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DISCOURSE: ECHOES OF ISLAMIC ART

Updated September 05, 2017

How should we look at the art created in the past in a post-Trump/post-Brexit era where exclusion, xenophobia and conflict have erected invisible barriers between people? The emphasis on difference means that many communities and races have become marginalised on the basis of fossilised definitions and ideas of identity which are equivalent to stereotyping.

Works of art and architecture teach us that ideas flower in a culture of exchange and embody our capacity to adopt a more tolerant attitude. Art invites us to revisit and consider the possibility of acknowledging shared encounters and pasts. The Chapel of the Rosary or Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence is located in a small town in Southern France. It is a long, L-shaped building in white with a sloping, gabled roof that carries a large ornate metal cross. Its interior and exterior was designed by French artist Henry Matisse between 1949 and 1951.

The Chapel of the Rosary draws influences from as far as Spain and North Africa, regions Matisse travelled to and whose art inspired his work. Most importantly the Chapel is redolent of an aesthetic that pays homage to Islamic aesthetics and architecture.

The timeless beauty of Islamic art has moved artists from the West to create unique artworks that challenge prevalent stereotypes about culture and religion

In fact, such was its all pervasive influence that Alistair Sooke in his book Henry Matisse: A Second Life writes: “Matisse wanted the chapel to be a place where people could leave their burdens behind – as Muslims leave the dust of the streets on the soles of the sandals lined up at the door of the mosque.”

Sooke also writes that Matisse had seen an important exhibition on Islamic art in Munich in 1910 which prompted him to visit Spain so the use of crescent moons in the spire and abstract patterns and designs on the wooden confessional door of the Chapel in Venice are all reminiscent of mosques and geometric lattice work.

While Matisse drew from iconography, design and environment, famed graphic artist M.C. Escher was attracted to the intellectual potential and mathematical finesse of Islamic art. Escher travelled to Alhambra, Spain in 1922 and was so inspired by the flat, tessellating patterns and the idea of contemplation and infinity inherent in the creation of the colourful mosaics that adorn the walls and ceilings of the fortress and complex that it transformed his art. As a result, we see tessellating patterns of dancing fish, dragonflies, crabs and other natural life painstakingly devised and executed by Escher in ink and watercolour on the basis of his research and study of Islamic design.

Amongst contemporary artists Joyce Kozloff – one of the founders of the Pattern and Decoration Movement in the 1970s – is also drawn to the beauty and potential of art from other cultures such as Morocco, Egypt and Turkey. Joyce studied books on geometric Islamic patterns and believes that the decorated arts have the potential to eradicate Western notions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art whilst offering engaging critique on our lives, cultures and even our current geopolitical scenario.

In her works, ‘If I were a Botanist (Gaza)’ and ‘If I were a Botanist (Pale of Settlement)’ created in 2015 we see a similar format where the world of aesthetics, order and celestial beauty is haunted by the ghost of conflict and difference. In both works a canvas is divided into three sections where a long, narrow vertical blue strip in each canvas containing a map divides the canvas and makes up the central portion of the collage. The strip is flanked on either side by the two remaining portions both of which occupy a greater portion of the canvas and contain an explosion of overlapping and intersecting geometric tessellations drawn from Islamic patterns. Resplendent with saturated colour, this kaleidoscopic vision is in stark contrast to the somber and ironic content of the central strip. ‘The Map of Gaza’ is featured in the first work and ‘Pale of Settlement’ in the second, an area to which Jews were restricted in Imperial Russia from 1835-1917.

All of it means that art offers us a chance to expand and alter our worldview, not repeat our mistakes.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 13th, 2017