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Grasping the message of Islamic art | By Tony Leliw
TIMES GROUP NEWSPAPERS | Thursday, 4th February 1999
 

Grasping the message of Islamic art

If you try to read the Islamic text in his work you are totally missing the point, says internationally-known Islamic artist Dr Ahmed Moustafa. TONY LELIW investigates.

For a man of letters, artist and masterscribe Dr Ahmed Moustafa, can create some really powerful images. His glossy catalogue called Dove I Due Oceani Si Incontrano (Where The Two Oceans Meet), is a testament to that.

Take for instance The Trilogy of the Arab Horse (1980), inspired by the pre-Islamic poetry of Umro' Al Qaise (died 620AD). It shows three horses giving chase, covered in Arabic script, engulfed in a multitude of colours.

The beauty of this piece as with the rest of Dr Moustafa's work is that you don't need to understand the Arabic script to appreciate it.

Last year when he had an exhibition in the Vatican's Pontificia Universitatas Gregoriana, a wealthy young Italian buyer told him that she had doubts about coming because his work was "in essence Islamic", and from a culture that was alien to hers.

When she came, she connected with his work, explained Dr Moustafa, as I interviewed him at his Blackheath mansion-like home. "The work had spoken to her," he added, showing no surprise.

"If they expect to read it they are totally missing the point," he said. "They have to read the visual language itself - the letters only play a subservient role."

The 55-year-old calligrapher, who is a fellow in Islamic Art and Design at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, will later this month be giving a lecture at Willesden Green Library.

The conference and exhibition will be called Art For God's Sake, and will explore the principles that lie behind Islamic art.

For Dr Moustafa, art is a healing power - the quest to inspire a dialogue, and that in itself, he said, is not necessarily trouble-free sailing.

"It is full of hardship, but pleasure comes from this hardship," he said, leaning forward in his Egyptian Mumluk chair, which dates back more than a century.

"It is not because I enjoy these arduous conditions - physical and intellectual - but if one person manages to grasp what is the message behind this work, that is the complete accomplishment, of what I am trying to achieve."

His major composition Where The Two Oceans Meet, commissioned by the Foreign Office for the Queen to give the Pakistani nation on its 50th anniversary, left him with two month's to wrestle with the duality of nature.

He took chapter 55, verses 19-21 from The Qur'an, as inspiration: "He (God) has given freedom to the two great bodies of water, so that they might meet, yet between them is a barrier which they may not transgress…."

The physical battle was to tame two opposite mediums, a mixture of oil and water-based colours - the intellectual - to show the opposites of positive and negative, black and white.

Was it his best work? I asked. His greatest achievement was the work that earned him a doctorate, which is lodged with the British Museum, he said.

Off his chair and kneeling by an open metallic case Dr Moustafa revealed to me his book, The Scientific Foundation of Arabic Lettershapes, from where he had to elucidate the hidden geometrical principles governing the sacred vision of Islamic Art.

It is a field that he has researched for 14 years - that changed his life, led to his transition from the pictorial school to that of the abstract. The theory of proportional script, which was formulated 500 years before the Renaissance by Muslim scholars.

It was difficult to take in such intellectual arguments in an hour which scholars have pondered on for centuries, including Leonardo Da Vinci.

Looking at a beautifully crafted letter A next to a drawing of a man standing upright, I could see that Dr Moustafa was ready to expound the deeper meaning of life and mankind's very existence.

Dr Moustafa originally harks from Egypt. He studied at Alexandria University before coming to Britain in 1974 to further his studies at the Central School of Art in London.

He then married and settled. Since then he has lectured and taught in many parts of the world and was a visiting professor at the Prince of Wales Institute for Architecture, and the University of Westminster in London.

Anyone going to Barcelona in three month's time can see his work at the Pia Almoina Museum. Otherwise his works are held in an endless list of museums from The Contemporary Islamic Collection in the British Museum to the Museum of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Alexandria, Egypt.

Dr Moustafa, like his work and drawing room, which has North African hull-shaped brown ornate chairs, an Indian Jeypore gold-topped table and a 130-year-old Portuguese sofa, knows no national boundaries.

"I always feel that as long as I am nourished intellectually and spiritually, it doesn't matter where you live. After all, one has to step behind the illusion of local borders and flags."

Art For God's Sake?! conference and exhibition takes place on Saturday, February 20, at Willesden Green Library, London NW10. Telephone 0181699 1887.


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