The Islamic Renaissance

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There’s an Islamic Renaissance happening all around us – one I’ve considered myself a part of since 2004.

Young artists, chefs, and crafters are deciding to pursue niche trades and gain skills that are extremely nuanced, foodies are learning and sharing traditional preparations, and artists are excited to learn the sacred traditions, skills, and handicrafts that are so interwoven with our aniconic Islamic art traditions. They’re creating geometric designs with only a straightedge and compass, mastering elaborate leather-working techniques, jewelry crafting, metal working, wood carving, truck painting, beadwork, embroidery, ralli quilt making, weaving, calligraphy, and much more. Artists are also actively seeking out traditionally trained and highly skilled teachers in all these traditional art forms.

Islamic graffiti art is also becoming increasingly popular especially because of its social and political possibilities and impacts. Almost all graffiti is an advertisement for social change. It influences minds and hearts from the bottom up instead of the top-down. It speaks to the needs and struggles of the masses – not the trials and problems of the elite. It’s the people’s art – a medium used to speak to others on the same level.

In many countries that are living under especially violent and oppressive systems and regimes (like much of the Arab world at the moment) I think it’s getting the message of resistance across quite clearly.

Additionally, outdoor art exhibitions and wall murals are flavored by its surroundings. Gallery settings are generally rather stark so they are supposed to help the art “speak on its own.” With graffiti art there is a shifting dialog and discussion going on with the community. I police car rolls by, a feral dog wanders past, a group of school children stop to play in front of it – these give the art a sense of atmosphere and place. You just don’t get that indoors.

I believe that sculpture and installation, mixed-media works, new media, and other experimental mediums are also growing as strong as ever. This is of course in addition to the rise in study of the more traditional arts like handcrafts, print-making, and painting.

You’ve got hand-cut paper and digital collage artists, like myself, who are layering old and new images (but also borrowing from many of these other traditional arts) to make statements about the artistic validity of “women’s work” like sewing, embroidery, and crochet. You also have artists commenting on other social issues – like domestic violence and environmental destruction.

Other really innovative artists that come to mind are; Anila Quayyum Agha and her project, Intersections; shadow sculpture artist Rashad Alakbarov; and Mehwish Javed Iqbal with her Only Daughter series. Then you also have new media artists like Yoshi (Yusuf Misdaq) who are doing revolutionary things with sound and video.

Even if one can’t read or speak the foreign language an artwork contains, like Arabic, we can still relate to the script and calligraphic representations of it. We can see and appreciate the skill, control, and precision that goes into creating a masterful Islamic calligraphic works of art. It’s the meanings behind the words that I believe carry the weight of the work though. In the case of Islamic calligraphy we have messages about the attributes of God or reminders and verses from the Quran, which – when people take the time to learn the meanings – definitely add depth to the artworks.

One of my favorite paintings from about 2008 was a piece called “Lunar Cycles.” It depicted the phases of the moon in changing partial sun and shadow spiraling into the center of the painting.

lunar-cycles---new-web

The Islamic calendar is a Lunar calendar so for me it was a testament to the lunar cycles and a reminder of Ramadan – the lunar month in Islam where all Muslims, who are physically able, fast from the first light of dawn to sunset all while contemplating God. Interestingly though, when I donated it to a local public television art auction it was purchased by a non-Muslim. The piece obviously resonated with her on a uniquely different spiritual level – and I consider that a success!

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