and power of rival gangs, or vandalism by the hands of pathless youth.  The ability to communicate, write, and leave something behind is a Divine gift, and graffiti feels like the dark face to this uplifting ability.

However, few things could be farther from the reality with the work of my friend eL Seed.  Rather than “tagging” his work beautifies; he uses the standard tool kit of the street graffiti artist, with all his cans of spray paint and paint-smeared clothes, but he is also (and foremost) a serious student of classical calligraphy.  He finds dilapidated and lonely walls, misused alleys, or blank spots asking for energy, and his magical “calligraffiti” beautifies rather than degrades–giving colorful messages of hope rather than identifiers of dystopia.  His work has been commissioned at Harvard, the Sharjah Biennial, and elsewhere around the world, and the video above is of one of his most beautiful works to date, the adornment of Jara Mosque in Gabes, Tunisia.

eL Seed’s site

Translation of the words?  My favorite verse from the Qur’an:

O Men!  Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.

Qur’an 49:13

Jara Mosque, Gabes, TunisiaImage from Wikimedia Commons

Jara Mosque, Gabes, Tunisia
Image from Wikimedia Commons

03-Autarch

03-Autarch

Al-Malik

Al-Malik from Sufism.org

03-Autarch (Al-Malik)

Etched, painted, and fired glass, with citrine sphere and hemp

The autarch is the ultimate ruler–above presidents, kings, and emperors.  Everything in the universe is because of the rulership of God; everything from the whispering motions of atoms to the burning of monster suns does all they do by virtue of His governance.  The stars of Heaven are jewels in His crown, the entire planet is itself His footstool–and all the universe from before time was time is governed by His might through every moment.  Even in times of misery we must remember:  all things are ruled by His hand for a single purpose, that each of us have all the experiences necessary to become fully the beings we were created to be.  We reach our fullest potential only through losing ourselves in His will and giving ourselves fully to His governance.

Photography by Hawkinson Photography

Calligraphy by Sufism.org

 

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Photos courtesy of Emily Ellis, Dr. C. Lance Harding, Ph.D., and Wikimedia Commons

My friend Lance, Dr. C. Lance Harding, Ph.D., came to the 99 Names workshop as my “ringer”–he knows so much about the uses of geometry in sacred art and architecture, I knew that he could answer any questions which threw me.  Luckily, he never had to pull out his blue mavin card and was able to enjoy the workshop.  With his insight and experience with sacred art from around the world, it was a pleasure walking with him through the exhibit Beauty and Belief:  Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture, and he was kind enough to share his feelings about the exhibit.

1.  What is the basis of your interest in Islamic Art?

While studying at The Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts Department in London (now called the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts), I gained an appreciation and interest in the concepts behind Islamic Art.  At our school we studied the foundations of Traditional and Sacred Art from various cultures.  I was interested in learning some of the basic principles for combining religious belief with works of art.  The simple basic concepts found in Islamic works of art gave examples of how this could be done.  First, the making of Arabic Calligraphy from sacred writings into a visual art form in texts and in their mosques was an important way for teaching the “Word of God” to the Islamic people.  Christians did much the same thing in their hand written texts and also by making biblical stories the basis of their stained glass windows inside the cathedrals.  The Islamic use of geometric pattern, that represented the order and power of God or the “Fear or Awe” of God opened up a whole new world for me in terms of representing God’s Creation.  The beautiful Arabesque (or plant form) designs that are a major part of Islamic Art add a further dimension representing the “Love of God” and the Paradise of God–God’s grace and love for mankind.

2.  As you walk through the Beauty and Belief exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art, what is your overall impression?

My overall impression of the Beauty and Belief exhibit is that the people who created these wonderful works of art were master-craftsmen.  They did not separate their art from their craft.  Their objects of adornment and their daily useful objects often became one and the same.  These works of art must have been used to combine what they considered to be sacred with the objects of their daily life.

3.  How does your background, both as an artist and as a person of faith, inform your reactions to the exhibit?

I believe that my background as a Christian, and as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has prepared me to accept the sacred art and teachings of other faiths and cultures.  My studies of art in other cultures in connection with my studies of Islamic Art has brought me to the understanding that all of God’s children have had access to divine inspiration and knowledge which was handed down to them either through their ancestors from God or given to them directly by God.  So, when I study and examine closely Islamic works of art, I see God in them just as much as when I examine Christian art or when I try to interpret Biblical Jewish art and architecture.

4.  Which piece or pieces are you drawn to most strongly, and why?

I am naturally drawn to those pieces in the Islamic exhibit that are derived directly from geometry and geometric form.  In London I studied ancient and sacred geometry and that was the foundation of ancient architecture and works of art.  I have always been interested in the basic order of the universe found in God’s creations as expressed in these types of art and architecture.  I see geometry and symmetry as the basis of all creation.  It is contained in all natural forms as well as being the basis of number, mathematics, science, and art.

5.  This exhibit is comprised of works made by artists who testify of their faith with every piece.  As a Christian how do you respond to this?

The concept of making art as part of your lifestyle has always intrigued me.  In the Islamic world they seem to have the ability to find the sacred in every day objects by turning them into sacred works of art.  This is what “Sacred” means–to make holy or to set apart and improve that which is routine in our lives in order to bring God into the scheme of things.  Faith is something that is meant to be put into practice every day in our lives.  Beautiful works of art represent and increase that faith.  As a Christian I see the basic Christian virtues of knowledge, temperance, patience, Godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity, along with consistency and endurance, incorporated into Islamic works of art.  (II Peter Ch. 1)

6.  How has this exhibit, and your work with Islamic art in general, informed your faith as a Christian?

The works of art in the BYU exhibit as well as the many other Islamic works I have seen and studied have given me the knowledge that there are certain universal principles that God has extended to all peoples and cultures, particularly those of the three Abrahamic traditionsJewish, Christian, and Muslim.  I have always been interested in the three Abrahamic religions.  Jewish and Christian teachings about God, related to the “Light”, the “Life”, and the “Love” of God, appear to match the three basic elements of Islamic art which are the “Word of God” (or the Light), the “Fear or Awe” of God (or the Life), and the beautiful Arabesque plant form designs (which are the Love of God).  I believe that the time will come as God’s influence returns to this earth, that Jehovah–Christ–Allah, different Names, but the true God of this World–He will unite all the children of Abraham and they will live side by side together in peace.

18-Opener

18 Opener

Al-Fattah

http://sufism.org/foundations/ninety-nine-names/al-fattah-the-opener-2

18-Opener (Al-Fattah)

Etched, painted, and fired glass sewn with hemp, with keys

With our limited perspective, it is a struggle many times to view new experiences as opportunities; much of the time, events outside our comfort zone or realm of familiarity can be frightening.  The Creator is mindful of the well-being of His creatures, and even the most tragic and terrible occurrence is an occasion for spiritual growth.  Our view, restricted by our mortal limitations, can be broadened as we look to Heaven for guidance; sometimes, tragedy weighs our spirits so we only have the energy to hope for hope—but this is enough.  “Think of me, and I will turn towards you; turn to me, and I will walk to you; open the door to me, and I will fill your house.”  The Creator continually opens new paths for us to explore—to meet and befriend new people that will enrich our lives, or mature from the tempering fire of experience—so we might become the beings He desires us to be; it is up to us to use the keys provided.

Photography by Hawkinson Photography

Calligraphy by Sufism.org

 

In Christian tradition, the Creator built the Universe using measure, weight, and number, and is a Celestial Craftsman of infinite and perfect ability.  A defining characteristic of humanity is the capacity for intelligently creative construction, a heritage granted by their Creator.  When we build with intelligence, consistency, and craft, we are emulating the Source of those abilities, and can find ourselves drawn closer to the Divine Will.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, philosopher and writer on the arts, has encapsulated this idea from a Muslim perspective.  From his book Islamic Art and Spirituality:  “To grasp fully the significance of Islamic art is to become aware that it is an aspect of the Islamic revelation, a casting of Divine Realities (haqa’iq) upon the plane of material manifestation in order to carry man upon the wings of its liberating beauty to his original abode of Divine Proximity.”

Thankfully, many appreciate the promise reflected in our capacity to build things of beauty.  With this in mind, Elvira Bojadzic and Kenan Surkovic started Islamic Arts Magazine, one of the premier showcases of Islamic art – past and present, and all genres.  From commentary and criticism to interviews and surveys, they provide a bimonthly 250 page forum for viewers to see the wealth of contemporary Islamic art as well as experience the richness of its history.  This is a first class publication, with a truly inspiring presentation and message; they share a full issue for free, offer an informative arts and letters blog, and have a very reasonable subscription rate.

Pleasantly, they also have galleries of works done by Islamic artists from around the world, from photography and architecture to painting and calligraphy, as well as many other subjects.  Although I am not Muslim, they responded to the intent of the 99 Names project with enthusiasm, and have graciously put several images on display.  While perusing their online presence, please stop by and check out the gallery for the project.

It is wonderful seeing such a beautiful format for experiencing Islamic art.

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