Cleveland State University
The Art Gallery at Cleveland State University

Current Exhibitions

Another Way of Looking: Influences from Islam
main gallery: May 21 to June 26, 2010

Curator Statement:

Another Way of Looking: Influences from Islam

When I was invited to curate a contemporary ‘Islamic Art’ exhibition I was honored and overwhelmed. Islam is the fastest growing religion and yet it is misunderstood and misrepresented. In the West, it is difficult to invoke ‘Islamic’ images without calling up an entry from the war on terror. Even as a Muslim, I have become immune to the disparaging of Muslims in our country and abroad. Why is it that every time a ‘terrorist’ attack or a crime is committed the person’s ‘Islamic’ religion is emphasized? When CNN reported the Austin plane crash no account of Andrew Joseph Stack’s faith was given. The terror that he caused was labeled as a “crime being investigated” and not what is should have been called, a terrorist act.
The artists of Another Way of Looking: Influences from Islam offer us a way out of the violence and mayhem that seems to always be taking place in the Middle East. As they take another look at Islam, a more realistic portrayal of its spiritual teachings that has been veiled behind our mass media are shared.
The Islamic civilization has been a significant connection to our modern world. Abbas Ibn Firnas dreamt about flying and invented the first slider, at age seventy, 1000 years before the Wright Brothers. Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) laid the foundation of modern cameras by explaining optics and found a way of projecting an image to another surface through a small hole in a dark room now known as camera obscura. Miriam al-Isterlabi is one of the first known female scientists who made sophisticated astrolabes. These are a small example of discoveries made in the Middle Ages, a period in the history books which refers inaccurately, as 'dark ages'. Indeed in the Muslim world, the period between approximately 600 to at 1600 AD was a time for the prolific creative research, science, technology and engineering. It was a time of positive encounter of cultural transmission that has been forgotten and lost.  This exhibition is a continuation of this positive cultural transmission.  The artists who are Muslim are making artwork in a Western environment and for a Western audience, while the artists who are of a different faith are exploring different aspects of Islam and its similarities to monotheistic religions.

Another Way of Looking: Influences from Islam approaches its subject from a variety of perspectives that encompasses how Islam is believed to be a way of life. Three main aspects of Islam are explored: Spirituality, Worship and Identity.

Spirituality: a Muslim is one whose actions seek the pleasure of Allah and to draw nearer his lord. By this brief definition, all actions undertaken for the pleasure of Allah are spiritual because they link the material action with the purpose of life.

Worship in Islam does not only mean ritualistic practices such as praying and fasting but is a comprehensive definition that includes almost everything in any individual's activities.

By combining both spirituality and worship an understanding of Identity can be achieved. The Islamic Identity is taken to mean the way of life of the Muslim – an all-encompassing set of beliefs, practices, ideologies and morals as derived from the Qur'an and the example of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him).   A great poet, philosopher of Islam, Allama Iqbal was asked,
“Which country do you belong to?” he said, “Islam is my country”

Classical traditions in Islamic Art that have become well known in the West include, for example, calligraphy and architecture, are repurposed by some of these artists in the context of contemporary society. This exhibition presents contemporary works by Muslims and Non Muslims alike who are influenced by various aspects of the Islamic religion. Quotes from the Quran, and teachings by the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon Him) are explored.  Each piece goes beyond the common understanding of worship as the performance of religious rituals, and encompasses the whole of human life, individual as well as social.           
In Salma Arastu’s work, all the figures are drawn with the same line. It is not clear where one begins or ends. The figures are created as a group, as a whole in harmony. In a more abstract way, Arastu represents how a communion plays a central role in Islam. Her subjects include people who, whatever they do, they do together. They celebrate together, they grieve together, and they pray together. The unity of origin, the equality of humanness, coincides with Islamic teachings.

Azra Aksamija’s Wearable Mosques aims to redefine traditional forms and functions of mosques in the contemporary context. According an oral Had?th, a Muslim does not need to stand in a consecrated place to say his prayers; the whole earth is called a mosque. Prayer can be performed anywhere, at home or in a dedicated space. Many of Aksamija’s projects are further inspired by geometric patterns that adorn the surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture, such as mosques. These designs can be understood as the unifying intermediary between the material and the spiritual world, which expresses the logic and order inherent in the Islamic vision of the universe.

The Arabic letters in Huda Totonji’s paintings of  Islamic calligraphy transcend the surface of the canvas. They travel into a higher realm beyond reality. They enter into the realm of spirituality, which nourishes the mind, the spirit, and the soul. Calligraphy has arguably become the most venerated form of Islamic art because the Arabic script was the means of transmission of the Qur'an. The holy book of Islam, has played an important role in the development and evolution of the Arabic language, and by extension, calligraphy in the Arabic alphabet.

“It is believed that if anyone wishes to come closer to God, one can see the strong affect that Arabic Calligraphy has on those who do not even speak Arabic or read it. God puts the strong will in the eyes of those who view the Quranic script. It is as if the viewer is standing in front of God, whether this viewer is an Arab, non-Arab, Muslim, or non-Muslim. It is believed that whoever wants to experience this feeling will simultaneously experience feelings of fear as well as spiritual enlightenment. Among those who are spiritually enriched by admiring Islamic calligraphy are those who come to view this calligraphy for the sake of cultural enlightenment and educational interests. Indeed, one may read the verses of the Holy Quran in any language, but there is a special feel to it when it is recited in the Arabic language. This is due to the beauty of the text with its poetic meaning.” Huda Totonji

Susanne Slavick has immersed herself in an ongoing search to establish connections between Islamic culture and her own. Rebirth: Eve’s Escort is influenced by a quote in the Qur’an that describes the first creation.  Her piece is an interpretation of how the Qur’an places equal blame on both Adam and Eve for their transgression. Muslims believe that both Adam and Eve asked Allah for forgiveness and were both forgiven. Allah punishes no one for another’s fault. 

Andrew Johnson and Asma Shikoh use the veil as an object to explore identity. The veil has come to be looked upon only as an article of clothing worn by Muslim women that signifies a rigid distinction between the West and the East. It now serves as a reminder of the incommensurability between Western and Islamic societies. Johnson’s video provokes the viewers’ associations and assumptions regarding fashion, identity, religious practice and cultural stereotypes concerning the covering of hair.  It intends to show similarities in meaning and purpose of the veil among Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The commonality that these religions share in regards to the veil is that the concept of covering the head is associated with a general sense of propriety. Johnson also attempts to reveal the veil’s significant history in these three major religions.
Asma Shikoh’s painting has a more spiritual and personal approach to exploring the veil; she specifically focuses on the Hijab (the scarf adorned by Muslim women). Shikoh highlights “he role of individual practices in the shaping of a unique national identity.” Each painting represents a different individual lacking facial features. This references how one has her own unique individuality but is part of a greater community. Muslim women who chose to wear the hijab do so for numerous reasons. The most common reason is out of piety. It acts as a constant reminder of the presence of Allah and as an act of worship.  Those committed to the hijab style wear it in a variety of different ways and in variety of different colors.
There are over 800 million Muslims worldwide. Despite their obvious cultural differences, spirituality brings these people together. They worship one God and are committed to their Muslim identity.  Islam is over 1400 years old. As people, traditions and cultures constantly change, the basic principle of the Islamic faith has remained the same.

These artists are of different nationalities and different faiths. Each artist explores a different concept, medium, technique and style. But despite their religious, cultural, professional and artistic differences they have one thing in common: Islam has influenced the artwork exhibited in this show. This exhibition highlights the realistic Islam that millions follow; the unity in differences, and the harmony in the collective.

As I stated earlier: worship in Islam does not only mean ritualistic practices such as praying and fasting. It also means a comprehensive definition that includes almost everything in any individual's activities. For me, curating this exhibition was an act of worship and for some of these artists, so is making artwork.

Nama Khalil, Curator

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