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.