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.

Email: [email protected]


The Six: Films on show at California’s Arab Film Festival

The Arab Film Festival is set to run until October 21 2018 in San Francisco. (Shutterstock)
Updated 15 October 2018
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The Six: Films on show at California’s Arab Film Festival

  • The Arab Film Festival is set to run until Oct. 21 in San Francisco
  • We take a look at six films on show at the festival

DUBAI: The 22nd edition of the Arab Film and Media Institute’s film festival is set to run from Oct. 12-21 in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Here are six films that audiences will be able to enjoy.

‘This is Home: A Refugee Story’
Displaced from their homes, Alexandra Shiva’s film offers a portrait of relocated Syrian immigrants learning to walk again in Baltimore, Maryland.

‘From Under the Rubble: A Story from Gaza’
The film tells the story of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” in which three weeks of heavy shelling saw more than one thousand Gaza Strip residents lose their lives.

‘The Blessed’
Set in Algiers in 2008, the film follows Samir and his wife Amal, as well as their teenage son. On the couple’s 20th wedding anniversary they party with friends while teen has his own adventure.

‘Soufra’
The film follows the inspirational story of entrepreneur Mariam Shaar — a generational refugee who spent her life in a camp near Beirut — as she sets out to launch a catering company.

‘Martyr’
The drowning of Hassane, the protagonist of the story, triggers a series of events that shake his family’s faith to its foundations as he’s deemed a martyr.

‘From Baghdad to the Bay’
The film tracks the harrowing journey of Ghazwan Alsharif, who served as an interpreter and cultural adviser for the US army during its invasion of Iraq in 2003.