Southampton is a City I have not visited for a while – June 2018 in fact when The City Gallery was recommended to me by a friend. Looking through the ‘Whats On’ guide I saw Manifesting the Unseen, a celebration of Islamic Art, which I noticed finishes this weekend so I had to make haste. Manifesting the Unseen. What does that mean? The literal meaning is to show the invisible. So what was going on here?
The inspiration goes back to 2018 in East London where a group of Muslim women artists observed how Western art tends to marginalise minority cultures to the point of making them almost invisible. The exhibition is primarily paint and mixed media on paper, always the preferred support for artists of the Middle East, with some very fine laser cut woodworks.
Islamic Art can be challenging for western eyes with its emphasis on geometric, sinuous Islimic decoration and calligraphic themes. Islimi are the biomorphic rhythmic patterns, inspired by nature and said to demonstrate imaan or faith. I must admit to finding this exhibition somewhat demanding despite the work being quite both exquisite and technically very well created. The point is unlike figurative works and many western abstract pieces their interpretation did not come naturally to me and need the continuous support of the title captions. Without the captions the spectator is left, in the main, with an array of geometric, islimic and calligraphic images that are merely decorative on their own. The iconography needs to be set out in the accompanying text or it is in danger of being lost.
This is a great pity as the explanations if they are to be accepted have preset spiritual and emotional meaning. For example Shaheen Kasmani’s Hearts of Green Birds: Lockdown Edition, 2020, reflects on the loss and grief on the front line workers in the Covid19 pandemic. The artist is saying that although Covid19 is non discriminatory the structure for dealing with the pandemic is full of inequalities. Whilst this is a laudable observation the artwork fails to portray that sentiment to me. I do understand that in there is a Muslim view that the martyrs are in the hearts of the green birds – I just cannot make the connection here.
There are examples where the meaning is more overt. In Nazira Bibi’s Longing 2021 we see some circular images in shell gold and white gold on indigo washed paper. The image of the single ship against the background of the night sky reflect not only Southampton’s maritime history but that of travel, family and loss. This is indeed a very lonely but evocative image.
The Geometry of the stars has a significance which I picked up as fundamental to this Islamic imagery. Many of the works, in whatever medium seem to be constructed from the circle, the most purist form in nature, and augmented through its constructions and grid lines. I was particularly taken by Jeea Mirza’s Celestial Navigation series with the geometric configurations arising from the brightly illuminated sphere. The history of Islamic chart making and understanding of the celestial mapping stems from the requirement for Muslims to always know where Mecca was from any point on the globe
Jeea Mirza created a series of geometric images which were profoundly different but created from the same geometric grid lines. The works represent the idea that however diverse our appearance, or how far we think we have evolved, our origins remain the same. We are derived from the same creator.
There are a few less geometric works which seem to evoke pre Islamic symbols such as the cypress tree. These tall conifer trees, loved also by French artists in the nineteenth century were seen in Persian and later Arabic poetry as representing the upright righteous nature of man. Amber Khokar had three paintings all entitle Entwined, also full of other meaning accordingly the captions, implying order and chaos.
Persian and Moghul miniatures of the Safavid period featured in my dissertation and there was one painting which represented this theme. Mobeen Akhtar presented Garden of Reflection intending the viewer to see full circle in the return to paradise for the faithful.
There is much in Islamic culture and poetry that has similarities with Christian art, more so with the world of Moses and Abraham than the Christian beliefs. But the iconography and interpretation is much more in thought than the representation of this very abstract work. I found the exhibition enjoyable but like most contemporary displays I found I the reading of the small print captions tiring.
Manifesting the Unseen has exhibited in London, Manchester and, unfortunately, now closed in Southampton on 9th October. It is a project rather than a single exhibition so I anticipate further events, and look forward to catching up with these ideas again. Not forgetting the the theme of my dissertation at Warwick was the Ancient Persian poem, The Shah-Nama.