Dana Awartani is an experienced traditional artist based in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. Dedicated to the revival of historical crafts from the Islamic world, Dana works with a wide range of materials including ceramics, natural pigments, and woodwork inspired by centuries of historical Islamic geometry and patterns. A Q&A with Dana Awartani.
Could you tell a little bit more about yourself as an artist?
“Well I believe I was born to be an artist. I have been doing art my whole life, as far as I can remember, and I knew from the age of 14 that I wanted to be an artist. I moved to London for university and I got a foundation degree in art and design and a Bachelors degree in Fine Art, both from Central Saint Martins college of Art and Design. It was such an amazing experience being in that university; I was taught how to develop my art on a more professional level and I was surrounded by the most talented artists from all around the world. Up to that point my work had always been very contemporary and I did a lot of installation and 3D art discussing issues of modern day society in Saudi Arabia. I later attended the Princes School of Traditional Arts, and that’s were my passion for Islamic art really blossomed. I received my Master’s degree there and it was there that I was exposed to a completely new way of viewing and creating ‘art’. I became completely obsessed with what I learned there, and in turn developed a deep respect for the principles of traditional arts. My work changed quite drastically, both the mediums I used and the concepts that I discuss in my work. I focus predominantly on depicting the hidden meanings in Islamic art through the use of symbolism in patterns and colors and I combine traditional techniques and concepts to create pieces with a slight modern feel to them. Currently I am exhibiting my work all around the world and I carry out workshops to raise the awareness of Islamic art in the region. I am also training with an illumination master in Turkey to hopefully gain my ijaza or certificate in the art of illumination in the near future.”
Which project are you working on now?
“Currently I am working on a series of paintings for the upcoming Abu Dhabi Art Fair. They are based on the story of the six days of creation in the Islamic tradition. This is quite an exciting project as I am developing a new method of painting that I haven’t used before. I am combining the techniques I have applied to my geometry drawings with the traditional illumination painting, so it is going to be a nice balance between both.”
What is an ‘Islamic artist’?
“I would define an ‘Islamic artist’ as someone who creates work inspired by Islamic art, culture and tradition. However I am not really a fan of that term, it was used for a lack of a better description. Nowadays everything must be defined or labeled; it can’t just be what it is. I would like to view myself as an artist and that’s all. That way I am not confining myself and my creative development to a certain title because I never know what path my art could take me down in the future, it might change completely!”
Can you define what Islamic art is and what does it mean to you?
“Islamic art can be best described as a sacred art. It is an art that is made purely for the sake of spiritual and religious devotion and expression, rather than art that is used to express the artist’s own personal message or story. Traditionally the artist detaches himself from any praise or recognition of his work. Islamic art also embodies and expresses the teachings of Islam, whether it’s through more obvious forms such as calligraphy and miniature painting, or more abstract approaches through the use of geometry and arabesque. Islamic art has also been compared to a form of dhikr or a remembrance of God, which in turn is a form of worship in a much more creative manner.
For me personally Islamic art is a way for me to discover more about my own religion from a different perspective and approach. It is also a way for me to discover myself and through every piece I create I learn something new and invaluable.”
What inspires you?
“Travelling to countries where masterpieces of Islamic art and architecture are present are usually the most inspirational times for me. I recently went to Turkey and Iran, which was an amazing experience because I was able to witness the diversity of Islamic art from the great Ottoman and Safavid empires of the past. I am hoping to visit Morocco and India next which are also very inspiring places to be as an artist. Unfortunately there are not that many Islamic art exhibitions where I can go and view works similar to what I do, but I have found that going to modern art shows is very important too. I just got back from the Venice Biennale. It was an absolutely amazing and eye opening experience to be completely surrounded by all sorts of creativity and art from a range of different backgrounds, cultures and religions. I do believe that as an artist, I need to expose myself to a variety of art forms because it is healthy to have a balance and a wide understanding of art as a bigger picture. I have been pleasantly surprised by some things that have inspired me!”
Can you tell us why you are interested in traditional Islamic patterns?
“Islamic art is predominately made up of patterns due to the absence of figurative images and icons to prevent the art being a form of worship. This has given birth to a very rich and diverse array of patterns that range from floral motifs to more structured geometric compositions. So if you are someone who makes Islamic art, your work is most likely going to be made of patterns. The main thing I love and respect about them is, even though they are all so diverse, they still share a common law. The idea of symmetry, harmony and structure is always at its core. When you look at the art of illumination, at first you may think that the artist has taken complete creative freedom and created a random series of flower motifs. But if you actually examine the layout they are based on, you see proportional spirals that are repeated throughout the design. Nothing is ever random, no pattern is ever composed without obeying the laws of harmony. This is one of the main principles of Islamic art as a whole. The reason for this is the philosophy of trying to embody and convey the harmony and structure of everything on this earth through pattern.”
Why is geometry so important in Islamic art and what does geometry mean to you?
“Geometry plays a crucial role in Islamic art; it can be seen as the foundation or guideline. Every element of Islamic art is entwined with geometric proportions, and is used to tell a story. If you look at calligraphy, each letter is composed using very strict geometric measurements that must be followed. In miniature painting and manuscript illumination, the layout of the page is generally composed using geometric principles. The most obvious example is Islamic architecture. Examining the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, you see that it was built on an octagonal base with a circular dome. Not only was this done because it is the most sound architecturally and offers the strongest structure to hold up the dome, but it was also used to reflect the idea that “eight angels will bear the throne on the Day of Judgment” as mentioned in the Quran. As I stated earlier, geometry always has an inner and outer meaning to it. No shape or number is used without thought. It has a practical and a symbolic role to play. That is why I am so fascinated by sacred geometry; I always want to discover what each thing means and why it was used. Geometry can be used as a very sophisticated and elegant visual language for those who understand it.”
You work with different materials such as manuscript illumination, parquetry, ceramics, stained glass, miniature painting and mosaics. Why these historical crafts?
“I love using historical mediums when I create my work because they are so pure and I personally believe are perfected and flawless techniques. You must remember that a lot of modern day methods of creating certain crafts have been borrowed by these historical techniques. But the quality of the work has been jeopardized due to the more economical choice of using machines to allow mass production. A lot of tile work or woodwork is inspired by traditional patterns and colors but it is made with machines, no longer by hand. The materials themselves are usually cheap or chemical, which really takes away from the aesthetic value. I personally believe that if I am investing so much time and energy into my work, I should be using the purist and most natural materials available. For example I prefer using natural pigments that I make myself to buying paint from a store. By using natural materials I am guaranteed that my paintings will last forever and the colors will never dull down over the years. Ready made paint has a lot of unnatural chemicals and tends to start fading twenty years down the line. The process of creating my art is probably the most important aspect of my work.”
What does your work have to offer to the Islamic world?
“Most importantly I hope that my work makes the Islamic world proud of her amazing heritage and culture. I am also trying to show a different, slightly more mystical and spiritual side to Islam. Although unknown to a lot of people, it does exist and I believe that a lot of people from different religions and cultures can easily relate to that aspect since there is a lot of common ground with other religions. It is now more important than ever to try to depict Islam in a positive manner and show the beauty behind the religion and the huge accomplishments the Muslim empires were able to achieve in history.”
The Holy Month of Ramadan is an inspiring time to many. What do you think of when you think of Ramadan?
“For me personally, Ramadan is a time to spend time with my family and to rejuvenate. Muslims are quite lucky to be obliged to practice Ramadan because I personally believe it’s not just about fasting and praying. It’s a time when you can really focus on improving yourself and your life as a whole. It’s the one time during the year where you can take a step back, slow down and reevaluate your life and try to develop it to the better, to make sure you are as happy and healthy as you can be.”
How does Ramadan influence your work?
“Time slows down a lot during this month and I have less distraction in my life in general, which gives me more time to focus on my work. Ramadan does not necessarily directly influence my work in a profound way because as an artist, I constantly need to be inspired regardless of what time of the year it is. And considering my field of work, I always need to be reading up on religious subjects to develop new ideas for future works.”
Do you consider making art to be a part of the way you express your faith and as a part of your religious practice, just like, for instance, praying or going to the mosque?
“My faith is between God and me and is quite personal. I don’t project any of my specific religious views in my work because that is a different subject matter and would change the nature of the work. My work is more about promoting and educating people about the faith of Islam as a whole from a different perspective rather then my own views. There are so many ways to express your faith and in a less obvious manner I would consider my art as a form of worship. Rumi summed up what my work means to me when he said: Let the beauty of what you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.”
Which memorable responses have you had to your work?
“The most common and memorable responses are when people are shocked to learn the hidden meaning behind geometry. I get so excited to see people show interest in that aspect of my work because I believe it leads them to view Islamic art not just as a decorative art but also as something that is highly sophisticated and intellectual. I remember there was this one Buddhist American man who I met at the Venice Biennale. He managed to relate my work to his own faith and he saw a lot of similarity between concepts in Islam and Buddhism.”
What are your goals as an artist?
“My main goal is to inspire and educate the people around me. To teach them to love and respect Islamic art which is sadly becoming a dying tradition. I feel it is my duty as a Muslim and an Arab to constantly promote my religion and culture in a positive light. I dream of a day when Muslims no longer have this horrible stigma attached to them and people all over the world get to see all the good and beauty in our religion. The one thing I can do to support this, is to use my art as a tool. I really believe that art is one of the most effective ways to send a message that has impact; it’s a visual language that anyone and everyone can relate to. I also hope to educate the future generation to learn about Islamic art, it’s a shame that whenever you are taught art in school it is always based on western techniques of drawing and painting and you never learn about your own culture.”
Is there an artwork you are most proud of?
“Yes, definitely “Al Samawat Al Mubarika” (The Blessed Skies). It is a large two-meter squared ceramic piece made up of approximately 6000 individual tiles that I had to individually make, then glaze. I am very attached to that piece because it took me six months to make it, which is the longest it ever took for me to create an artwork. It was also a piece where I learned a very effective and new technique of zellij making. Even though it was extremely labor-intensive and every tile had to be perfect or they wouldn’t fit together at the end, I learned the true meaning of patience and perseverance.”
Do you have a special Ramadan wish for our readers?
“Yes. I do hope that everyone has a blessed month and that all their prayers and wishes will be accepted. And to those fasting in countries were the fasting hours are very long I hope this month will not be to difficult on them. Lastly I hope that everyone who reads about my work will be inspired and aim to learn more about the highly complex and beautiful art form that is Islamic art.”
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