Is there an Islamic arts ‘revival’?
Say ‘Islamic art’ and what may come to mind is some geometric pattern you’ve seen on a mosque wall or a centuries-old Quran folio in a museum. But a global network of educators, artists, and curators are bringing works of Arabic-script calligraphy, tezhip (or manuscript illumination), ceramics and more, to buyers of art as well as to students who want to pick up artistic practice for themselves.
“Muslims don’t necessarily know the richness of our heritage. Out of not knowing, people are drawn to it.”
Samira Mian is a practitioner of Islamic geometry who teaches online and in the UK; she also maintains a robust YouTube channel where she uploads pattern tutorials. For her, ‘Islamic art’ is a tenuous term.
On one hand, the term acts well as a shorthand, ‘contextualizing the decontextualized’, responding to attempts to strip geometric patterns from everywhere from Morocco to South Asia, and on the other, it is vast, covering everything from calligraphy, paper cutting, and illumination to ceramics and glassworking. Even non-visual arts like the recitation of the Quran are often considered ‘Islamic art’.
"As the concept ‘Islamic art’ becomes more ubiquitous and as artists gain more exposure, especially on social media, the question of whether or not a revival is taking place may occasionally come up, as well as the assertion that the arts are in decline"
Broadly defined, ‘Islamic art’, as it is used in museums and on the art market, refers to the global material culture of Muslim-majority societies, including work by non-Muslims. It’s distinct from works of modernism and surrealism by Muslim artists that may tackle Muslim themes, although these artists may also identify with ‘Islamic art’ as either inspiration or method, too.
Nigerian calligrapher of Arabic script, Yushaa Abdullah also sees ‘Islamic art’ as a general term that can extend to multiple visual art forms but prefers ‘Arabic calligraphy’ to describe his practice as both an artist and an educator because the term is specific. He also likes the term because it links the craft to pre-Islamic Arabic scripts as well as to non-Muslims who use calligraphy.
Similarly, ‘Islamic art’ is often only used with specific geographies: the Mashriq, Maghreb, Ottoman Empire, Iran, and South Asia, excluding other geographies and populations. For example, the large corpus of West and East African Arabic scripts is not taught widely in online classes taught in Arabic and English.
According to Abdullah, no matter how limited the exposure of the scripts outside of West Africa may be, West African Arabic scripts, modified from the Maghribi style are still a ubiquitous part of Nigerian Muslim life: they are used in Quranic schools, local newspapers and billboards.
Learning the craft
Educational opportunities – beyond apprenticeships, which has, to some extent, been how artistic practice has been handed down from generation to generation for centuries – have expanded over the last decade, aided in part by video conferencing technology.
As a result, calligraphy, tezhip, and more are being practised by people who’ve never had the opportunity to practice before. Both Mian and Nagihan Seymour, a Turkish UK-based tezhip artist and ceramicist, have mostly female students in their classes, from all over the world, including from Tanzania and Sri Lanka.
Seymour was trained herself by a tezhip artist in Istanbul while she was a university student studying engineering and says she enjoys teaching because it allows her to share the art and pay forward what her teacher did for her.
Both Mian and Seymour teach independently and in conjunction with other organizations, like Harrow Arts Centre and David Parr House, in the UK. Other educators, like Abdullah US-born Palestinian-Malay Chinese calligrapher Muhammad Kaddoura, and Iraqi geometer Mohamad alJanabi, have also built their centres around their work, often also offering commercial services.
Other arts centres that have emerged in recent years, like Alef Studio run by Iman Hamdieh and Omaima Dajani in Jerusalem, Palestine, bring a wide array of arts to their local community, instead of specialising in a single artistic practice. In addition to Arabic-script calligraphy and Islamic geometry, they also offer classes in music and basic jewellery design for children.
Abdullah’s Abuja-based centre, run through IRCICA, the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture, mostly attracts students through its network. The programme has granted 11 students ijaza and hopes to enrol 50 students from across West Africa every two and a half years in a five-year programme.
Abdullah specifically links student motivation to see examples of calligraphic work by himself and others in their community. “Students became courageous enough to start calligraphy when they realize the work is done by our people; I mean, by their fellow Black Africans.”
As Islamic art has become more ubiquitous on a global scale, it has created opportunities for artists to make their living from their artistic practice.
Commercial opportunities are expanding in other ways. Specifically, students need supplies to practice their craft and it’s often a major challenge. Calligraphy student Katarina Chovancova began selling calligraphy supplies online in 2018 when trying to source supplies for her own calligraphy practice from Indonesia. She purchased them in bulk and sold those she didn’t need on Etsy.
Today, Chovancova’s site Arcalliq continues to source calligraphy pens, ink, paper and more directly from the artisans who make them, giving them a larger cut of the profits.
Islamic art history
With the interest in practising art, there’s also been an interest in the history of the arts from a wider sector of the global public, both from the Muslim-majority world and North America-Western Europe.
Much of this interest is represented by the growth of different publications and online platforms featuring Islamic art, like art historian and tezhip teacher, Dr Esra Alhamel’s podcast Art Illuminated, Bayt Al Fann, Sarajevo-based Islamic Arts Magazine, and a recent guest-edited issue of Canadian arts magazine BlackFlash.
Especially within the last three decades, a new crop of museums dedicated to Islamic art has been established all over the globe, including the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and the Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia, established in 1998 and purportedly, the largest museum of Islamic arts in South Asia.
“You can’t describe [Muslim audiences] as ‘hard-to-reach’. You have to give them something to engage with. The onus has to be on the institution.”
Dr Neelam Hussain is the curator of the Middle Eastern collections at Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham. She’s also part of a new project called the Museum of Islamic Arts and Heritage (MIAH) Foundation, which aims to establish the UK’s first dedicated museum of Islamic art, largely in response to the way major institutions in the UK have handled Islamic art.
MIAH takes a community-centric approach to its programming. The project specifically aims to bring people of colour into museum spaces built for them, as well as recognise that, as Hussain puts it, Muslim audiences are the experts of their cultural heritage.
MIAH is currently working on community engagement, as well as running local events and launching a website that will function as both a resource and a place to host mini-exhibitions.
As the concept of ‘Islamic art’ becomes more ubiquitous and as artists gain more exposure, especially on social media, the question of whether or not a revival is taking place may occasionally come up, as well as the assertion that the arts are in decline.
But it’s debatable whether, in many societies, they ever really died out; some industries only more recently began to feel the toll of industrialization. Rather, ‘decline’ narratives may very well be marketing ploys to advance any one artist or workshop over another.
However, what is clear is that artists and educators like Abdullah, Hussain, Mian, Seymour and more enjoy engaging with their students and passing along the art.
“The future is bright for me and my students,” Abdullah reflects.
N.A. Mansour is a historian of books, art and religion.
Follow her on Twitter: @NAMansour26