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of mashrabiyya, atomism, an Arab Spring … and the eternal light of faith

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In light of the Holy month, I thought I would share some of my Islamic artworks that have a contemporary twist to them. One is related to prayer, the other is related to faith and the third is a bit of criticism that’s not about Islam and equally not for the fainthearted. I do hope you enjoy reading about the concepts that inspired these works as it is my way of sharing ideas.

Title: Masallah

Year produced: 2015

Advanced fabrication technologies are often dismissed in the Middle East because there is no economic value in their local adaptation. They are being used so efficiently elsewhere that the need for cheap and fast production is already being met. However, the introduction of CNC milling technology to the region, meant that the art of wood carving could be modernised to create mashrabiyyas or furniture with traditional Islamic patterns.

In this project I was interested in creating a ritual station, a space for domestic routine, one of which is prayer. This station would heighten the senses and elevate the spirit for deeper meditation. The perforated modular partition wall separates the praying individual from the remaining house and allows them to focus. It is a freestanding wall that is presented flat-packed and assembled in the house as high or as long as one wants. The wall was inspired by Mashrabiyya latticework used for windows in Islamic architecture. The modularity of the system was resolved by studying the structure of Islamic patterns and how they expand infinitely based on the theory of atomism. The theory of atomism is when an atom represents an individual, an individual cannot exist without the people around him/her. That creates a collectivist situation where everyone depends on everyone else. In Masallah, each piece is connected to at least 5 pieces and at most 13 pieces. This strength in numbers is what creates the rigidity.

The idea of the piece’s portability was inspired by an ancient Islamic legend, which shows us how to respond to contemporary housing issues. Ibn Battuta, born in Tangier, Morocco in 1304, “was celebrated as the most travelled human in the world covering three times the distance of Marco-Polo’s well-known journey,” and carries his essentials efficiently (Mackintosh-Smith). At times, Ibn Battuta had “a ship filled with his personal entourage”, and at other times he was “reduced to his prayer rug and the clothes on his back”.

The specific pattern used is the one that relates the most to my childhood because of frequent trips passing by the Kuwait National Assembly Mosque Sahn and seeing the national television logo whenever we watched the news, sports or music channels. Beyond this, I’m also a metropolitan Muslim, who spent critical developing years abroad (a fruitful 9 years between Iowa and London). I have a Western view on Islamic culture and a oneiric character that’s led me to live and travel widely. Because I was moving around often it was important for me to find a solution for prayer in apartments with narrow stairs or small elevators. At the same time I wanted to create a more robust praying space, using limited materials that pack compactly. The Masallah can be mass-produced affordably and sold in department stores like IKEA in packs of 6. This allows people to expand as wide and tall as they like. It would be available in branches worldwide for prayer or otherwise. An installation guide produced for any layman to follow and assemble the partition wall without specialist involvement would accompany the product. Masallah is an internationalist artwork in line with the idea of Islam being the religion that is relevant to all humans in all eras. It also relates to the Muslim traveller, since “Ibn Battuta’s subject is, in short, the world.” (Mackintosh-Smith)

Masallah is a commentary on the expansiveness of Islam. The commercialization of the product worldwide is a reminder that not only are there Arab/East Asian Muslims that have migrated West, but that Islam is a growing religion for Western nationals.

Title: Self-Destruct

Year produced: 2017

Similar to Antony Gormley’s work that represents New British Sculpture, this is an artwork that represents a critique on the Arab Spring using ostensibly unexpected materials from Arab land; palm fronds. Palm fronds are unexplored as a material for artwork, aside from Matisse’s “Palm Leaf, Tangier”. It was rumoured he used a palm frond as his paintbrush, but even then the physical plant is not part of the artwork. Just as the palm leaf reverts and pierces itself, this piece visualizes the act of self-destruction that the Arabs are inflicting on themselves. There are several theories that US or Russian intelligence was behind the Arab Spring, but its occurrence can only be through the Arab people and if the will was strong enough it wouldn’t take place. The revolutions that demanded freedom, economic reform and employment, when considering the short-term results, failed to achieve their goals and actually resulted in societal collapse especially in Syria and Libya leading to the “world’s largest wave of mass-migration since the end of the Second World War” (The Guardian).

The artwork hangs and takes the shape/gesture of a sword the same way it was gestured in Islamic colophons (signatures of Caliphs at the end of a book in the shape of a sword to suggest that their Caliphate has a powerful battalion). The suspension of the artwork is embedded with a dichotomy resembling two images, the image of a sword and that of a corpse brought back from battle in the arms of a soldier. The structure of the palm frond lends itself to expressing this dichotomy due to its graceful and elegant stem and sharp needle leaves.

This detail clarifies the reach-around piercing the leaf makes. It is not a direct piercing from the same side the leaf originates, but a more elaborate penetration that makes it unclear from one perspective where its piercing from. A unequivocal metaphor of the Arab Spring whether it is considered to be an intentional intervention or not.

Title: Timeless Faith

Year produced: 2017

Through ‘Timeless Faith’ produced this year, I want to express that Islam is timeless. How does one express culture in the framework of light? It must be through opacity, or layering. The sphere is time (intangible, like light) and the texture of the surface is culture/atmosphere.  The modernist period brought a focus on pure shapes, and in the recent past, deconstructivism completely rearranged the morals of what constitutes good design which was always seemingly the opposite of purity of shapes. In contemporary culture, it seems we have reached a compromise, something between a square and a triangle, a cube and the ocean, pastel colours and electric colours, computer-generated and analogue. I studied geometry and light in Islam, geometry because it is a language I understand and express myself with, and light because it is a common thread through all religions, whether they worship the sun, or simply see light as a transcendental material. Light is also used as a synonym for knowledge in Arabic and English.

I am intuitively observing the sphere as a geometrical form. It is the purest shape as it is defined by only one measurement, a radius. This is recurring in Islamic art as the circle is the base for any ornamental design, but I am more interested in the connotations of worship with the geometry of a sphere. With this I’m seeking to instil the contemporary vision of perfection which is a distorted version of pure geometry. The well-known Ayah from Surat An Nur in the Quran mentions a sphere, light, and faith. It mentions light shining so bright but not visually, it is talking about the light that emanates from one’s faith. The light is metaphorically coming from a glass lantern in the shape of an orb.

What comes to fruition is a conceptualist installation embodying Islamic ideas of oneness that are exchanged with holistic, effervescent spiritual light, apparent from all aspects of life, reminding one that God is ever-present. In this piece, the palm frond is an ambassador to the Muslims in the desert landscape and is lit from all angles so as to eliminate any shadows to echo the idea of God’s omnipresence.

Jassim Al Nashmi: BArch at Iowa State University 2008-2013, Architect at Pace 2014-present.

Al Nashmi currently works as an architect in Kuwait and has contributed to various exhibitions as a fine art photographer and installation artist between the US, Brazil and Kuwait, all of which focus on light.

Selected shows include: USA | Oblique Curiosities, ISU King Pavilion ’11. Fallow, Black’s Heritage Farm ’13. Kuwait| Sami Mohammad: A Retrospective, CAP ’15. Al Khayal In Haka, The Cube ’15. What’s Your Location?, CAP ’15. Islamopolitan, CAP, ’15. Brazil | What’s Your Location? CCEV Porto Alegre ’15. Sharjah, UAE | Selected Works, Maraya Art Centre

Al Nashmi’s design work includes a modular partition wall that is now part of the permanent collection at Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah. Al Nashmi is generally curious about the idea of perfection, and where it lies in the spectrum of chaos and order and has recently been developing an interest in light’s relationship with photographic film and the perception of blurred imagery in relation to the urban planning of cities.

By Jassim Al Nashmi
Photos provided by Jassim Al Nashmi