Islamic illumination

If a brief history of time flashed before our eyes and we could see the evolution of man from the early ages to 2020, a common tenet of humanity that would run through would most probably be ‘faith’. Be it faith in nature or faith in particles, or a fantastical higher power; humans have always embraced some sort of faith to fall back upon in the most testing of times, and therein lies its beauty.

A lot of this faith, however, has evolved into organised religion, that segregates mankind in distinct identities. Religions continue shaping the global order: from histories to hegemonies, geographies to demographies and movements to politics.

And as the world shrinks but continues dividing, there are subtle reminders of what faith meant to people before it became a rupturing factor. Some of these reminders are found in religious art that has been a result of skilled meticulous labour born out of unwavering devotion towards God.

One such form of religious art is the ‘Islamic illumination’, overwhelmingly rich in its colour and symbolism. Since Islam restricted the use of human and animal figures in religious contexts, artists from Islamic societies looked for suitable expression and articulation to embellish the divine word.

Thus, the art style sees the use of gold in an exquisite decoration of the calligraphic words in the Quran. Acquired by different cultures, the convention of Islamic illumination has given rise to diverse aesthetic styles arising from the Middle East to the Far East. 

The Iranian style of Islamic illumination from Persia is one charming style that is all set to be taught in SOAS every Wednesday from 12 February to April 22. Generous in its Islimi (Arabesque) patterns, Islamic illumination in Iran, developed gradually since the 15th century under the patronage of Timurid rulers. Boasting mostly of intricate floral motifs (Khatei) along with the use of gold to create frames and heavy use of ‘Lapi’ for its rich blue colour; Iranian Islamic illumination has a distinct and a delicate artistic character.

From 17th to 19th century, Islamic illumination became a combination of these two distinct stylised and vegetal patterns —  Khatei and Islimi, with the former being more dominant. 

Being held over eight sessions, from 6pm to 8.30pm; the practice-based course first takes the participants through a brief historical and theoretical introduction of the Iranian tradition of Islamic illumination. This is followed by a hands-on step by step practice of making an illumination work from preparing the paper to delicate outlining with ink and brush and drawing the Islimi and Khatei motifs.

Immersing the participants in ‘magical patterns and colours of old illustrated manuscripts’, the course will be taught by SOAS alumnus, Anahita Alavi, who holds an MA in History of Art and Architecture of Islamic Middle East from SOAS, and MA Art Studies from the University of Tehran. An Iranian artist, she has learned Persian miniature painting and Islamic illumination under the supervision of several great masters in Iran, and has also taught the course widely in Iran and London. She also runs an entrepreneurial project called Muqarnas Art, sponsored by SOAS, that aims to preserve the tradition of miniature painting and Islamic illumination through teaching.

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In the fast gentrifying world, there is an attempt to revive the classical Iranian illumination of the 15th to 18th centuries. Talking about its changing legacy, Anahita says that “illumination not only has a decorative purpose but also facilitates the reading of the Quran. The motifs, however, are also largely found in building, manuscript, object and textile decoration.

Even contemporary artists are applying the traditional technique, such as staining the paper, making shell gold of pure gold leaf and outlining the patterns by walnut ink. Excited to teach in her alma mater, she believes SOAS to be an interesting and diverse space to conduct this course, by the end of which, participants will have a portfolio of a series of Islimi motifs as well as a piece of painted-finished illumination work.

In the current times, the idea of religion rattles many in several different ways. With the rise of far-right conservatives fuelled by Islamophobia, from the UK to India, religious identity has never been so distinct, and so communal as it is perhaps today. While the empathetic and factual exchange of dialogue is necessary, so is an insight into the artistic and cultural motifs of different faiths. They are treasure troves of valuable sentiments that hold the power to evoke appreciation, respect and most importantly an understanding of religious and cultural legacies that has thrived and shaped humanity. 

The registration deadline is 7 February 2020 and the cost of the course is £230.  For more information about the course, click here.

  • Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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