Papercuts by Reni Gower (left) and a hand cut display by Julia Townsend Image Credit: Supplied

“Geometric Aljamia: a cultural transliteration” is an exhibition that explores the connections between Europe, the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East by addressing the fundamental geometry embedded in two-dimensional art. Aljamia is the adaptation of the Arabic script to transcribe texts in European languages. In the past, Aljamia manuscripts played a significant role in preserving Islam and the Arabic language in the West, especially in Andalusia. By understanding the visual arts as a transliteration of one form of thinking to another, this exhibition revisits the ongoing impact of Islamic art, science and philosophy in the modern world.


The show features beautiful paper cuts and delicate wall tracings of Islamic geometric patterns created by artists from diverse cultures. It is curated by award-winning artist, curator and teacher Reni Gower, who is a professor in the Painting and Printmaking Department at Virginia Commonwealth University; and Jorge Benitez, who is an assistant professor in the Communications Arts Department at the same university. The participating artists include Mohammad Saleh Ameen and Tamim Sahebzada from Afghanistan; Dubai-based American artist Julia Townsend; Hanane Korchi, who is a Canadian of Moroccan origin; and the two American curators. The exhibition is being held in Dubai in conjunction with “Crossing the Line 2”, an international conference dedicated to the discipline of Drawing in the Middle East hosted by the American University of Dubai.


“Since ancient times, geometric perfection has been thought to convey sacred and universal truths by reflecting the fractal interconnections of the natural world. One finds these similarities across cultures embedded in many diverse ethnic patterns. Incorporating these patterns into works of art promotes access through recognition, and this commonality creates a connection. Geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, where it has been assimilated into art, architecture and all aspects of daily life. But our aim is to examine an extended cross-cultural integration of the arts into life,” Gower says.


“Everybody relates to these meditative, infinite geometric patterns in the same way because they reflect the proportions of our body, of nature and of the universe. Hence this a good way to communicate across cultures with some degree of agreement. We have transcribed the visual art through the universal sacred geometry in the same way words from European languages were transcribed in the Arabic script in the Aljamia texts,” she adds.


The travelling exhibition evolved out of a workshop Gower and Benitez conducted during the Tasmeem Conference on design, organised by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCUQ) School of the Arts in Doha, Qatar. “Benitez came up with this idea of the transliteration of one culture to another culture through visual means. Since we both work with geometry, we created a workshop on paper cutting to tap into that. When we arrived in Doha, we had no idea what to expect. But it turned out very well. We met some amazing people and created some beautiful works that deserved to be shown together in one place. The participants were very receptive and inventive. They designed the motifs based on their own cultural references and then Jorge transliterated their flat patterns into dimensional perspectival drawing. And that is how the workshop evolved.


“Julia started tracing some of her work directly on the wall, which became another really beautiful element of drawing that was woven into the project. Later, the Afghan artists, who were in Doha for an exhibition of their work at the Museum of Islamic Art, joined us and we presented their traditional Afghani patterns as paper cuts and tracings. Thus our original vision was expanded by the artists we met in the Middle East,” Gower says.


The artists have taken inspiration from different elements of their own culture. The paper cut installations of Alawadhi, Ameen, Gower, and Korchi use sacred geometry to blend subtle imperfection with structured repetition. Townsend is inspired by Quran Illumination Tehzip patterns in the Ottoman style for her wall tracings and paper cut, while Sahebzada draws upon the Behzad School of Illumination for his calligraphic wall tracing. And Benitez uses linear perspective as a metaphor for Western civilisation. Their shared artistic and intellectual interests speak to the larger hybrid relationship that the West shares with the Middle East, and especially with the Golden Age of Islamic Civilisation.


There is an enchanting interplay between the intricate patterns cut in paper, their shadows on the walls and the subtle colours used by the artists. The delicate patterns traced directly on the walls are almost invisible, compelling viewers to come closer. The show thus creates a tranquil, contemplative environment inviting viewers to delve deep into the mesmerising patterns.


Gower has taken inspiration from the geometric patterns on Islamic tiles and architectural motifs to create her monumental paper cuts, which are painted on the reverse side with colours such as cobalt, copper and emerald that are based on the pigments in the glazes of the tiles. The colours reflecting through the white paper add to the beauty of the pieces.


“I have been researching geometric patterns for a long time. I began by studying Celtic patterns from Scotland, which I found deeply spiritual. Later in the 1980’s I visited the Al Hambra palace in Spain and I felt a deep connection to the Islamic patterns I saw there. I could see that they were related to the Celtic patterns and to everything I had already been studying. I am interested in these patterns and try to incorporate them in my paintings because I see these as a universal language rather than something specific to one culture. A few years ago I started doing paper cuts, which I really enjoy because the process of cutting these patterns by hand is slow and meditative,” she says.


The artworks by Benitez are based on the transliteration of flat patterns to a three dimensional perspective. In his graphite and ink drawings of imaginary courtyards, doorways and pavilions he has used linear perspective as a metaphor for Western civilization, tracing its evolution from the Islamic world through the Mediterranean basin to Europe.


Sahebzada and Ameen are both connected with the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul. Sahebzada comes from a long line of calligraphers, and his family has played a crucial role in the preservation of the Behzad School of illumination. He was one of the first teachers at the Turquoise Mountain Institute. Ameen, who was one of Sahebzada’s students at the Institute has been drawn to calligraphy and miniature painting since childhood, and is particularly inspired by the Mogul and Behzad schools of design. In a typically Afghan style, he uses local pigments such as Lapis Lazuli, gold and silver in his work. A delicate tracing of a column wall by Sahebzada and a large paper cut by Ameen add a rich Afghani flavour to the exhibition.


“Although verbal communication with these two artists was difficult, our shared artistic vocabulary helped us to understand each other. Both the Afghani artists contributed a piece each, from which stencils were designed. One was cut into a beautiful geometric pattern and the other more organic motif was traced on the wall. Korchi, who was a great help in communicating with the Afghan artists, has also made a new piece for the Dubai show.


Townsend represents the Dubai connection of this show. She teaches in the Department of Visual Communication at the American University of Dubai, and is a well-known artist, whose practice includes painting, illustrations for children’s books, murals, animation and Islamic inspired design. Her interest in geometry is the result of two years of study at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where she learnt the traditional techniques of Quran illumination. During the workshop in Doha, she combined paper cuts and wall tracings of Ottoman style illumination patterns to create artworks that embody the show’s theme of visual and cultural transliteration.


“The inaugural presentation of this exhibition was in Qatar in March 2013. It later travelled to Melbourne, Australia in September 2013 and is scheduled to open at The Zuckerman Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, US later this year. We are delighted that Julia, who is one of the coordinators of ‘Crossing the Line 2’ has invited us to present the show in Dubai and also to recreate the Doha workshop at the conference. We will also do a panel presentation about this project at the conference. I believe this show must travel to different places because it is important to show the universality of these patterns and how connected we really are across cultures that seem to be disparate and torn apart. We found so much empathy for each other while working on this project, and despite the language barrier, we communicated through the art in a very positive way. And it seems worthwhile to keep that conversation going,” Gower says.


“We are excited to have the opportunity to come back to the Middle East, to take the project to a new city, to meet new students and extend our learning through them, so that we can keep adding more layers and new facets to the project,” she adds.


Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.


The show will run at Total Arts at The Courtyard, Al Quoz from August 27 to September 13.




Crossing the Line 2


“Geometric Aljamia: a cultural transliteration” is being held in Dubai in conjunction with “Crossing the Line 2”, an international conference dedicated to the discipline of Drawing in the Middle East. “Crossing the Line 2: Drawing in the Middle East — intersections of transdisciplinary practice and understanding” is hosted by the Department of Visual Communication in the School of Architecture, Art & Design at the American University in Dubai in partnership with the Global Centre for Drawing, Melbourne Australia. The conference, to be held from September 12 to September 14, will bring together specialists from various fields of research and practices to examine the role of drawing in the contemporary Middle East and its wider international interactions. It will address the wider implications of drawing, from technology to ideology and cultural practices, and from art to science, music, performance and architecture through papers, artist talks, events and exhibitions that explore drawing as a medium, as a tool, as notation, performance, and as a specific mode of thinking and imagining in the processes of invention, production, reproduction and communication within and across fields and disciplines.