Islamic Art: Classical to Contemporary
For those unfamiliar with Muslim culture, the term Islamic art offers few clues as to what one might see, for instance, in an Islamic art gallery. Would there be statues of Muhammad or paintings of Muslims in prayer? It might be helpful to know that there is rarely such a thing as an Islamic art gallery, although online collections are growing. The observation of Islamic art does not always lend itself to the exhibition style popularly applied to art from other cultures. And if you were to find such a gallery, you would not be admiring statues of Muhammad or intimate paintings of religious life. What you would find,however,is a style of art that is most assuredly robust, diverse, and intensely aesthetic.
Linda Komaroff of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has spent a lifetime in the study of classical Islamic art,earning her Ph.D. in the field and currently serving as the museum’s curator of Islamic art. (A portion of LACMA’s collection,including a primer on Islamic art history,is online at www.lacma.org). Komaroff’s journey has led her to learn Arabic, Persian, Middle East history, and travel extensively. “When we think of classical Islamic art,”says Komaroff,“we are focused on the time immediately following the life of the prophet Muhammad, or the seventh century through the 18th century.” Komaroff makes it clear that Islamic art is not necessarily religious art, at least in the way Westerners perceive it, and that much of the work has a practical purpose. “Classical Islamic art, such as that collected by LACMA, is highly functional in nature — it is used for something — and it is often portable,” Komaroff explains. “It was not produced to be art per se or become part of an art collection, but it is most certainly art. If there is any confusion,it comes from what we, as Westerners,are taught to regard as art.”
Despite a millenium of development, a founding in a variety of artistic traditions, and a vast geographic reach — classical Islamic art comes from Central Asia, southern Spain, northern India, and North Africa — there is an unmistakable cohesiveness to the work that is instantly recognizable. One shared characteristic is the profuse decoration of surface spaces on items such as pillows, fabrics, lamps, and books. Some of the patterns adorning those items (and architectural elements such as walls, ceilings, and landscapes) arefloral or geometric in style and expandin every direction. Those patterns are sometimes termed arabesque, and they signal, even to non-Muslims, theinfluence of Islamic culture. Perhaps the most critical element within Islamic art, classical or contemporary, is an intense passion for expressive writing, or calligraphy.
It is an artform pursued passionately by contemporary Islamic artist Ruh al-’Alam, who works from a studio in the United Kingdom. Al-’Alam is the force behind VisualDhikr.com, a progressive online gallery dedicated to the “visual remembrance” of the Divine through a variety of mediums, including digital art, photography, music, and videography. The site is progressive only in the sense that al-’Alam uses modern technology and digital art techniques to expand on the classical tenets of Islamic art, not create new ones or subvert tradition.
“A few traditional Muslim artists feel strongly that new artistic mediums reject or fail to appreciate the classical Islamic art forms and learning,but mygoal as a contemporary artist is toexpress a respect for this rich inheritance. For example, you’ll see in my work a continuation of the celebration of calligraphy as a high contemporary Islamic art form,” says al-’Alam, who further explains, “Digital art is not a common art form seen in galleries or art spaces, and many art buyers still consider the value of digital art as less than that of a hand-painted piece,regardless of the effort that may have gone into producing it. This often stems from the misunderstanding that the computer generates the art on its own rather than it merely being an artistic tool,just as a brush.”
Al-’Alam believes, as do others, that a slow decline in the learning and practice of traditional Islamic art has characterized the past few hundred years, and he is part of a revival that reflects the new British, European and American Muslim identities. Such a revival is already taking place, he notes,in fashion,music and architecture. To fully explore Ruh al-’Alam’s creative energy, complete with videos and music, take time to visit visit visualdhikr.com.