Experts mull over Islamic culture

by Sarah MacDonald
February 09, 2013
Dr Ahmed Mustafa exhibited calligraphy to explain his presentation.Photo – AR Rajkumar/TIMERS OF OMAN
Muscat: Three experts on Islamic and Arab art spoke on Wednesday evening at the first event, a seminar titled 'The Creative Process and Islamic Art', during the Muscat Art Festival.
Dr Ahmed Mustafa, an Egyptian academic based in the UK, Dr Charbel Dagher, a professor from Lebanon, and Dr Venetia Porter, curator for Islamic and Middle Eastern Art at the British Museum in London, presented lectures, followed by a discussion of the definitions of Islamic art and how the creative process occurs among artists.

Dr Mustafa's presentation focused on the evolution of Arabic calligraphy, which is one of the primary forms of Islamic art. Displaying samples and diagrams, he explained the science and geography behind the size and shapes of Arabic letters. While the science may have been a challenge to some in the audience, he assured them it wasn't necessary to understand the science or math to appreciate the calligraphy.

"It's in our primordial fabric. Your eye intuitively recognises beauty. What we learn from here is simply that you have a very good example of how science and art are working together. Art is informed well by science," he explained.

Dr Dagher's presentation focused on his research of 13th-century artist Yahya ibn Mahmud Al Wasiti, best known for his illustrations for the Maqam of Al Hariri. He argued that based upon his illustrations, much could be learned about Al Wasiti's life, adding that Islamic art needs to be examined from a cultural perspective, with more influences attributed to the society around the artists, rather than focusing solely on religious influences.

"I have noticed that Al Wasiti, before anything else, is an artist," he said. Turning to contemporary art, Dr Porter presented a slideshow displaying current trends in Arab and Iranian art. She explained that many artists are using Western techniques, or fusing them with Eastern techniques.

Further, she noted that artists are now reflecting their views on politics, social changes, and conflict in their work.

"All of these artists belong to the global world, the global art family. The most powerful work from across that period are those that cause us to pause and reflect, and that is the great gift that artists have, that they can make us look at the world, whether it's that of the past, and the past touches all the politics of today in an entirely new way," she said.

Following the presentations, the experts expressed their opinions on what constitutes Islamic art. According to Dr Mustafa, Islamic art must express Islamic themes. Dr Dagher, on the other hand, said the term Islamic art is a Western imposition, and that according to his research, the Arabic description would be "the industry of decoration and beauty," which would exist regardless of Islam.

"What is made by people isn't sacred. They are inspired by sacred values," explained Dr Charbel, also referring to the creative process of Islamic art.
Dr Mustafa, on the other hand, asserted that the creative process cannot be explained because it is part of God's plan.

"Islamic art is simply emulating the creations of the divine, so man cannot understand the actual creative process in the Islamic mind without keeping in mind the attributes of divine perfection," he concluded.