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‘Illuminating the World' is a visual treat
Text and photos by Bizzie Frost
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 24 - 05 - 2010

A new exhibition entitled “Illuminating the World” opened May 18 at the stylish Athr Gallery on Tahlia Street. It is the work of Tajammul Hussain, a British artist of Pakistani origin, and his aim is to give visual expression to verses from the Holy Qur'an.
As someone who cannot read Arabic, is not Muslim, and has very little knowledge of the Holy Qur'an, I could at first only respond to the visual elements of Hussain's paintings. They are all of a similar size, roughly 110 cm by 82 cm; they are then mounted on wide, complimentary colored mounts, and finally framed in broad metal frames, either gold or silver colored.
Hussain uses a wide variety of colors, as well as gold leaf, so the overall effect of a gallery full of uniformly-sized images, with the soft glow of the gold, as well as the common theme of elaborate calligraphy, is visually striking. The Athr Gallery offers a sophisticated and spacious area for exhibiting: plain white walls with a highly polished black marble floor which reflects all the paintings.
I went to a preview the day before the opening and so was privileged to be in an un-crowded gallery where the artist was not swamped by other guests. A lady that I met there suggested that I ask Hussain to talk to me about a few of his images, whereupon he willingly took me, my husband and a small group of other interested guests on a complete tour of all 33 of his paintings.
When Hussain became interested in giving visual expression to some of the verses of the Holy Qur'an, one of the first things he had to do was to study and learn the art of calligraphy as this was to be an essential part of every one of his paintings. Caligraphy has always been an important aspect of Islamic art because Islam's early theocracy looked to the artistry of the written word for religious expression.
Hussain explained how he first received instructions on the rules of classical Thulth and Kufic calligraphy from Hossain Vaghefi who taught calligraphy at the University of Tehran. He then took lessons in calligraphic styles from the late Nafees Raqam and Ustad Hafiz Sadidi. The books and lectures of the late Dr. Martin Lings, who was the Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts and printed books at the British Museum and an authority on the art of calligraphy and illumination, also had a profound effect on him.
As we proceeded past his paintings, Hussain went on to explain that “illumination” is when this ornate caligraphy is embossed with gold leaf. He uses a variety of different colored gold leaf in his work, from yellow, green and red, to the warm shade of 24-carat gold leaf. He also crushes the gold leaf and mixes it with other colors, such as green. From a few feet away, this is not apparent, but on close inspection, you can see tiny glinting specs of gold shining through the green pigment. A fine example of the use of all these colors is “Al Ilm Nur” (Knowledge is Light).
The stylized square Kufic script, repeated four times in different shades of gold, creates a pleasing symmetrical and maze-like image. It refers to the concept of Divine Knowledge, which touches the heart in flashes of inspiration, with each different shade representing a different kind of knowledge. The maze represents the difficulties in attaining knowledge.
As well as caligraphy and illumination, Hussain also uses the geometric patterns and star variations that are closely connected with Islamic and Arabic art and architecture. The combination of all these is well illustrated in “The Three Alifs” (“The Three As”). The “alif” is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and the symbolism of the three together symbolizes Man, God and Nature.
The individual three letters are richly enhanced with stylized patterns representing the genetic code of man, God's presence pervading the Universe, and Earth surrounded by verdant nature.
Above each ‘alif' are geometric symbols: Above ‘Man' and ‘Earth' is a circular pattern enclosing an ornate star and above the central Alif, representing Allah, is the ‘web of creation' pattern radiating in all directions from a central point to reach all hearts.
The use of geometric forms expresses the logic and order inherent in the Islamic vision of the universe. The development of these decorative designs creates infinitely repeating patterns which are sometimes explained as representing the unchanging laws of God. I also learned that blue and gold are the sacred colors of Islamic art: blue represents the infinite and is synonymous with mercy, and gold is the colour of the spirit, or celestial light. The image of Nur (Light) - ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and earth' - contains all these elements.
In the paintings Sura Al-Imran, and Sura Ta Ha, Hussain uses the third non-figural type of decoration used in Islamic art, the vegetal patterns. The floral patterns in the backdrop of the Sura Al Imran depict the advent of the Divine Mercy, while in Sura Ta Ha, the background of leaves represents Divine Inspiration and the tree of utmost knowledge.
A fascinating aspect of all Hussain's paintings is the variety of handmade papers that he uses on his canvases. Each one is a highly specialized product that has been treated in a number of ways before any paint, ink or gold leaf touches it. The papers come from countries such as Nepal and Thailand, and may be made of rice, or mulberry bark, cartridge paper. Hussain then prepares the papers with traditional treatments such as tea, wheat starch, saffron or tumeric and then leaves them from six months to three years before using them.
On some paintings he has used Ottoman and Saffavid techniques for preservation and endurance over time which involved using a final coating of beaten up egg white mixed with alum (aluminium sulphate) which is then burnished. On other paintings, he has used gold pigments mixed with gum Arabic or rabit skin glue, and walnut and oak inks.
The exhibition runs until June 10 and is not to be missed. Make sure you have a few hours in hand, buy the catalogue, and spend time on each painting, absorbing not only the illuminated words from the Holy Qur'an but also learning about the extraordinary techniques used to produce each image. Hussain is also giving a series of lectures at the Athr Gallery, which is located in Serafi Mega Mall on Tahlia Street, opposite IKEA. (Email: [email protected] or Tel: 02-284 5009). – SG
Editors note: Bizzie Frost's exclusive interview of Tajammul Hussain will appear in the Arts and Entertainment page on Thursday. __


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