Illuminations

© 2016 Copyright | Ahmed Mater | All Rights Reserved 

Like its title, this series irradiates apparent binaries. Mater blends the past (represented by traditional Islamic arts) with the present (through the innovations of modern medicine). He also brings together two subjects that are treated as essentially separate and full of tense contradictions: faith and science.

 

These dualities are exposed and structured, yet scrutiny reveals each work to also be a compacted simultaneity, an indivisible whole. The objective reality of anatomy and the subjective experience of faith are brought together in a single image. Expressed through the resonant cues of Islamic arts and doctor’s x-rays, the disparate subjects are circumscribed and rationed into clearly delineated spaces. The suggestion is that the realms of faith and science are juxtaposed, disparate, contrary to one other. But look again – even these binaries shift, become prismatic, enfolded, blending one into the other. The subjectivity of spirituality and faith becomes inscribed within the borders of taut religious tradition as intricate arabesques are treated with tea, pomegranate and alum powder – a technique which is usually reserved for the illumination of Qur’anic manuscripts. The objectivity of anatomy is unpacked as the cage of the torso is transfigured reverently into an interior space of luminescent mystery. Here, Mater suggests that neither subject is as clearly objective or subjective as it may first appear.

 

These dense works exude potent impressions of unseen power. Each frame channels many generations of Islamic and Arabian tradition into the present, making the weight of history felt. Numbers and letters are talismanic, their coded complexity suggestive of the order religious tradition imposes on the often-unfathomable expanse of an individual experience of spirituality. The immaculate precision of each frame, indicative of a deep and studied awareness of these art forms, exists in strident contrast to the cryptic, hand-drawn inscriptions that flourish with an urgent spirit of calculation and deduction – as if their author hoped to diagram some essential truth, in the same way a complex mathematical equation is solved. Like these dashed inscriptions, the x-rays also invoke the individual. Reverently framed in the same manner a Qur’anic text would be illuminated, their monumental scale revels in the miracle and delicacy of human life.

The works shift and settle, first bristling with tension – the individual is framed and shaped within the confines of traditional religious structures – then appearing as a configuration of pure harmony as tensions between the modern and ancient, the traditional and the technological collapse. Ultimately, through these works, Mater illuminates Islamic tradition to show its close relationship to the faith-driven and spiritual, making manifest a dynamic complexity that has been diminished and negated by the strictures of contemporary religious systems.

An essay reflecting on Illuminations by Linda Komaroff, Curator of Islamic Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Venetia Porter, Curator of the Islamic and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art Collections at the British Museum reflects on her first encounter with Ahmed Mater's work