A Retrospective

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Engaging Islam

A Retrospective of Tyler Hale’s Islamic Artwork

 During the winter and spring of 2012, the artist Tyler Hale was commissioned to         create a series of six artworks inspired by Islamic art and themes explored in the class “Culture and Belief 12: For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures” taught by Ali Asani.  Throughout this winter/spring semester, Hale worked steadily on the six projects and created a blog to share these works with others.  As the final part of his project, Hale was asked to prepare a brief summary of his work, his inspirations, and the themes that he touches upon in the works. 

When I was first tasked with creating six works inspired by Islamic art and themes, I was apprehensive.  Although I had prior knowledge of Islam, most of this knowledge was related to Islamic history and the political contexts of Islam rather than the artistic achievements of Islamic artists.  However, Professor Ali Asani’s course quickly exposed me to an array of artworks and cultures that informed my work.  Perhaps the main idea of my collection is that there is a multitude of “Islams,” rather than one monolithic, all-encompassing Islam.  Different cultures, whether they are Arabic, African, or American, bring their unique perspective to Islamic art and help to redefine what Islamic art is and can be.  By looking at and analyzing these six works, it is my hope that one can learn about the vibrant interplay of culture and religion, the use of symbolism, and the plurality in Islam.  Please enjoy the show.

My first project was a painting of the Isra and the Mi’raj, which is the Night Journey of the Prophet and his ascent into the Heavens.  For this project, I used a small canvas and acrylic paint, and I sketched out a crescent moon, a mosque, and the mystical creature Buraq.  I interpreted this creature as having a horse-like body with wings, but I did not paint Buraq’s head or the body of the Prophet.  Not depicting the Prophet was a matter of sensitivity.  Although I was aware that there is a tradition of depicting the Prophet in artwork (as Professor Asani explained and as I witnessed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), I understood that, in this period of time, many Muslims frown upon depicting the Prophet.  For me, the challenge of this project was the problem of combining a traditional art form and subject matter with contemporary concerns.  Another important aspect of this project was the mystical aspect of the painting.  Buraq, the creature who carries Muhammad to Heaven, is a mythical being, and it was interesting to learn about this creature because “mythical creatures” and “Islam” are not two words that I associated with each other.  Mystical elements are also used in Islamic poetry to express love for God, which is a theme that I explore in a later work (the collage of symbols).

The second creative project that I attempted was a drinking pot and a pestle.  This project was inspired by an article by Abdullahi Osman El-Tom, called “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure.”  This article describes the ways that the Berti people use Qur’anic verses as cleansing agents and as amulets.  These amulets are meant to ward off illness, fight illness, increase intelligence, and many serve many other purposes.  It was fascinating that this group had melded its native traditions with Islamic traditions by adding the Qur’anic verses to “traditional” shamanic practices.  This theme of the interplay of culture and religion, and how these two entities interact and feed each other, was a major theme of our course work.  So, I thought that I would create an artwork that would be (relatively) practical for the Berti people, so I created a drinking pot from which people could drink erasures.  In addition to its practicality, I decorated it with traditional Islamic calligraphy.  Specifically, I wrote “Allah” in Arabic on the pot.  The marriage of practicality and art is a theme that I found is common in Islamic art.  Browsing through the art at the Metropolitan Museum, it was obvious that art was not created for “art’s sake,” but that artworks were meant to be used or to serve a purpose.  Swords, mihrabs, and other objects are all decorated but were highly functional.  Making this pot and pestle was a valuable experience because this was the first instance where I began to peek into the “real” world of Islamic art making, which is informed by many cultures and ideas, rather than simply copying other artists’ works.

My third project was a photo essay that depicts the events of the Battle of Karbala and the death of Husain.  This photo essay is a dramatization of the events that occurred at Karbala, where the caliph Yazid’s army killed Husain, the grandson of Muhammad.  At the end of the photo essay, I included a photograph in which Husain appears to be in a transcendent state; this was meant to represent his status as a martyr.  Creating this photo essay was primarily a way of playing around with an established and distinct Islamic art form, the ta’ziyeh.  What is so interesting about the ta’ziyeh is that the form and the content are inseparable: the content (the events at Karbala) define the ta’ziyeh, but any dramatization of Husain’s life could conceivable be a ta’ziyeh.  Aside from my formal experiment in style, this project was an investigation into Shia devotional life and Iranian culture.  Like many Westerners, I tend to think of Iran as a barren cultural wasteland (with the exception of excellent Iranian films), but the ta’ziyeh reveals that Iran has a rich cultural and artistic background, which will later inform my last piece of art.

Perhaps my most controversial project was my fourth project, in which I decided to create a work inspired by punk Islam.  I was inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores, which is centered around the daily lives of several young Muslims who self-identify as “punk.”  In a passage from this novel, the main character Yusef notices a patch on another character’s hoodie: “He saw me looking. “Bosnian Muslim unit,” he explained.  It was white with green letters reading “ALLAHU EKBER” above a yellow crescent and green star” (Knight 48).  This description inspired me to create a symbol for the punk Islamic movement, a symbol that incorporated Islamic symbols with a sense of irreverence.  I started with the image of the crescent and star, painted in green. Both the symbol and the color have significance; the star and crescent are common political symbols in Islam, which are used as signifiers of an individual’s or a nation’s status as Muslim, and the color green is the color of the Prophet and his family.  After creating this clean-cut design, I painted “IQRA” across the star and crescent and started to deface the sign.  By “defacing” this Islamic symbol, I run the risk of being offensive and insulting others, but I felt that part of Islamic art is questioning the conventions of Islam and its boundaries.  In a sense, I wanted to be part of the tradition of Mansur Al-Hallaj, who declared that “I am Truth” or “I am God.”  While some (or many) regard this statement as heresy, Mansur Al-Hallaj was a poet who felt that he was so closely connected to God that he became part of God.  This statement is so important because Mansur is re-conceptualizing Islam and the concept of tawhid; for the purposes of my artwork, I think that it was important for me to be exposed to the idea that artists helped to redefine the paradigms of Islam either through their actions or their works.  While I am not attempting to redefine Islam, this artwork is an emulation of a movement that is trying to break down walls in Islam and reform Islam in a way that is friendlier to those Muslims who are not conventional or those Muslims who find parts of the Qur’an or Islamic practices to be questionable.

Another project that I undertook was to create a collage of the symbols commonly used in Islamic poetry.  Such symbols include wine, roses, birds, and yearning lovers.  All of these symbols of Islamic poetry are used to create a work of art that is about love.  While these symbols are largely used in the written form, I wanted to interpret them in a physical form, as a collage of visual symbolism.  While this is a method used in many works of art, my favorite part of Islamic poetry was that, by using these symbols as a code, a poet could create a work with a larger meaning than the individual parts.  In other words, a poet can use references to a drunkard and wine and then pair that imagery with imagery of roses to create a portrait of love and yearning for God.  For this artwork, I challenged myself to create something that could combine different elements and create a work with a greater meaning than the separate elements.  So, I took the wine imagery, the mathematical and symmetrical elements common in Islamic art (such as the arabesque), and the image of the veil, and I create the collage.  It was my intention that this collage would signify a love for God in the same way that Islamic poetry creates a feeling of intense yearning for the Beloved, or God.

My final project in my series of art works inspired by Islamic art was a photo series of a veiled woman that is superimposed on a reproduction of the Iranian flag.  The genesis for this project was reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which is Satrapi’s graphic novel account of her childhood during the Iranian Revolution and subsequent aftermath of the revolution.  I was fascinated by Satrapi’s illustrations of her teenage experiences during the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath. A major influence on this artwork was the tradition of protest art that has been produced by Islamic artists.  One example is a ghazal (“[If even] the city’s preacher has headed to the wine-seller/How difficult this makes the job of the guardians of morality and the police!”) that was written as a response to a ghazal written by Ayatollah Khomeini.  This ghazal criticizes Khomeini for oppresses the faith of other Muslims while claiming to “love the mole on the upper lip of the beloved” (Counter-ghazal).  The idea of art as a political tool is a theme that I became interested in during my class work because it opened up possibilities for how to use the symbols and themes that we had learned in class and integrate them into artworks in unique ways.

Looking at the six art works in chronological order, one can see an increasing engagement with Islamic art.  The early works are mostly reinterpretations of various forms that are common in Islamic art.  For example, the painting of the Mi’raj is simply my own interpretation of the creature Buraq and its ascent into the heavens.  This painting is almost a rote imitation of paintings that other artists have done of Buraq.  However, as I progressed through my course work and through more examples of artwork, I began to engage with the traditions of Islamic art.  Rather than simply imitate others’ artwork as I had done with the Buraq painting, I started to play with the conventions of Islamic artwork and to put my own perspective on it.  The ta’ziyeh project is a good example of engaging with the Islamic tradition because I took the basic idea of the ta’ziyeh, which is a staged drama, and instead of staging the drama in a live setting, I photographed it with actors and was able to add extra meaning to the ta’zyieh, such as the inclusion of the photograph that depicts Husain rising up as a martyr.

The single most important idea that runs through my works is the idea that there is not a single Islam and that there is not a single way to create Islamic art.  Instead, there are multitudes of ways to define Islam and to create art.  The pot and pestle is inspired by African traditional practices, while the punk project was inspired by a novel written by an American Muslim.  Professor Asani’s course was very exhaustive in the sense that we covered many regions of the world and these different regions’/cultures’ take on Islam and art.  The breadth of art forms and subjects that I tackle in my work certainly reflect a small part of the diversity present in the world of Islam and Islamic art.

After observing my art, it should be clear that Islamic art cannot be reduced to arabesques and paintings of men with curved swords.  There is an astounding diversity in this artistic tradition, as well in the religious tradition of Islam.  Throughout this essay, I have encouraged you, the reader, to think about the diversity of Islamic art, but what I really intend for you to consider is the diversity within Islam as a whole.  The art that Islamic artists create reflects their ideas, conceptions, and aspirations for Islam; these art works are the window into the souls of Muslims, and it is vital to pay close attention to these works so that we can begin to understand what Islam is and can be.  I am proud to contribute some small part to the wonderful tradition of Islamic art.

Best,

Tyler Hale

 

Dispatches from Iran

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After reading Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, I was strongly affected by the emotional intensity of her story.  It was quite amazing that she lived through such a tumultuous period of history and can relate her experiences with such clarity and poignancy.  I wanted to create a work that could invoke that same level of emotional intensity, and I wanted to add a political element to the work that would critique the Iranian regime.

For this project, I decided to combine two art form: the photo series and painting.  The painting part of the project was of an Iranian flag, which I recreate on a canvas, and the photo series was of a young woman (played terrifically by Sara Lytle) who is forced to wear the veil.  The images of the woman are directly inspired by images from Persepolis, especially the final image where the woman holds her face in her hands.  Over the flag and the photographs, I spray painted the emblem of Iran, which is a sword and other symbols; the effect is that the spray paint looks like blood.  I thought that the appearance of blood and the pain that this woman seems to be experiencing is similar to the pain that Satrapi and her family must have experienced in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution.

 

The Drunkard

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Perhaps the most meaningful part of this course thus far has been the focus on Islamic poetry.  Even as a non-Muslim, I have been profoundly affected by these poems of yearning and love.  The ways in which these themes of love and nuances of meaning are communicated is particularly fascinating to me.  As we have learned, Islamic poetry is essentially a code.  This poetry-code is made up of symbols–such as wine, pearls, and birds–which help to deliver the message of love for God.  Because I have already composed a ghazal, I wanted to utilize these symbols in a work of art.

To pay tribute to the symbols of Islamic poetry, I decided to create a collage of images in physical, rather than written, form.  I first primed a hard cardboard surface and painted it with a multi-colored geometrical pattern.  The colors are green, yellow, and blue; I chose green because it is the color of the Prophet and his family, and blue and yellow combine to make green.  As we read in the Nasr readings, there is a tendency in Islamic art to have very precise, mathematical symmetries; this is a homage to that idea.  Most importantly, I decided to use the image of a tipped over wine glass with wine spilling from the glass.  This wine represents the drunkenness that one feels when in complete, selfless love with God.  The veil that is on top of the collage represents the veil that exists between God and humankind.  However, in this case, because the drunkard has become absorbed in selfless love, I decided that the veil should be pushed back slightly.  This is because when Muslims are consumed with selfless love for God, they begin to draw closer to God.

Punk Islam

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Throughout the course, we have explored different conceptions and forms of Islam–from the stripped down Islam of contemporary Saudi Arabia to the mystical Islam practiced by Sufi Muslims.  However, one of the most radical conceptions of Islam is punk Islam.  While reading Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores for another class, I was struck by the audacity that the characters had in interpreting Islam.  They were not afraid to skip prayers, party all night, and even question the commands of God.

For this project, I decided that I would create an artwork inspired by a punk aesthetic.  So, I primed a canvas, and then I painted a crescent and a star, which are common symbols in Islam, used mostly for political purposes and used on flags.  Once I allowed the crescent and star to dry, I soaked the canvas with coffee, as if a punk Muslim had been angry or irreverent and had splashed the symbol with coffee.  Then, I painted the word “IQRA,” or “recite” across the star and crescent.  This was my interpretation of a graffiti tag, which has Islamic significance because it is the first in the Qur’an.  I continued to burn and rip away at the canvas so that it looked to be in a dilapidated state.  After this, I hammered a sign onto the canvas, which said, “This is Karbala.”

As I stated, the inspiration for this project was The Taqwacores.  In this novel, one character, Yusef, asks another character, Jehangir, what punk Islam is.  Jehangir responds, “I think its’ just about being ugly” (Knight 56).  While I do not think that punk Islam is necessarily that simple, I do like this description because it gives the impression that punk Muslims are not bound by conventions.  For me, punk Islam is about questioning the boundaries of the religion and rebelling against the conventions that one finds to be stifling.  The ultimate goal is to reach an Islam that is personally fulfilling and meaningful.

Ta’ziya: A Photo Essay

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CB 12 photo essay  (Click link to see photo essay.)

For my third project, I have created a photo essay that depicts the major events that occurred at the Battle of Karbala.  This battle occurred at Karbala, which is a plain in modern day Iraq, and was between the army of the caliph Yazid and a small band led by Husain, the grandson of the Prophet.  Yazid believed that Husain was a threat to his caliphate and wanted him dead.  After laying siege to Husain’s camp, Yazid’s army, led by Shimar, killed Husain and many of his followers.  These events are shown in the photographs.

The traditional way of depicting these events is through the ta’ziya, which is an Iranian dramatic form.  However, I have chosen to use photographs.  In essence, I have adapted the ta’ziya into a photographic form.  This is an adaption of the ta’ziya because the action at Karbala is being acted out, but the action is captured in still images and intertitles instead of being acted out on a stage.  My photo essay begins with an image of Husein (played by my roommate Arjun) and then an image of Husein with one of his wives (played by Shaomin Chew).  The next shot shows Shimar (played by my roommate Alex), the general of the caliph Yazid’s army, accosting Husein.   The final two images of Husein’s wife crying and of her hitting her chest with her fist are representations of two practices that are common during the month of Muharram.  I wanted to link the events shown in the photos, which take place in both a distant historical period and a mythical space, to everyday reality.  This is why the “actors” are wearing contemporary clothes and are acting in a modern space.  This art project could be considered to be part of the Shii tradition of honoring the Ahl al-bayt, or the family of the Prophet.  I have depicted Husein as a calm individual who accepts death valiantly, and the photo after his death depicts him as a saint-like figure.

This usage of photographs should give these events an immediate feel, which is echoed in the final intertitles (“Tears are shed, but Husain is alive in our hearts”).  I wanted to create a heroic and moving portrait of Husain and his wife in the face of an oppressive force, and I believe that this photo essay accomplishes that goal.

Drinking the Qur’an

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My second project is inspired by one of the second week’s readings.  In the essay “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure,” Abdullahi Osman El-Tom discusses how the Berti people of the northern Darfur region create erasures and amulets from Qur’anic verses as a way of warding off illness and improving attributes and personal features, such as intelligence.  For this art project, I created a drinking pot that could be used to take small erasures.

My design was influenced by the idea of the mortar and pestle, which are used in various fields of study and in some cultures to grind ingredients and prepare mixtures of substance.  However, instead of a traditional mortar, I fashioned a drinking cup out of clay and painted it bright colors; the pestle is a traditional pestle made from clay.

One of the ideas from this essay that interested me was that the Berti actually perform this ritual of “drinking the Quran.”  This is not an empty or meaningless ritual but is an everyday and multi-functional part of their daily lives.  For this reason, I wanted to create something that was both practical and artistic.  Conceivably, one could “grind” the erasures in the cup and drink them.  At the same time, the cup would function aesthetically; it is painted in bright colors because I thought that it would be an appropriate tribute to African culture, and it is decorated with the Arabic calligraphy for the word “Allah.”  In this way, I wanted to infuse this drinking cup with the African culture of the Berti people and with their religion, Islam.

By creating an object that is both functional and artistic, I believe that I have created an artwork that represents Islam as a whole.  Islam cannot be reduced to simply religion or simply politics; it is a multi-faceted entity.  This artwork is not simply art, and it is not simply a household item; it is both.

Isra and Mi’raj

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The first art project that I have created is a representation of the isra and mi’raj, which are the night journey and the night ascent of Muhammad, respectively. On the night of the isra, the Prophet began his journey from Mecca, rode to the farthest mosque on earth, and then traveled to Heaven.  Along his trip, he encountered major prophets of the past, such as Adam, Abraham, Jesus, and Moses.  Eventually, Muhammad reaches God, and he prayed in front of Him and talked with Him.  For my project, I created a painting with acrylics, which shows Buraq ascending above the moon and a mosque dome.  It should be immediately obvious that I did not paint Muhammad; I did this out of respect for the Muslims who believe that the Prophet should not be represented visually.  Historically, the Prophet has been represented, but I thought that it would not be appropriate in this case to paint him.  Another aspect that should be obvious is that this scene is fairly realistic (as much as my skills can allow).  While some theologians believe that the isra and mi’raj were visions or “out-of-body” experiences, I chose to interpret the journey as a physical journey, so I painted the figures as if they actually underwent the journey.

One of the major features of the isra and mi’raj is a creature named Buraq.  Buraq, who is a horse with a human’s head, ferried Muhammad from Mecca to the farthest mosque to the Heavens.  During class, we saw several interpretations of Muhammad’s ascent to the heavens, and we saw different artists’ interpretations of the creature Buraq.  Several were done is a realistic manner, depicting Buraq as a full-bodied horse with a head; others were more symbolic.  I tried to strike a balance between the realist tradition and the symbolic by having the body of Buraq in the painting but not the head.   In the lower left-hand corner of the painting, there is a mosque’s dome, which represents the farthest mosque in the world.  It is unsure where this place is, although some believe it to be Jerusalem, so I made the dome very nondescript and vague.

This project hopefully captures some sense of the mystical aspects of the night journey that Muhammad took.  I was fascinated by this story because of its fantastical elements, and I hope that this shows.

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