Posts Tagged ‘Islamic art’

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Art and Authority

September 21, 2008
20/09/08It was J’s birthday yesterday. The thing he most desired was a cold beer, so we trekked down to the Armenian Club for a late lunch, thinking that would be our best bet. Unfortunately, the only beer on the menu was non-alcoholic, and so our celebratory meal consisted in a sober session accompanied by some mediocre spaghetti, a slightly disappointing but no doubt memorable birthday.

One of the things that we hadn’t expected was the extent of complete shutdown that the city entered on Fridays. Everything was shut, from shops to restaurants to internet cafes,and the roads were quiet. Again, this could have been exacerbated due to Ramadan, but I do get the feeling that all year round, Fridays are a day reserved for rest and worship.

One of the few things that was open was the Museum of Contemporary Art, situated inside Park Laleh. Now here was some life. The park was filled with families and couples, lounging in the grass, playing badminton, strumming Spanish guitars… A pleasant dose of liveliness after the relative desertion of other parts of the city.

The exhibition in the museum was the fourth Annual Iran Typography Exhibition, which meant that all of the pieces on display were calligraphical. There were hundreds of pieces on display, most of them computerized or graphically designed, all of them directly and explicitly religious. The content of the pieces was recurrent throughout the exhibition, as all of the words used were Koranic and referred to Allah. Therefore, all variations were in the form that the words took. The most common words phrases were: ‘Allah’, ‘bismillah alrahman alrahim’ (in the name of God, the most benevolent and most merciful; the opening verse of the Koran); and then variations of the 99 names for Allah (‘alhaqq’, the truth; ‘alawwal’, the first; ‘alakhir’, the last; ‘malik almuluk’, king of kings; etc).

The redundancy could have been boring (and I admit that by the end it was slightly) but for the most part the artists’ stylistic choices in colour, font, contrast etc (note that im obviously not an artist with such limited descriptive words!) made the exhibition very interesting. One of the works that has stuck in my mind set the phrase ‘bismillah alrahman alrahim’ in the form of birds, drawn in white against a blue background. Others listed words and varied the thickness and length of their letters in order to create other patterns or words in a more layered/subliminal fashion.

What fascinated me the most about the exhibition was the notion the because the substantive choices were so limited, the style and form had to be worked on in even greater lengths in order to render each piece unique and enable innovative expression. For the most part, I would say that the artists’ succeeded in doing so.

Obviously, this genre of art is very compatible with the exigencies of the Islamic regime, because the subject matter is completely controlled. In fact, to me, the exhibition felt like a collection of modern Islamic art, in that it followed the conventions of traditional Islamic art (the use of calligraphy and abstract geometrical patterns for the purpose of praise) but through cutting edge means, including state of the art computer design software. I wondered to what extent this exhibition determined the platform of graphic design artists. Were there other such high-profile annual exhibitions in which design artists (or any artists for that matter) were NOT bound to religious dictates? Perhaps, but the lack of any permanent collection in the museum made me unable to answer that question.

I have to admit that throughout I was eagerly seeking signs of dissidence, of divergence from the imposed model. And although i did not find them in substance, i feel that the proliferation of forms and colours was the key to individuality, and that therein lied the potential for subversion. I did not interpret the pieces in the exhibition as expressions of worship. I felt that it was the externalization of individual artistic desires and impulses through the imposed paradigm of worship. As a spectator, I sensed that the more often than not, the words were secondary to the form, mere vehicles through which other feelings could be delivered. In many pieces i felt disillusionment, perhaps frustration. In some i felt a desire to escape, to move far beyond the dictates.

There were, notwithstanding, some through which i felt strong faith; that cannot be denied. But this was not the majority, and I came out of the museum feeling like I had just been in a sort of zoo, where animals are obliged to perform outside their dispositions in order to please the audience. I felt that a burning artistic desire was being shackled.