Dana Awartani: Decoding Islamic art

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Updated 25 March 2014
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Dana Awartani: Decoding Islamic art

Islamic geometric artwork, tile work, parquetry and illumination are considered a very rare form of art nowadays. It’s considered an old art haven used during the peak age of the Islamic Empire centuries ago when they studied the beauty of things and have since did all they could to study and perfect their handwork. Architects and artists alike studied math and geometry and explored that world and have thus created masterpieces found all over the Islamic world. The Caliphates have always been keen to educate pupils and help elaborate on the beauty of the Islamic religion, leading to creating masterpieces in mosques, palaces, gardens and others.
Dana Awartani is a Saudi-Palestinian artist keen to revive this sacred old art and has found that right mix to reintroduce it into the modern world we live in today. It was a difficult road but she has persevered and pushed and introduced it into a new light that is finding wide acceptance in both Saudi and international societies.
Arab News met with Dana and found out what she had to say about her fixation on her art and the reasons why she does what she does today.

It’s my understanding that it takes a lot to do what you do, concentration, balance and mastering plenty of patience when creating one of your pieces whether it be with tiles or your pencil and paint brush. Tell us how you did you find that balance and patience? Did it take a lot out of you just to get to that level?
My training in art was very schizophrenic, even the way I practice my art as well. I first started with conventional training at Central Saint Martin’s in London, training in fine arts, learning about the mental thinking of art, how to create a piece and how to critique it as an example. After graduating, I found that I craved to create art using my hands, I knew how to paint and draw since a young age but I wanted to do more after graduating. Having enrolled into The Prince’s School I found that I was learning things completely opposite of what I learned before. I was learning about the craft and handwork in high end art, I learned a craft every week and my interest grew and that helped me to teach myself other crafts such as Moroccan ceramic technique. Geometry was the core of the whole course and I thought I’d struggle because I’m really horrendous with math, but realized that geometry is more visual than numbers. I absolutely loved it. Yet I still found something missing, so I combined by previous intellectual education with the handwork type of education I was studying at the time and found that balance, that wanting to create something that can be hung and appreciated and that required perfection with the help of balance and patience combined.

How difficult is the process of creating your art?
I think the process is more important that the end result. The way you create your art, whether it be geometry or illumination, I can’t be in a bad mood or not centered. You need to be focused 100 percent and spiritually centered. It’s so time consuming that there is a term when producing the art as a form of “dhekir” and every brush stroke is a form of dhekir and the things I’m creating, sacred geometry and illuminations, are all a reflection of Allah’s creations. There’s a quote from Rumi which is my favorite that says “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground, there are a thousand ways to go home again,” this is another element that speaks to me personally, it’s my connection. That’s the beauty of it.

Why have you chosen geometric Islamic art specifically?
As Arabs we’re raised around this fine art, we’re surrounded by it in every corner but we’re not aware of it. You can see geometry all around you like in mosques for example. I was looking for a track to follow and looking deep down inside I felt a yearning for it until I’ve discovered it. There is an inner and outer beauty behind it telling a story behind every structured piece, there is no randomness when it comes to creating such pieces.

Being as young as you are and getting to where you are now, how hard was it to get there?
I’ve had to fight a lot of inner battles. The Prince’s School was an amazing experience for me but they make you abandon all types of contemporary thinking of art and when graduating I had a tunnel vision and created extremely traditional art pieces and illuminations. I then thought to myself that I didn’t want to be just another traditional artist. I tried my best to elevate that to another level and it took me a very long time to get to where I am. I slowly had to go exploring for new methods of expression through the Islamic arts. Having been in Al Athr Gallery has also helped inspire me by getting me back into that contemporary art.

Did you have a mentor guiding you through the process?
No, not really, I had much support from my teachers in my old work but the artists that are there with me in the gallery are somewhat my support system, they nurture my inspiration and give me that extra push with respect to my limits knowing that my art is different from them.

What is your take on Islamic art, how would you define it?
You need to understand that Islamic art now and Islamic art in history are very different, that was the only form known to them at the time. They were conscious about what they were doing, in geometry to be specific there is a lot of symbolism like the use of the number eight for example. It’s directly with regard to an important Islamic figure. All shapes and numbers were used with the highest regard. Islamic art was more sacred and was practiced with spiritual rituals and preparedness

Tell us about your campaign to revive the traditional Islamic art in our society?
I’m incredibly surprised to see so many people interested in it. When viewing my pieces at an exhibit they are very positive especially the younger generation, they are craving to know more about what this art technique is. I found that the teachings of the technique is mainly from books and using a canvas to draw something connected to Islam or something, and this is not the real form of teaching of the trait, it’s more complex than that. I found that the West cares more for it than our own society and I want to help change that.

Seeing how intricate and delicate your work is, are you a perfectionist?
Yes I am a perfectionist. I work very hard to create my pieces and not many see Islamic art as high end because they think it’s too traditional and that is simply not true. I find satisfaction doing what I do and I prefer to create a piece that one can buy, hang up, appreciate its details, it’s what i worked hard for.
Dana’s art work is currently on display at Jeddah Arts 21,39 and were displayed at the Dubai Art Fair. You can also view her work at the Athr Gallery in Jeddah.

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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”