Once I doubted that there was any relationship between the contemporary art world and Islamic art. My awakening to the notion that the parameters of Islamic art could be expanded to encompass contemporary works by artists from the Middle East is in fact relatively recent. My epiphany came as a direct result of the groundbreaking 2006 exhibition “Word into Art” at the British Museum, which also happily marked my introduction to Ahmed Mater. What I found in this exhibition and in Mater’s work was something both inherently familiar and terrifically original.
Like other contemporary artists, Ahmed Mater is not so much reinventing Islamic art as he is repurposing it so that it becomes more clearly a vehicle for personal expression. He draws inspiration from the Islamic arts of the book, most notably manuscripts of the Qur’an, whose pages were decorated with illuminated borders, chapter headings, and verse markers. He even includes the word waqf, a notation often found in manuscripts of the Qur’an, which in legal terms designates a charitable donation. He brings to his work the same finesse, craftsmanship and close attention to detail as would be found in a traditional Islamic manuscript produced in a courtly workshop.
Generally a small scale and intimate art form, Mater has radically expanded the scale of his illuminated page, creating instead a different sense of intimacy by using his pages to frame or incorporate a human X-ray. After all, what could be more intimate and personal than literally to see inside another individual? This is most eloquently expressed in his great diptychs in which a traditional type of richly illuminated double page composition frames two X-rays set face to face; the skeletal images suggest some elemental form of humanity, stripped of the skin, hair, eyes and clothes that differentiate as well as separate us.
Mater also combines the human X-ray with calligraphic designs derived from talismanic shirts of the Ottoman period. Inscribed with prayers, Qur’anic verses and magical formulas and squares filled with numbers and letters, the shirts were intended to protect the wearer from enemies and illness. When the artist superimposes the same compositions over the skeleton, they maintain their powerful apotropaic intent but now serve to safeguard the seemingly frail human X-ray.
In a similar vein but more potent still is Mater’s piece in which the human X-ray and the text become fully engaged one with the other. The artist has replaced the skeletal head with multi-directional calligraphy—the beginning of Qur’an al-Duha, in which is called to witness the brightness of the day and the stillness of the night as evidence of the omniscience of God, is written lengthwise from the bottom to the top of the face. Beneath is the X-ray chest cavity, laid bare and exposed, with the word huwa or He (i.e., God) impressed from the back of the page. There is a striking contrast between the intensity of the word-filled head and the almost tender vulnerability of the skeletal torso inscribed with its single word beneath the heart. This is an incredibly compelling composition.
While it may be up to future generations of art historians to determine which heading or label to apply to his art, Ahmed Mater demonstrates the very special ability to speak in a universal voice but from a personal perspective. It is perhaps this universality that first drew me to Islamic art before the words were anything more than attractive but mysterious symbols. From my own present-day perspective, what make the universality of Mater’s work even more exciting is that he is a Muslim, an Arab, and a Saudi.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art