Islamic Art: A Contemporary Perspective Locating the Spirit:
Religion and Spirituality in African American Art, Anocastla Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. February 14-15, 1999 Catalogue

Islamic Art: A Contemporary Perspective
Halima Taha

Locating the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in African American Art enters a public arena embraced by private frontiers within the American landscape. It presents contrasting visions of spiritual sanctity by American artists of African descent whose aesthetic geography includes the shores of Africa, India, Indonesia, Mexico, the Caribbean, European, China and the United States. The influence of faith, raw materials, artifacts and peoples of lands beyond the horizon provoke questions about where the shore of the diaspora begins or ends and what is behind contemporary artists expressions of religious life through art.
Historically, African American spirituality has been said to be rooted in Christian religious traditions shaped by American slaves of African descent. Erroneously, there is a tendency not to include Islamic spirituality as part of the American experience. However, since the seventh century West Africans were exposed to Islam via trade routes that enjoyed Islam's thousand year presence prior to the I 700's, when large numbers of African Muslims-including members of the Hausa, Mandingo and Fulani tribes-were victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And, like all Africans, many secretly held on to their religious traditions once they reached the New World.

In an era where New Age rhetoric is prevalent and old age traditions remain strong, the word "spirituality" is often interchanged with "sensuality" as it pertains to carnal responses to sight, taste, smell, sound and touch. This is particularly significant when distinguishing the role of Islamic art from other sacred art traditions.

For example, a sacred and religious theater did not develop in Islam as it had in ancient Egypt, Greece, India or medieval Christian Europe because of its non-mythological nature. Unlike other sacred arts, Islam is not based upon the dramatic tension between heaven and earth or heroic sacrifice and redemption through divine intercession. Essentially, the basis of Islamic art is directly related to the global view of Islam shaped by the Holy Quran as it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.

When Quranic text is integrated into art it is intended to provoke humanity to contemplate the remembrance of God. Within this framework Quranic text is the visual symbol of humanity's spiritual potential. Sacred calligraphy when viewed in this context functions as a tool piercing through the veil of material existence, to what metaphorically serves as a gateway to the spiritual world behind the Divine Word.

This further illuminated by the belief that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet, which is affirmed by rising before dawn to observe the first of five daily prayers; fasting for the month of Ramadan; undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca; and giving alms to the poor. Framed within these parameters, art does not provide a spiritual purpose when isolated from the form and content of Islamic revelation. Once art issues forth as Quranic revelation, it becomes an act of worship called dhiker (remembrance of God) for the artist and the audience.

Therefore, the experience of Islamic art, in its strictest construct, is independent from socio-political themes as a means of clarifying the depth of humanity's relationship to the Creator. Consequently, pictures of created things are forbidden. It is for this reason that Islamic art (paintings, calligraphy, ceramics and architecture) is comprised of a series of symbolic points and lines in a variety of forms to continually encourage the remembrance of God.

The symbolic forms exemplified in Yahya Muhammad's Victory skillfully integrate three calligraphic styles into surreal zoomorphic iconography (letters put together to shape an inanimate and animate form) with color and Quranic text. Together they function as a visual narrative toward enlightenment. The result is an invitation to humanity to aspire to its spiritual aptitude through submission to the One who owns everything between the Heavens and the Earth.

In Victory Yahya's zoomorphic images of the ship (Dawani style which originated in Persia) is likened to the experience of the human soul, sailing through constant turbulence and calming seas.

The Wings (Basque style, which originated in Arabia under the Abassid Dynasty), represent the freedom of the soul beyond the human experience. Combined, they state In the Name of Allah Most Gracious Give us the key to the door. 0 Key to all doors. Verily we have granted thee a manifest victory (48:1).

The Gates are also written in the Basque style and remind us that we must seek the one who holds the key: Its gates will be opened and its keepers will say... Peace be upon you, well have you done. Enter ye here to dwell therein (39:73).
The Garden integrates the ancient Kufic style, which originated in Arabia and represents the reward for patience and perseverance within the Divine plan. The virulent colors of felicity and beauty enjoin:
They will say Praise be to Allah who has truly fulfilled His promise to us, and has given us (this) land and heritage. We can dwell in the garden as we will: how excellent a reward for those who work righteousness (39: 74)
And Thou will see the angels surrounding the throne (Divine) on a// sides singing glory and praise to their Lord. The decision between them (at judgement) will be in perfect justice. And the cry on (all sides) will be "Praise be to Allah, Lord of the World" (39:75).

As an example of contemporary Islamic art, Victory invites us to remember that God remains hidden but ever present.
Halima Taha is the author of Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas New York: Crown, 1998.

 

 

 

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