Home Islam Contemporary Muslim artists continue to adapt Islamic models to challenge ideas about fixed culture

Contemporary Muslim artists continue to adapt Islamic models to challenge ideas about fixed culture


What is culture? In today’s globalized world, we are used to seeing various cultural objects and ornaments outside of their original location or context.

If culture is not fixed and tied to a particular place, how does culture move and change?

Ornamentation in Islamic art – patterned decoration or embellishment seen on objects or in architecture – is a prime example of such a culture movement that can now be found across the world.

Over the centuries, Islamic geometric patterns and arabesque motifs (Islimi) – otherwise known as biomorphic floral patterns – moved from east to west.

These models were constructed and adapted, and as such may not even be recognized as bearing the imprint or influence of Islamic societies.

Influence of Islamic art on Western design

What may appear to some viewers in some contexts as quintessentially British design, such as the patterns on William Morris’ “Holland Park” rug, is in fact inspired by Islamic arabesque (Islimi) ornamentation.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rawpixel)

For example, the 19th century English designer William Morris — renowned for his designs which became known in fabrics, furniture and more Arts and Crafts Movement decorative arts – was inspired by the biomorphic floral motifs of Islamic arabesque ornamentation (Islimi).

A recent exhibition Cartier and Islamic art: in search of modernityto Decorative Arts Museum in Paris highlights the influence of Islamic art on French jewelry designs creator of Maison Cartier.

What is fascinating about this exhibit is the pairing of jewelry and precious objects with artifacts from Islamic lands like a Iranian mosaic from the 14th and 15th centuries who were Cartier’s first sources of inspiration. This exhibition travels to Dallas Museum of Art in May 2022.

“Cultural Translation”

Part of the reason for this shift in culture is the mobility of people and the portability of ornamental items.

The notion of “cultural translation”, forged by cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha, is the act of translation, which is neither a cultural tradition nor the other cultural tradition, but the emergence of other positions. The root of the translation of the English word comes from Latin translation meaning “to carry” or “to cross”.

The movement resulting from migration gives rise to acts of cultural translation of people. Translation is the negotiation born of the meeting of two social groups with different cultural traditions.

For Bhabha, cultural difference is never a finished “thing”. The experiences of migrants exist at the borders or borders of different cultures and are constantly changing. Therefore, acts of translation of language or visual signs and symbols are an act of constant negotiation between cultures.

In this process, the struggle of the migrant operates in a process of transformation in the in-between of cultures. called the third space. The third space is a hybrid space for negotiating cultural interactions.

Diaspora Muslim Artists

A good example of these types of cultural negotiations occurs in the works of contemporary artists from diverse cultural backgrounds living in Western (diasporic) societies.

For diaspora Muslim artists, traditional Islamic art forms contextualize their connections to their cultural origins within broader social, political and cultural concerns – concerns such as migration, cultural identity and diversity.

Pakistani-Canadian Artist Tazeen Qayyoum uses the language of traditional Islamic ornamentation in his work as A waiting pattern (2013) to investigate what it means to live between two cultures.

At first glance, the viewer perceives an aesthetically pleasing geometric design reminiscent of the arabesque tiles of Islamic architecture. However, closer inspection reveals that the ornamental pattern is a repeat of cockroach silhouettes.

In a recent article for black flash magazineQayyum explains this work:

“I also intricately painted a set of airport lounge chairs representative of the liminal space of an airport, where migrants and refugees are neither here nor there, but rather await clearance at their arrival at Pearson airport. The title “holding circuit” reinforces this thought because it evokes an aircraft waiting for authorization to land. It is a state of expectation that refers to my own displaced identity of living between two cultures, always in transit and never really at home.

“Intermediate Space”

Theoreticians of contemporary culture, as Sara Ahmed and Bhabha have argued that these artists enter a mode of cultural translation.

The goose engraved with a pattern is examined by a spectator wearing a hijab, seen from behind.
What do you see in this golden connective pattern engraved on geese and mallard ducks?
(Soheila Esfahani), Author provided

The artists destabilize the idea of ​​a monolithic culture and instead construct works influenced by places of cultures that reflect an “in-between space”: a site of dialogue reflecting these interconnected influences.

I have recently created artworks in which I investigate cultural translation and question the displacement, diffusion and reinsertion of culture by recontextualizing culturally specific ornamentation. This work is intended for an exhibition of three people, The art of living: on community, immigration and the migration of symbols, Jude Abu Zeineh, Soheila Esfahani, Xiaojing Yancurator Catherine Bédard, at the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris (opening May 12, 2022).

In my work mallard ducksa vintage wooden sign featuring a flock of Canada geese and mallard ducks flying over a marsh at sunset has been laser engraved with an arabesque design.

By placing the arabesque design on the wooden cutout of Canada geese and mallard ducks — a vintage “Canadiana” object — I aim to question the origin of culture and the role of ornamentation. I acquired this item from a local business where I live in Waterloo Region, Ontario that salvages and salvages wood materials. At one point, the sign was apparently hanging in a restaurant.

This motif is reproduced from sections of the mosaic design of the inner dome of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.

Highly detailed ornamentation, in shades of gold, tan, teal and brown, is arranged in circular patterns, against a cobalt blue ceiling.
Detail of the interior dome of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.
(Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA

This mosquealso known as the Royal Mosque, part of a complex of buildings in an urban square designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site.

Experiences, cultures inform readings

As noted by art historian Oleg Grabar in his book The mediation of ornament“…ornament is the ultimate mediator, paradoxically questioning the value of meanings by channeling them towards pleasure. Or is it possible to argue that rather than providing pleasure, ornament also gives the viewer the right and freedom to choose the meaning?

My work aims to become a mediator allowing the spectator to enter the third space and revolves around an act of negotiation. Viewers’ unique experiences and cultures inform their reading of the work. This allows them to “enter the third space” by engaging in cultural translation: viewers transport their culture through and onto the artwork and vice versa.

I am interested in the notion of third space not only in contemporary art/culture, but also as a means of opening a space for dialogue between fields of study in order to mobilize multiple perspectives.