Chiharu Shiota: Drawing Memories in the Air Posted by Priyanka Sachet

Trace of Memory, The Mattress Factory, 2013 (Photo: Priyanka Sacheti)

I remember being thoroughly enchanted the first time I encountered Japanese installation and performance artist, Chiharu Shiota’s work, Trace of Memory at The Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. Utilising both the spatial landscape of an abandoned 19th century row house as well as specific objects such as a wedding dress, hospital bed, and a pile of suitcases, Shiota enmeshed it all in intricate black wool-thread creations. Everything was visible and yet, not; it was not unlike cobwebs studding the dusty corners of an abandoned house, simultaneously representing decay and life. In a sense, Shiota’s work resurrects an otherwise dead house, creating a physically tangible web of narratives through the confluence of thread, space, and air. Perhaps, enchanted was also an appropriate word to describe my engagement with her work, for there was a fairy-tale, other-worldly quality to her work that I had never previously witnessed or experienced elsewhere. Researching further and talking with the artist herself, I discovered that the wool-thread is a signature motif of her work and through which she quite literally binds memories, past, people, and objects.

Born in Osaka, Japan, Chiharu moved to Berlin, Germany in 1997, where she studied with Marina Abramovicand Rebecca Horn, forerunners of the performance art movement; she has exhibited all over the world, presenting her installation art in both solo and group exhibitions.

What does installation art specifically mean to her? “I love empty spaces; the minute I come across one such as an abandoned building or an empty exhibition space, I feel as if my body and spirit transcend a certain dimension – and I can then start from scratch,” Chiharu says, presenting the abandoned or blank exhibition space as one void of references or associations and which she is subsequently free to re-interpret and realise her imagined worlds in. What particularly excites her about installation art is the immediacy of communication and engagement with the viewer. “[The viewers] can immediately feel as to what I am trying to show…unlike a painting or sculpture where you may have to engage with it for quite a while before distilling its meaning,” she opines.

While her work is largely rooted in the soil of her personal memories and concerned with theme of remembering and oblivion, it also sprouts and entwines itself with larger collective memories as well; one glimpses it in installations such as Dialogue from DNA in Krakow, Poland and which was subsequently recreated in Germany and Japan. Currently living and working in Germany, Chiharu reminisces about how it is linked to the time she returned to Japan three years after moving to Germany. “I wore my old shoes and experienced a curious situation; they didn’t fit me any more even though they were the same size. This sense of dislocation persisted even when I was interacting with my parents and old friends. Nothing specifically had changed – and yet, I felt differently about them,” she says.

The scenario made her start thinking about the gulf between the idealised memories when one is away from the home and yearning to return to it — and actually being in home itself. “I began to interrogate the idea of missing and memories and I fused it with the idea of old shoes and the memories associated with them,” she says, elaborating that the installation consisted of 400 disused shoes that people had donated along with notes containing specific memories associated with the shoe. Looking at the installation (below), it is almost as if the threads anchor the memories in form of the shoes in place, lest they vanish into nothingness and being unremembered.

Chiharu has often remarked that working with thread is a bit like drawing in air. “When I began working as a painter, I felt that two-dimensional drawings were limiting me. I needed more space so I started working on installations and using thread in order to achieve a three dimensional drawing, so to speak. The threads since then have been a fundamental aspect of my work,” she says. These threads represent multiple meanings in her diverse output of work, whether of connections or ensnarement or opacity.
Apart from the threads embroidering the surface of Chiharu’s installation spaces, they are also home to objects which Chiharu frequently and quite literally weaves into her works; these objects are plucked from the quotidian, facilitating both the unspooling of a narrative while crucially being a narrative in themselves. They also signify absences, absences which become the works’ fundamental bedrock. “Specific objects inspire me when I experience a personal association or link with them as I did when putting on my old shoes. Abandoned objects are laden with even more memories and associations,” she mentions, suggesting that this surplus of memories adds further narrative texture to her work. “The object itself has a meaning, being a signifier and then my role would be to weave its memories and meaning together using the threads.”
Chiharu Shiota, During Sleep, (2004), Saint-Marie-Madeleine, Lille, France, Thread, Beds, Performers
Photographer: Sunhi Mang
While objects frequently figure as the central components of her installation works, her works are also distinctively body-oriented, as evidenced in works such as During Sleep, which features real-life women asleep on hospital beds and the space enshrouded in her customary fog of thread, bringing to forth gendered associations with the fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty.
She has also chosen to introduce her body as a vehicle of narrative into her works, two of her performances depicting herself with either mud being poured onto herself or naked and smeared with mud. She has also sewn her own umbilical cord into a work; this ultimate symbol of mother-child connection manifesting itself as one of the multiple threads of connections constituting her work. “There is presence in the center of absence; however, when I sometimes sense that there is still a touch of incompleteness, I then choose to put a body,” she says.
Chiharu Shiota, Trace Of Memory( 2013), The Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Thread, Various Materials, Photographer: Tom Little

Having only seen her work at The Mattress Factory gallery in person, I still feel that the exhibition there is a cumulative presentation of much of her preoccupations: space, thread, objects, memories, remembering, and the binary of absence/presence. “I was inspired and nourished by the lives of someone who had already been living there, as opposed to a [blank] cubic gallery installation,” she says of Trace of Memory. “I was using the threads to weave someone’s personal memories.”

What she accomplishes through Trace of Memory is to render the house and its inhabitants’ memories visible. What we see as potential barriers in the form of the complex web-clouds of black web are in fact portals to the memories of the people which inhabited the house; we see the traces they leave behind of themselves through the objects that once belonged to them.  The thread-work immerses the house in a sea of remembering, the submarine quality ensuring that nothing is quite like what it is above in the open air. It also hints toward how people and events are altered when glimpsed through the veil of memory. If one were to shear away through the threads, allowing the cold, harsh of contemporary reality to fall upon it, the house will simply be reduced to an abandoned shell of a structure. Seen through the Chiharu’s intervention of thread-work, the house assumes another function of that of a memory portal.

Chiharu transforms absences into presence through her thread air drawings; she invites us to remember and simultaneously pay homage to the act of the remembering.

If you would like to learn more about Chiharu’s work, you can visit her website.

Picture credits: All pictures except the first one courtesy of Chiharu Shiota.

The truth about the Japanese doll festival

Looking back to the late 90’s, “Girl Power” created a great sensation in the UK pop music industry. These pop idols are grown up now and no longer proudly shout their catchphrase “Girl Power”. Their time in the 90’s has become a rather nostalgic topic to reminisce about. On the other hand, there is a long surviving tradition in Japan for girls to celebrate being girls. Nowadays, 3rd March is a day to celebrate a girl’s well-being and happiness by setting out a special dolls display with peach blossoms. This festival is called the Hina festival (雛祭りHina matsuri).

Image1Example of a modern Hina-doll display. Photo by © Y.Ohtsuka

Women, both young and old, enjoy everything related to the celebration of the Hina festival, from opening boxes, unpacking the dolls and placing them in position to offering them peach blossoms. They also prepare treats such as dainty sweets and special drinks, and hold parties while taking pleasure in viewing the dolls. Basically it is a relaxing “Girly” day.

Sakura mochi (桜餅), a modern example of seasonal sweets for Hinamatsuri. Ashinari Photo Material

Hina (literally ʻprettyʼ or ʻlittleʼ) dolls are dressed like courtiers of the Heian period (794-1185). They are treated with great respect and are dearly loved throughout their graceful existence by all generations of women. In the display the top level is reserved for the master (男雛 Obina) and his mistress (女雛 Mebina). The next level below that is for their servants such as the Three Ladies-in-waiting (三人宮女 Sannin kannyo), the Five musicians (五人囃子Gonin bayashi), the Two ministers (随身 Zuijin), the Three guards (衛士 Eji), and beneath the mistress’s trousseau is also on display.

Image3Yōshu Nobuchika 楊洲周延 (1838-1912). ‘Hina-doll viewing’ (雛拝見 Hina haiken), which is a part of ‘The Great Interior of the Chiyoda Castle’ (千代田の大奥 Chiyoda no Ōoku), Tokyo : Fukuda Hatsujirō, 1896. Nishikie (錦絵) wood block print. Photo National Diet Library

The custom of displaying the Hina-dolls on different levels, looking as if they were placed on a kind of stand, became popular in the Edo period (1600-1867). This display format still lives on today. A number of educational books were published throughout the Edo period, which targeted girls for the purpose of teaching women’s morals, appropriate manners and accomplishments. It wasn’t however, until the later Edo period that publications dealt with the etiquette of the Hina festival on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month which we consider to be the foundation of the modern version of Hina matsuri.

An example of early Edo era educational text books for girls with a page showing the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month on the right.  Based on a publication by Namura Jōhaku (苗村常伯 1674-1748), edited and revised by Takai Ranzan (高井蘭山 1838-1912). ‘A record of collected treasures for woman’ (女重寶記 Onna chōhōki), 1847. Woodblock printed (British Library 16124.d.23)

In the early Edo era, instead of celebrating with Hina-dolls, ceremonial poetry competitions were held on the date of Jōshi (上巳), which falls on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month. This traces its origins back to the Heian period when one of the absolutely essential skills for courtiers was the ability to compose elegant poetry spontaneously. There were many opportunities for poets to compete against each other. Perhaps the most challenging was the highly refined event held by the bank of a meandering river. The contestants sat along the river bank and had to complete their compositions before the cup, which was floating downstream, passed them by.  This was called the river bank poetry competition (曲水の宴Kyokusui no en).

Image5Some abstract  illustrations of Heian courtiers. The figures on the left page are represented as if they were sitting along the meandering river. ‘Practical design book’ (応用漫画 Ōyō manga), illustrated by Ogino Issui (荻野一水), 1903  (British Library ORB.30/6167)

Hina-dolls certainly existed in the Heian period, but not as display objects. In fact, they were children’s toys for playing with.  In chapter 5 of  ‘The Tale of Genji’ (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari), the hero, Prince Genji, discovers a young girl who reminds him of Lady Fujitsubo, whom he has been secretly admiring as his true love. He is eager to approach the girl, who does not have enough family members to support her upbringing, by offering his noble guardianship. However, her ill grandmother politely rejects his offer saying her granddaughter is just a child happily playing with her Hina-dolls, therefore not of suitable age to accept his overtures.

Chapter 5 of ‘The Tale of the Genji’ (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century (British Library, Or.1278, f.18)

There are no episodes describing the river bank poetry competition in the Tale of the Genji, but in chapter 12, Genji undergoes  a purification ceremony on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month (上巳の祓え Jōshi no harae). The dolls had a key role during the ceremony since they absorbed the supplicants’ bad fortune. Then the supplicants threw the dolls into water in order to remove all of the negative energy from their lives.  Both events were rooted in trusting in the natural power of flowing water, which was able to carry things away.

Chapter 12 of ‘The Tale of the Genji’ (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century (British Library, Or.1278, f.18)

The 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month was also the time of peach blossom. In fact, peaches were believed to have divine power to protect people from evil. Most famously in Japanese legend, the god Izanagi, who formed the landmass of Japan with his partner, defeated demons by throwing peaches on his way back to earth from hell. Peaches might be part of the reason why the purification ceremony was carried out on Jōshi. People could expect extra protection from peach blossom as good spirits.

Peach blossom.  Ashinari Photo Material

Peach blossom is still one of key elements in the modern day celebration of the Hina dolls Festival. In fact the day is also known as the Peach festival (桃の節句 Momo no sekku). It is not only pretty, but also quietly ensure a safe and successful happy “Girly” day.

Further reading

Takeda, Kyoko  武田京子. Hinamatsuri in home education 家庭教育からみた雛祭.  Iwate Daigaku Kyōiku gakubu nenpō 岩手大学教育学部研究年報 [The annual report of the Faculty of Education, University of Iwate] 54.2 (1994): 79-87. (in Japanese)

With special thanks to Alessandro Bianchi, Asian and African Studies and PhD student, University of Cambridge

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator Japanese 

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Parviz Tanavoli: plenty of ‘nothing’ – exhibition

An exhibition in Wellesley, Massachusetts, highlights the work of master Iranian sculptor who has made folk and religious forms his own

Shadi Harouni for Tehran Bureau

It is rare for an Iranian artist to be widely celebrated at home, withstanding the scrutiny of a nation in love with both art and the contemporary and yet highly critical of its living artists because it recognizes the contemporary as a category imposed from the outside. Born in 1937, Parviz Tanavoli has become a legendary figure through a prolific career as artist, scholar and teacher. Iran’s first significant modern sculptor, he works in a style distinctly his own, undeniably modern, and entirely Iranian.

In bringing together over 50 years of his art in his first US solo museum exhibition, the Davis Museum has the task of engaging with thousands of years of cultural heritage, which Tanavoli draws on with fervour and ease. He neither imitates nor ignores the Iranian visual lexicon, but rather makes it his own and expands upon it.

Tanavoli is one of the handful of artists responsible for the Saghakhaneh style, which developed in the early 1960s as young, mainly western-educated artists sought to reconcile distinctly Iranian forms with the language of contemporary art. In doing so they turned to traditional forms, touching on pre-Islamic and Shia Muslim art and architecture, as well as Iranian folk motifs.


Disciples of Sheikh San’an (1975) Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

Among those associated with the style, Tanavoli’s work embodies the widest range of cultural signifiers, from the grandiose to the familiar, from the ancient to the now. His scholarship has been impressive in its scope and influence. Tanavoli has published books on locks, talismans, gravestones, horse and camel trappings from tribal Iran, rugs and textiles, make-up boxes, tablecloths, ceramics, and the magic of letters and numbers, among other topics. He is by temperament a collector, and the innumerable hours he has spent scouring flea markets, villages, and artisans’ workshops have deeply affected his work.

It is indeed often difficult to distinguish an established cultural motif from one Tanavoli has established. When one thinks of an Iranian form, one is as likely to visualise a Tanavoli as an ancient relief. The pseudo-cuneiforms covering his more recent Wall series are just as much etched into my mind as the 2500-year-old inscriptions on the side of a granite boulder at the foot of Mount Alvand in Hamedan province, to which I made weekly pilgrimages as a child.

As the country has grown more secular, Tanavoli has built up and maintained certain religious motifs as a significant part of his visual lexicon. A good example is his relationship to locks, as fastened by devotees to the lattice grillwork of Shia shrines.

The Poet (1973) Photograph: John Gordon/Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

He shows the same devotion to saghakhanehs, small niches in walls offering passersby drinking water in memory of Imam Hussein, who with his followers was cut off from water before his martyrdom at the battle of Kerbala in AD680. Tanavoli’s devotion to form while excluding function releases the artistic tradition from its mythical aura.

While the lock has been a site of both ingenuity and metaphor in Iranian heritage, it is Tanavoli’s sculptures and extensive research that make it so significant. He ties in religion, myth and history with contemporary hope. He equates the praying hands that fasten locks onto shrines with his own, which sculpt them in the studio, often as small breasts or disproportionate penises.


Innovation in Art (1964) Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

Tanavoli’s fervour for Iranian formal heritage is balanced by a sense of irreverence and play that give his work relevance beyond a specific cultural context. In Innovation in Art, 1964, he cuts a vaginal opening into a handmade Persian rug to make room for a toilet ewer, a scatological object most common and most rejected in the Iranian domestic psyche. The ewer is painted after a Jasper Johns Target and the intricate patterns of the rug are flattened into kitsch as they are crudely traced in paint.

His signature Heech series, which has for years been a staple of Tanavoli’s practice, was conceived of in 1965 as a protest. The three letters of the word heech, meaning nothing or nothingness in Farsi, took form in the decorative Nastaliq script both as a protest against the empty overuse of calligraphy in the increasingly popular Saghakhaneh style and the individuals, the institutions and the market that embraced this emptiness. The many years Tanavoli has spent with Heech, and the sheer number of pieces produced with his factory-like ambition, take it beyond the cynicism of its initial protest.


Parviz Tanavoli Photograph: Courtesy of Parviz Tanavoli

It is radical for an artist to make “nothing”. But Tanavoli’s heech is constant neither in form nor narrative. The pieces are made in all sizes and media, from bronze to fibre-glass and neon lights. Heech emerges from a box, melts into its chair, lies beneath a table and embraces another. As it takes form it grows both endearing and ridiculous. Its irony, not lost on the artist, points to his nostalgia for the figure, a need for play, for narrative, for history.

Tanavoli cannot stay on a heech hiatus. However freely he has drawn from and built upon his own heritage, he has always done so with great care. It is partly this sense of responsibility that has given him the popular status he enjoys in Iran. While it may be a source of pleasure and inspiration, it is no doubt also a burden for any artist, one he has borne seamlessly, and with grace and humility.

Parviz Tanavoli at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, curated by Lisa Fischman and Shiva Balaghi, offers more than 175 objects from the artist’s expansive oeuvre. The exhibition opens today and runs through 7 June 2015

AN INTERVIEW WITH THE ARTIST Connecting Worlds: The Art of Maїmouna Patrizia Guerresi Interview by Valerie Behiery, Islamic Art historian, Ph.D.

“My art is a reference to share the beauty, the divine mystery and an inner surface that expressing cosmic beauty heals the diseases of the soul.” (Maїmouna Patrizia Guerresi)


Portrait of Maïmouna Guerresi / Courtesy of the Artist

Your art is very powerful in its symbolism. Visually rich and carefully constructed, it evokes a mysterious and enigmatic world. There seems to be a preoccupation throughout all your work with the connection between the physical and spiritual realms. How do you understand this relationship?

The veiled figures that I represent in my work symbolize the sacredness of the body as a sacred building, as a “temple of the soul” according to a style reminiscent of some traditional Madonnas of classical European art. These bodies of men or women, I represent them in their upward tension drained from the raw material and they become like Gothic architecture. They are mystical bodies that transcend the temporal dimension to enter the sacred symbolic reality, “true reality” as Rumi says.

In ‘Minaret Hats’, the long minaret-shaped hats sitting atop the sitters’ heads appear to be visual metaphors of the connection we are discussing. And again the human body is depicted as a site where the world of spirit and matter meet. But there seems to be other dimensions to the images which can also be read as playful or as comments on European ideas about Islam. I even wonder if there is an autobiographical dimension to them in that they bring to mind Touba, the center of Mouridism which has constituted an important source of inspiration for you.

For this work, I focused on the highest part of the body which is exposed “to the elements of life”: the Head. I’ve covered and crowned it with a series of artifacts in the form of hat – minarets that I made in the traditional way. There is also an element of ritual, as the hats are made with simple materials and pieces of cloth, collected, put together and then stitched as is the tradition of the Baifall Muslim Sufis of Senegal who manually produce their own clothes. The hat minarets are tall and narrow forms of architecture with which I dress my characters. The figures in the photographs conceal their face with a hand gesture, are blindfolded or simply close their eyes. They seem to draw away from the world to get in tune with the cosmic spirit and divine. The hats are for me like castles or fortresses that protect the head but they can also be seen as an extension of the body, a type of receptive antenna or channel that lead and transmit spiritual energy. One of these pieces, I called Touba Minaret in memory of the minaret of the holy city of Touba.


Mother Minaret, 2007, Lambda Print, on aluminum, 200×125 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

Your latest photographic series, ‘Illumination’ (2012), calls upon the motif of the whirling dervish to put forth the parallels between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the human body becoming through the dance, both atom and galaxy. Was this work directly inspired by the writing of Rumi?

The character of ‘Illumination’ wearing a white coat with a round base is not just a whirling dervish. It is reminiscent of him of course, but the picture has already become something else. He is a metaphorical representation of the many worlds and constellations where inner beauty and aesthetic appearance are joined together as the symbolic representation of infinity, in a mystical union with the divine universe expanding and contracting like a breath. This circular motion is like a never ending spiral that leads to the dissolution of the self into divine beauty as well as like the mystical knowledge that floods the heart of every seeker, leading to the search for ‘interior illumination.


Illumination II, 2012, Lambda Print, on aluminum, 120×180 cm / Courtesy of the Artist


Illumination III, 2012, Lambda Print, on aluminum, 40×70 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

That is a very poetic explanation, thank you very much. The viewer looking at your work always feels that there is something which escapes them and that it is precisely here that meaning lies. This idea of locating meaning outside the image in the mind of the viewer is at the heart of Islamic art. Have you always worked this way? And how did coming to Islam in 1991 affect the way you conceived of both image and meaning?

My early work has to be seen in the context of body art. I was an artist and an art work at the same time. I tried to attain a cosmic contact with the universe, becoming in my performances a tree that mediates between heaven and earth. I identified with nature and with mythical characters like Daphne who, in mythology, turns into a tree to escape the touch of Apollo. As I continued to want to express in my art the concept of metamorphosis but not only of the body, I sought to represent the spiritual transformation in the mystical bodies of the ‘Giants’ where architecture and black spaces become part of the body itself. This also underwrites the recent work whether the ‘Illumination’ or ‘Indian Red Cosmos’ series that I am exhibiting in India in present and upcoming exhibitions. To me it is impossible to divide my most intimate thoughts and my life experiences from my will to express myself through art.

In ‘The Giants’ like in Islamic art, it is the visual sign of the void that denotes meaning. How did this body of work come about?

My first ‘Giant’ character was ‘Fatima’ in 2000. At that time, I wanted to portray an image of a veiled woman who could express through the face alone compassion, mercy, but also the mystery and fear of the unknown and different. I represented the concept with a face of an African woman and called the piece Fatima, a name that recalls both the Holy Christian and Muslim traditions. A few years later, I got this idea of creating different characters with the same common Muslim names of the people who posed for photos, such as Fatou, Kunta, Ibrahim, Mussa, Dauda, but which also bring to mind Biblical figures like Abraham, Moses, David, etc.


Ibrahim, 2007, Lambda Print, on aluminum, 200×125 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

The spiritual power or role of women is a recurrent theme in your work and it is sometimes expressed through the metaphor and very real mystery of pregnancy such as in the work ‘Genitilla – Al Wilada’. Your expression of female spirituality is reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s work. Did this orientation develop naturally as part of your trajectory as a woman, artist and Mourid? I know that the feminine is emphasized in Sufism from Ibn ‘Arabi to Tierno Bokar…

In my work, I emphasize particularly the feminine-divine, the great mother, clement and merciful, as God is “like a welcoming womb.” In fact the key word of the basmala – Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, which means In the Name of God, the Clement and Merciful – denotes the feminine. From the root rahima comes rahim which means merciful from which derives the word for uterus: rahm. ‘Genitilla – al Wilada’ is a character who has two names: Genitilla after an ancient pagan festival, and the other al wilada meaning “the pregnant woman” in Arabic. This work shows a female figure wearing a dress and sculpture, with a large central black hole, from where the bubbles come out as many new worlds and light. I also have to say that this is the first time someone compares the spirit of my work with the strength and suffering of the extraordinary artist Frida Khalo. This makes me happy. As far as the feminine aspect of Sufism, I know that in Sufi Islam it is strong but often hidden. In the history of Sufism, however there have been many women of great importance such as the famous 8th century saint and poet, Rab’ia al-Adawiyya, and many others, including the modern great saint Murid, Kunta m’Bache Fal, whom I had the honor of knowing before she passed on to another life.


The Ligth Signs – Adji and Tree House, 2004, Lambda print on aluminum, 50×62 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

I would like to ask the same question regarding the theme of race in your work. Some see in your images which bring together people of European and African descent, support for intercultural understanding. And this would be confirmed by series such as ‘The Sisters’ (2003-2006). But is your focus on women and men of African descent also due to more personal spiritual and aesthetic explorations?

The photographic series ‘The Sisters’ interpreted by my daughters Marlene and Adji tells the story of two different worlds that are however spiritually similar. The two girls, one black, one white, meet and converse showing the possibility of real communion and family. Adji, a métis with a veil covering her head, identifies herself as an African-Muslim, while Marlene of European Christian heritage has her head uncovered. The sisters are represented in hieratic and mystical poses during intimate moments and undertaking everyday gestures. They too evoke the iconography of the Madonna of the past. I am particularly interested in investigating the infinite possibilities of the human spirit, and, in the case of women’s spirituality, recounting the discomfort, the charm and value of diversity.


The Black Mountains 3, 2006, Lambda Print, on aluminum, 100x147cm / Courtesy of the Artist

Your work is overtly mystical, imaging dimensions of human experience that have been repressed by the ideology of modernity. I find this mysticism, particularly because it reinstates the role of women in Islamic spirituality, very healing. Do you think that art can help heal the world?

The veil and the mantle are symbols which are closely linked. I called one of my recent shows ‘The Poem of the Mantle’ inspired by the famous poem of Muslim literature the ‘Qasida al-Burda’ composed by al-Busiri in the 13th century. Consisting of sacred verses praising the Prophet Muhammad which, if recited continuously, can bring about healing and miracles. So the continual repetition of the Burda and the veil in my work are like mantras and like the basmala, a formula of enchantment, prayer, thaumaturgy, and dhikr. My art is a reference to share the beauty, the divine mystery and an inner surface that expressing cosmic beauty heals the diseases of the soul.


Faluka, 2010, Lambda Print, on aluminum,200x125cm / Courtesy of the Artist

I thank you so much for sharing your ideas and art with IAM. When I discovered your work, I was completely shaken or moved… Well, I can’t find the right word because a picture can do what words can’t. It is strong powerful work which like all symbolist art reminds viewers of the depth of life. Thank you.

Thanks to you it was a real pleasure to answer your very deep questions and to share my thoughts and my feelings with a sensitive journalist like you.


“Learning through doing is critical, it’s not simply about acquiring a critical analytical understanding of the designs. A sensitivity to the contemplative dimension of the work, both as a student and as a teacher, is essential.” (Richard Henry)

There is a resurgence of interest in the traditional Islamic arts. The difficulty for artists in Europe and North America who want to learn and master the arts of illumination, geometric design or arabesque is where to find such training. Adam Williamson and Richard Henry founded their London-based educational enterprise, Art of Islamic Pattern, with this challenge in mind. It offers a variety of courses catering to different age groups and levels in the London studio and around the world, as well as special study trips to cities like Istanbul, Fez, or Granada. Williamson and Henry are both skilled craftsmen who understand the practical and philosophical aspects of Islamic pattern and design. And between them, they have taught at Birkbeck University, Cambridge University, the British Museum, Central Saint Martins, the Slade School of Fine Art and The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts where they both studied. Artists in their own right, they have each received commissions from notable public and private clients.


Portrait of Art of Islamic Pattern founders: Adam Williamson (left) and Richard Henry (right), Istanbul, Turkey 2014 / Courtesy of the Artists

You established Art of Islamic Pattern in London in 2008. The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts (PSTA) is also now based in London. How would you describe the specific aim and focus of Art of Islamic Pattern?

RH: Our courses have a specific focus upon the Islamic tradition. PSTA looks at the full sweep of world traditions. We are perhaps more with the public facing, in the sense that our courses are designed for the layperson, irrespective of background and we are not formally part of any academic institution. The PSTA is more academic in focus with courses for MA and PhD students. Many of our own students have gone onto study at PSTA.

AW: The courses are primarily practical in nature. There are contextual slide lectures, but the rest of the time students are drawing geometric and biomorphic patterns by hand or with a compass and straight edge. The final stages of courses and trips culminate with creating a work in a traditional medium.

LEFT: Adam Williamson, Sculptural Bench, large twisted oak with inset curving slate carved with poetry sitting on large Portland limestone semi circular feet, Oxford University (commission), England / RIGHT: Adam Williamson, ash sculpture, Geometric Moon Jungle, 2008 / Both images Courtesy of Adam Williamson

Both of you studied with Keith Critchlow, a master geometer and architect who believes in the universal or spiritual aspect of geometry. Is this also your approach?

AW: Keith Critchlow was a great teacher who appeared in my life at the perfect time to connect the dots. His teaching methods seemed purely inspired and intuitive which gave his classes an enjoyable, unpredictable and dynamic energy.

RH: Both of us regard the face-to-face teaching of geometry and traditional art as a form of transmission from master to student. We believe that there is a contemplative dimension to the practical work, which is embodied within the shapes and proportions used. These are the fundamental principles of sacred geometry.


LEFT: Richard Henry, Damascene Variation, mixed media collage on paper, 120×75 cm / RIGHT: Richard Henry, Working Drawing: Progressive drawings of decagram and Girih motif, 70x50cm / Both images Courtesy of Richard Henry

What is important for you in the teaching and learning of Islamic geometry?

RH: Learning through doing is critical, it’s not simply about acquiring a critical analytical understanding of the designs. A sensitivity to the contemplative dimension of the work, both as a student and as a teacher, is essential.


Richard Henry, Doha Girih, mixed media collage on paper, 100×100 cm / Courtesy of Richard Henry

Richard Henry, Girih Composition, wooden tiles (oak, cherry, walnut) with incised pattern, 50x50cm / Courtesy of Richard Henry

Many people who want to learn the Islamic art of pattern might be afraid to start for a variety of reasons. What would you say to these prospective students?

RH: Our introductory courses and study strips assume no prior knowledge of Islamic art and are open to everyone. We generally have a mix of abilities on all of our courses and study trips. Our students come from a range of backgrounds and have a broad range of interests and motivations. Some are professional artists or designers seeking to develop a particular aspect of their work, others are from non-art backgrounds who are driven to explore the art and culture of the Islamic world more deeply and there are others who find themselves at a professional crossroads, and wish to change careers to something more creative and more personally or professionally fulfilling.


LEFT: Adam Williamson, White Sculpture, Hannah Peschar Sculpture Park, England, height, pine, 2008 / RIGHT: Adam Williamson, Stained glass window, Cambridge Muslim College (commission), England, 2012 / Both images Courtesy of Adam Williamson

You and the two other tutors, Lateefa Spiker and Sama Mara, are all practising artists who integrate Islamic pattern into your art in different ways. How do modernity and tradition come together in your art?

AW: We don’t see tradition as something historic but view it as constantly growing and developing, a way to pass down skills and knowledge. This would have been the same view held in antiquity when various structures were developed to teach, for example the guild systems used in both east and west. With the industrialization of much of the world, these systems were lost. People today have an interest in understanding and experiencing these skills, which are now difficult to access. Maybe this is why there is a lot of interest in the courses we facilitate.

imageSama Mara, Installation view of A Hidden Order, Exhibition at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London, 2014 / Courtesy of the Artist


Sama Mara, Installation view of A Hidden Order, Exhibition at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London, 2014 / Courtesy of the Artist

Education is at the heart of what you do. You, Adam, have been involved with PSTA’s outreach educational projects, most recently –in partnership with Lateefa- , with the Ahousaht community on the coast of British Columbia in Canada. Could you say a few words about this project?

AW: Yes, it has been a pleasure to teach on a series of outreach programs for PSTA. It was a particular highlight to work with the First Nation community of Ahousaht. I have been interested in West Coast art, especially the cedar carving, since I was a teenager.

The aspiration for this project was to allow a wider and deeper sharing of traditional knowledge through the direct language of nature, which informs art, number and geometry. The First Nations have an active relationship with nature. Experiencing and hearing about their rituals and remedies and how they are successfully applied to daily life has been an uplifting education for both myself and Lateefa.

The practical outcome of the three trips was a series craft projects, all using cedar. Cedar has always been seen by the locals as the tree of life. It is used to make cloth and rope and used in house building as well as for artwork. For the first project, we created a series of paintings on woven cedar bark. For the second project, we built a 14×24 foot cedar dome and, for the final project, we carved 50 cedar boards that were installed as part of the Flores Island Wild Side boardwalk trail.


Lateefa Spiker, Geo Moon Wave, gold leaf on board, 70×70 cm / Courtesy of the Artist


Lateefa Spiker, Whirling Arabesque, 1×1 m, gouache, acrylic and oil on canvas / Courtesy of the Artist

Students at Work


Richard Henry and students. In the Hackney studio / Courtesy of Art of Islamic Pattern


LEFT: Student (Alan Griffiths) at work, Fez, Morocco, 2013 / RIGHT: Student at work, Istanbul, Turkey 2014 / Courtesy of Art of Islamic Pattern


Adam Williamson and students. Granada, Spain 2010 / Courtesy of Art of Islamic Pattern


Students at work. Dar Seffarine Fez, Morocco, 2013

Calligraffiti Mural by eL Seed on the Sharjah Bank Street Building by Islamic Arts Magazine

Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah’s innovative contemporary visual arts hub, is bringing the striking calligraffiti of acclaimed French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed to the city of Sharjah in a compelling live outdoor street art initiative, Jedariya.

The project ‘Jedariya’, conceived by Maraya Art Centre in aid of beautifying Sharjah’s streets in order to attract more tourists to the Emirates while involving Sharjah’s diverse youth population with the arts, consists of an elaborate painted calligraffiti mural on the walls of the Sharjah Bank Street building by eL Seed.

eL Seed is famous for his unique style of calligraphy – fusing elements of both the graffiti and Arabic calligraphic traditions – which uses complex design to call not only on the words and their meaning, but also on their movement and flow, luring the viewer into an alternate frame of mind. Exhibitions and public wall displays of his extraordinary work can be seen in many locations and landmarks all over Europe, the USA, and the Middle East. The artist found inspiration for the Sharjah art piece in a beautiful poem by acclaimed Iraqi poet Ahmed Bu Snida, a well known and beloved poem in Sharjah.

imageCalligraffiti Mural Art by eL Seed / Courtesy of the Artist and Maraya Art Centre


Calligraffiti Mural Art by eL Seed, detail / Courtesy of the Artist and Maraya Art Centre

Maraya Art Centre Manager Giuseppe Moscatello, remarked “Street art adds a new dimension to the urban landscape, transforming walls into canvasses that celebrate the culture of the people who inhabit the space. It is a wonderful way to not only add beauty to the everyday but to create a dialogue between the man on the street and the world of art and we look forward to engaging the community and especially the youth in this ongoing project.”

eL Seed has been busy painting the Sharjah Bank Street wall from first light till sundown. To face the vertical challenge of the enormous facade, he is secured in a harness and rappels and abseils around the building – spray-painting, stencilling and creating the mammoth masterpiece in plain public sight. He has also been instrumental in drawing a growing interest from the local youth by live tweeting and posting photos taken from his birds-eye-view perspective.

“We are proud of the immense artistic talent that can be found in Sharjah and remain committed to supporting the arts every possible way. By bringing world class art projects into our beautiful Emirate’s public areas we want to not only foster an appreciation of the arts among all, but also attract artists and art lovers from Sharjah, the UAE, and all over the world as well as encourage and inspire young artists to develop their talents and aspire to greatness.” said HE Marwan Al Sarkal.


Images from the Launching Press Conference, L-R: Giuseppe Moscatello, HE Marwan Al Sarkal, eL Seed / Courtesy of Maraya Art Centre

imageImages from the Launching Press Conference / Courtesy of Maraya Art Centre

imageImages from the Launching Press Conference / Courtesy of Maraya Art Centre

Maraya Art Centre intends for all projects led under this initiative to have a community incentive, which sometimes can be as simple as merely getting young people involved in the arts, while at other times may require them to actively participate in aid of raising awareness for an important cause, in addition to creating beautiful landmarks in Sharjah