AN INTERVIEW WITH ADAM WILLIAMSON AND RICHARD HENRY, FOUNDERS OF ART OF ISLAMIC PATTERN Islamic Art Hands-On Interview by Valerie Behiery, Islamic Art historian, Ph.D.

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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

Students at Work

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

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

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

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Students at work. Dar Seffarine Fez, Morocco, 2013

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AN INTERVIEW WITH PAKISTANI ARTIST FATIMA ZAHRA HASSAN Thirst of the Soul Aug 27, 2013 Interview by Valerie Behiery, Islamic Art historian, Ph.D.

“Beauty is an abstract reality that needs shape and form for its manifestation. The process of its’ intentional and purposeful manifestation through form, colour, pattern and shape is what I call Art”.

(Fatima Zahra Hassan)

Fatima Zahra Hassan was one of the early graduates of the innovative miniature painting program established at the National College of Art in Lahore. Having mastered the age-old technique, Hassan set for herself the much more daunting task of infusing her work with the same perennial spirituality that emanates from the best of the Islamic miniature tradition. The artist explored the link between art and mysticism further while pursuing her Masters at the Royal College of Art and then Ph.D. at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. Currently a professor of fine art in the United Arab Emirates, Hassan continues to paint and show her work in Europe and the Middle East. She is presently participating in “Muslima”, the global online show organized by the International Museum of Women.

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Fatima Zahra Hassan / Courtesy of the Artist

The National College of Art is now known internationally because of the many outstanding artists it has generated. You were one of the early graduates of its miniature program. Is its’ success due to outstanding teaching or to the fact that the art of miniature allows students to connect with their past without turning their backs on modernity? Many contemporary artists working in the genre, including yourself, often bring to it a contemporary approach and aesthetic.

Well, I am one of those who believe that teachers should definitely get due credit for their students’ achievements. I can single out Ustadh Bashir Ahmad in Lahore and Keith Critchlow and Paul Marchant in London. But it is not entirely the teaching. It is the traditional training of that very art form, which has stood the test of the time and is part of a living tradition. This particular program connects so well with Pakistan’s illustrious history that students can relate to it. As an early graduate, I probably suffered the most only because I decided to follow the path, which was less travelled at the time. The trend was then to paint something that was popular and called contemporary art and apparently had more followers.

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Love Charms (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Water colour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

What were attitudes like then towards traditional art forms?

Artists like me who believed in the sanctity of traditional art were far less in number. I strongly believe that modernity grows from tradition and without tradition there is no modernity… there are millions of artists who are breaking away from tradition but people like us keep it alive, otherwise it will all be dead one day and there would not be anything left for posterity. It is also difficult to practice within a discipline and strict regime and follow certain parameters. Whereas it is easier to break away! One needs more time, passion, and skill to produce traditional work as opposed to something that needs manufacturing.

imageA Fall, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments on patterned and printed ‘Wasli’ paper, 2011/12, 15×25 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

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I Follow the Religion of Love, Watercolour gouache on printed tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 32×50 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

Miniature painting in the Muslim world generally formed part of the arts of the book. Your work whether visually or conceptually more ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’ is also grounded in text, inspired by Sufi literature, especially Rumi and Bulleh Shah. How do you understand and experience the relationship between the literary and visual arts in your own practice?

The book or kitab has had a pivotal role in Islam and Muslim history in imparting knowledge; therefore the arts of book or paintings done in order to convey what the text had to say became very popular in the Muslim world under various patrons. I grew up in a household where I was surrounded by books. My parents were keen on books, specially my father who had his own library that housed thousands of books and who was and still is an avid reader of history and theology. I grew up reading the poetry and literature of famous Muslim scholars. My maternal grandmother was also instrumental in introducing me to many leading poets and writers as she herself was a poetess and composed poetry in Persian and Urdu. At the age of twelve, I was already exposed to Sa’adi, Rumi, Attar, the Shahnameh, Firdawsi, Jami, Ghalib, Iqbal and many more…

I was keen on classical and Sufi music and was also interested in Qawwali which led me to the poetry of Bulleh Shah. I realized that politics, gender and socio-economic issues become irrelevant when one is a believer and has a spiritual connection with the Divine. For me, as a traditionalist, I have always felt the need to incorporate text in my work, using both image and words to convey the message of Divine Love.

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I Am A Flower, Photograph on archival paper and watercolour gouache, 2009/10, 20×30 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

Some contemporary artists have appropriated or rather subverted the miniature genre to broach personal, social or political issues. But it seems that your work remains focused on the unchanging needs and aspirations of the human soul and the power of beauty, with the exception of the paintings addressing the issue cum violence of American drones.

A majority of contemporary artists chose to appropriate or decided to address issues pertaining to their circumstances or needs, I would say. I realized that I had to continue what I was taught and how I was taught. I was not trained to please galleries or collectors and buyers but to please my consciousness and paint on the ethos I believed in. My training in London harnessed the concept of sacred art and taught me a great deal about perennial philosophy, which is a cardinal element in sacred and traditional art. The Islamic Visual Arts’ program advocates “Art for Purpose” and not “Art for Art’s Sake”. Art should have utility and be functional which makes it more like design. However, its’ principal elements are: Truth, Beauty and Goodness. We have to question ourselves, when we look at some artwork, whether or not this art is truthful or whether it has beauty – which is sense datum – and, above all, whether it really emanates goodness.

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The Drones, Watercolour gouache, gold leaf on printed tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 25×8 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

The distinction that’s often made between narrative or figurative art and abstract art does not really apply to your work in the sense that even your most figurative pieces are allegorical and symbolic. Could you say a few words about this?

I personally feel that my work is both. My training in traditional South Asian and Middle Eastern manuscript illustration and then further grounding in ornament design including geometric and floral design has trained me to use symbols and allegories and create paintings that have stories to tell, for example the piece “Hide No More” named after the poem which inspired it and concludes with:

But I have fastened you in my heart. Now whither can you flee? O, the spouse of Bullah, I was your slave. And was dying for the sight of your sweet face. Ever and always I made hundreds of entreaties. Now sit securely in the cage of my body.

The poem’s language is so simple but has so much depth. As with all mystical poetry, there is a kind of double meaning. The subject is how elusive the Beloved is and how fast and fleeting the vision of Reality is. There is a perpetual game of hide and seek and the lover, again female, must constantly be on the watch so as not to lose sight of the Beloved, even though the Beloved tries to hide. The one who is constant and persevering and makes “hundreds of entreaties” will eventually capture the Beloved and fasten Him in his or her heart, so that finally He will “sit securely in the cage of my body.”

My painting shows a peacock and woman sitting against a pale sea-green background painted as a carpet, a crescent moon in the night-sky behind with stars like a jali screen with lotus flowers and leaves in between. The overall hues are different shades of blue and green. Green, as your readers know, is considered a mystical color in Islam associated with Paradise and the Prophet and blue is the color of the Heavens. I use these two colors most as they seem more than the others to indicate the infinite mystery of the Divine. The female figure is wearing yellow, which represents spring, new life and joy but it is also the color of longing and waiting for the Beloved. And while the peacock represents many different ideas in different traditions, one of its meanings in the Indo-Pakistani tradition, is that it stands for the male Beloved.

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Hide no More (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

From a Traditionalist perspective, art, life and the spiritual path are all seen as transformative, perhaps even alchemical, processes. Do you sense a direct link between the bettering of your soul and that of your brush?

In traditional society and in particular with reference to Islamic or Muslim society, all is connected. One’s profession, daily life and spirituality are all interconnected. It means that all your work as a visual artist is a spiritual process and has an alchemy, which transforms you into a soul that is contented, known as the “Nafs Al-Mutmainnah”.

You have stated elsewhere that it is not easy for artists like you to find a place in the art world even if prestigious collectors of Islamic art such as Prince Charles and the Aga Khan have acquired some of your paintings. However, in the last decade, we have increasingly seen work openly visually related to the Muslim world and Islam exhibited in mainstream art galleries, East and West. How do you explain this: the vagaries of the art market, the development of an active contemporary art scene in the Muslim world, the growing presence of Islam and Muslims in the West, a growing search and assertion of identity? Traditional Islamic art never ceased but it seems to be less confined to specific venues than before.

We have seen how the world changed after 9/11 and while it has done so much harm to Muslims as a whole, it has also done some good to Muslim culture. The world suddenly became interested in Islam and its culture and civilization. The world wanted to see the art, which was produced by artists living in Muslim countries. Curators, collectors, galleries and museum directors were all traveling to these countries to discover the art but the artists with Muslim identity, who were already living in the West, were in a different situation. The ones who submitted fully and were not resilient, they gained and the ones who kept the tradition alive were not necessarily getting any favors. The West generally wants to see art from the Islamic world that shows the negative side and all the lows rather than give an opportunity to everyone including those who are working on interfaith subjects, such as peace, benevolence, harmony and the love for humanity. The West is keener to see burka-clad women, women in niqab, and women who are deprived. I have yet to see interest in art from the Muslim world, which shows the positive side. In my case, I do not work with any gallery or agent but rather through a network, which helps me to see and undertake commissions.

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Rumi, The Seeker, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper / Courtesy of the Artist

I understand what you are saying about the West comforting stereotypes about Islam but I think that there are also many exceptions. For example, Western collectors are sensitive to the beauty of calligraphy –a traditional and beautiful art– especially when used in large scale paintings. Beauty is at the heart of Islamic art and this –I think– explains its great appeal beyond the Muslim world. The universal appeal of beauty is central to your own work as is its’ resuturing to goodness and truth. How would you define in words the beauty you seek to attain in your art?

As I mentioned earlier, beauty is a sense datum. Its’ importance is repeatedly stated in the Qur’an and the Hadith such as, “Verily, Allah is beautiful and loves beauty” and “God has inscribed beauty upon all things”. Beauty is an abstract reality that needs shape and form for its manifestation. The process of its’ intentional and purposeful manifestation through form, colour, pattern and shape is what I call Art.

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The Green Coat in Wilderness, Watercolour gouache, natural pigments on ‘Wasli’ paper, 2012/13, 20×16 cm / Courtesy of the Artist

What are you presently working on now and what are your plans for the coming year?

I am currently working on a series of paintings based on various topics such as construc-tion and building and how the South Asian labor force has played such an important role in building the modern UAE. I have taken an inspiration from an old 15th century Bihzad miniature in which he has painted a scene of the city of Herat’s construction.

Another series is based on “Objects of Desire” from the 60s and 70s such as the Vespa Scooter, typewriters, Raleigh bicycles, the Singer sewing machine and so on. The idea is to show these objects well drawn and painted to a 21st century audience. These were every one’s dream objects as opposed to today’s gadgets. I was born in the late sixties and I grew up with these objects myself, which were very beautiful. Being a British Pakistani, I strongly feel connected to these objects. For my kids, however, they have no meaning.

I am also working on old maps of the world, in particular US maps, and trying to transform and insert one Islamic pattern using a part of it to symbolize a drone. I never take a direct approach; rather, I use symbols, allegory and metaphor. I believe in painting that needs to be unfolded. I like mystery and most of my works have a maze or a labyrinth like structure, which is complex. Traditional miniature paintings or paintings from manuscripts always had mystery and, to this day, when you view a painting you will keep on unfolding it. The more you look at it, the more you discover.

I have two solo exhibitions and one group show coming up and am trying to paint different subjects from what I have painted before. In addition, I write and have many writing projects on the go and so life is very busy.

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Night Of Union (part of Album based on the poetry of Bulleh Shah), Watercolour gouache, natural pigments, gold leaf on tea stained ‘Wasli’ paper, 1996/97, 8×12 inches / Courtesy of the Artist

I know you write about Mughal and Persian painting and have also published two really lovely children’s books on Ibn Sina and Rumi which can be seen on your website. We wish you every success with your numerous interesting projects.

I really want to thank you and the IAM team for giving this opportunity to speak about my humble contribution to the arts of the Muslim World. I shall surely keep IAM posted with my projects.

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