Sunday 20 May 2012


British Museum

This one should start with a cluster of apologies! Not only is it a response to an exhibition which has already finished (on 15th April), it's one of the British Museum cultural exhibitions I promised faithfully to stop trying to review! And what's more, it's also a response to a TV show (Rageh Omaar's ' The Hidden Art of Islam') which has equally vanished into the ether! And as if all that wasn't enough, it's probably more polemical than analytical.

”If You Could Just See the Beauty...”

Partly I feel compelled to write about this exhibition because, while obviously it's about the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, it's perfectly possible to take it as an art exhibition. That would be true even if you removed the contributions of contemporary Islamic artists, for much of the historic art which is rich and astonishingly beautiful.

...which scarcely fits the stereotype of Islam as a rigid and austere sect, when not actually banning art then busily draining it's lifeblood through an army of restrictions. Omaar's documentary does a good job of unpicking the history here. In what is quite likely the world's most anti-idolatrous religion, representational art was distrusted as attempting a rival reality to God's creation. Inevitably the precise nature of these strictures varied over time and place. But it would be possible to generalise it into two styles, a kind of melding of abstract art with calligraphy, plus a style akin to naïve or folk art.

Remind you of anything? Where else do we see those two styles in semi-symbiosis, semi-competition? Modernism, right?

As I seem to say with excessive regularity, in art restrictions enable. These rules gave Islamic art more than they took away, much more. Art that is merely imitative of reality is a fool's errand. One Muslim scholar interviewed by Omarr commenting on the restrictions, pointed out you can't draw a duck then watch it fly away. “You can't win with God”, he summed up cheerily. We might say art can't hope to match reality, but we're winding up in the same place as him. There's Brecht's famous dictum, “art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Art is a reducing and (often) an organising force, not reflecting a situation so much as striving to make sense out of it.

So it's perhaps significant that much of the work on display here are symbolic maps, and even the images which aren't still tend to look like them. Figures become like 2D symbols arranged along a flat, often plain white, plane - as if they're floating above it. They have a relationship with each other, but that is enhanced not diminished by avoiding placing them inside a little scene. In other drawings the ground is a flat baseline, like in a child's drawing.

But what of the calligraphic art? It's chiefly represented by the Kiswa, the hangings used for the Ka'ba (more of which anon), one of the most devout purposes in Islam. And as if the rules already imposed didn't seem restrictive enough they then employ a strictly limited palette – black, red, green and gold. And yet look how beautiful they are!

As any dabbler in calligraphy will tell you, writing is another form of drawing. This effect may be enhanced for those of us who can't read Arabic. Perhaps it's just over-familiarity with the Western alphabet, but surely those swoops and whirls more readily become abstract art than any of our own letters. I couldn't help but wonder if Arabic children more readily leapt to the words in a picture book than young Westerners, confronted by our unappealing squiggles.

I confess to be clueless over how the tale develops from here. Is this art slipping it's shackles, asserting itself instead of singing God's praises? Or would a Muslim see the skill and workmanship, the sheer aesthetic power, as indivisible from a testament to God's power? Perhaps similarly, I often reflect how art seems to be replacing religion in our lives, galleries upstaging cathedrals as the centre of some holy mystery. Which always seems to me misplaced.

The Sacred Heart

But for all the exquisite art on display, the most searingly memorable image is part of the Hajj itself. Tawaf (literally 'circumambulation') is the ritual where pilgrims circle the Ka'ba, the large granite block in the centre of Mecca. In one of many never-knew-that moments, the exhibition explains how the central part of the Hajj is not here but actually Wuquf (or 'stay') where pilgrims spend a day of contemplation in the desert. Nevertheless, Tawaf is so powerful an image that it's become the poster boy of the Hajj, in this exhibition and elsewhere.

What is it that makes this image so powerful? Perhaps it would be illustrative to contrast it with the central image of Christianity. Crucifixion can of course be displayed in a variety of ways. You can home in on the cross, without even the figure, and it's a recognisable icon. Or you can pull back into a crowd scene. There's variations in style between Churches and across time periods; Medieval images can look horrifically grisly, yet Victorian paintings romantic, barely different in tone from the Nativity.

Images of Tawaf are much more rigid. The Ka'ba, basically a black block, is at root an almost abstract image, a square surrounded by concentric circles. This makes it less susceptible to reworking. It's an image so elegant in its simplicity, it shrugs off elaboration. There's modern artworks here based around it, but they only really work when they duplicate it in another media. For example, Ahmed Mater's 'Magnetism' (below) reproduces it through an upright magnet and iron filings.

Which is fitting. One of the notable features of the exhibition is (contrary to the claims of fanatics at the fringes of either side) how rooted in Christianity Islam actually is. Tawaf and the other elements of the Hajj duplicate things not done by Mohammed but by Abraham, or his wife Hagar. (Pilgrims visit Mohammed's tomb, but they can skip this step and still claim to have performed Hajj.)

Yet Islam is, in the true sense of the word, stricter than Christianity. Christians are told to think of the poor, maybe even hand over a little money when they can. Muslims are given a fixed portion of their income to donate. The Bible is, at root, a mythopoetic history. The more antagonistic atheists read it as a rulebook, quote-mining it for ammunition. Christians, not without justification, tell them they're missing the point. The Qur'an, conversely, is much closer to being a rulebook. (Christianity of course grew in a time and place when monotheism had already been established by Judaism. Islam did not, which may go some way to account for its greater emphasis on strictures.)

Yet that would only explain what makes the image fitting for Muslims. But...just look at it!... it is clearly powerful in general.

A large part of this is fitting into a myth that's universal – the axis mundi. As children we tend to assume we are the centre of everything, and have trouble conceiving of events happening beyond our sight. As adults we learn better, but this can make the world seem disparate and rudderless. The axis mundi substitutes a place for this personal feeling, somewhere which is always here, no matter where we are in relation to it. Reaching it becomes like coming home, even if we have never been there before. Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), is quoted after his own Hajj: “I had come to the centre of the universe, where the physical and the metaphysical worlds meet.”

It's notable how many of the maps place the Ka'ba at their centre, often saving solid black for it to add emphasis. Even on their journey the pilgrims would re-enact this in microcosm, arranging themselves around the Mahmal (a kind of temple-like tent, which would house the Qur'an.) The exhibition itself duplicates this, it's centre has on one side a re-creation of a Mahmal, on the other a solid wall on which the Ka'ba hangings are displayed.

In the early days, pilgrims were commonly beset by bandits. I imagined the hordes spying them and becoming convinced the Mahmal must contain great treasure, then being nonplussed to only find a book. Similarly, you can enter the Ka'ba. But it's not part of the Hajj and, while a few photos exist of it, the exhibitors decided against showing them.

The very point of the axis mundi is to throw the emphasis back. What makes it the centre of everything is everything. Similarly, what makes images of the Ka'ba so striking are the massed ranks of pilgrims. Yet there's also the Muslim insistence on an insubstantial deity. If everything is pointing at either a book or an empty space, that's scarcely co-incidental. A book can have a grand cover, but that will still be a wrapper for its real essence. Notably, in the quote above, Yusuf Islam refers to the physical and metaphysical worlds meeting.

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