SOAS University of London

Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London

Geometry, Illumination and Beyond

A contemporary artist’s dialogue with structure and form in Iranian manuscript illumination
16 April – 20 June 2009

The exhibition is about the artist Anita Chowdry’s exploration of classic Iranian and Mughal manuscript illumination and its underlying geometric structure. It will also explore the relationships that link traditional structure with new concepts in geometry.

The central theme is the Shamsa or sunburst, an exquisitely worked disc-shaped motif used on the opening page of royal manuscripts, painted in gold and mineral colours. A vehicle for master illuminators to display virtuoso craftsmanship in intricate counterpoints of arabesque and floral forms, the traditional motif owes much of its beauty to underlying exponential structures based on hexagons or octagons radiating from a central point, expressing unity and infinity in the Islamic universe.

The painting on the left is a shamsa painted with a predominance of gold and lapis lazuli, classic mineral colours which governed the sequence and techniques of painting.
Right is a mathematical painting expressing the underlying geometry of the shamsa. The pattern of squares increases exponentially to the ratio of the square root of 2 – an expression of Pythagoras’ theorem on the right-angled triangle .

The mesmeric quality and abstract beauty of Islamic art has a universal appeal that goes beyond cultural boundaries; one reason for this is the transcendent language of mathematics. The reiterating patterns of classic Islamic geometry reappear and evolve in the complex patterns of chaos theory and fractal geometry discovered by mathematicians of the late 20th century, which mirrors the geometry of natural forms.

Left is a fractal image generated using the Mandelbrot set, a simple equation involving complex numbers, which expresses the self-similarity of reiterated patterns found in natural forms. This concept, developed within the last 50 years, generates patterns of a striking similarity to those generated by classic geometry.
Right is a contemporary shamsa- a reduction to elemental energy paths generated by the Mandelbrot set,

The series of drawings, paintings and digital images in the exhibition represent the artist’s empirical journey of discovery, from analyzing the structures, visual grammar and painting methods employed by 16th century manuscript illuminators to the discovery of similar forms generated by digital fractal programmes. Exploring methods of constructing the designs is to follow an extraordinary path of revelation, whether the primary tools are compass and classic number patterns or iterated equations involving complex numbers, affording an insight into the spiritual and intellectual journey undertaken by masters of Islamic illumination as they conceived their creations.

Supported by the Altajir Trust