the message of Islamic art | By Tony Leliw
TIMES GROUP NEWSPAPERS
| Thursday, 4th February 1999
the message of Islamic art
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
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
"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
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
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
the pope at the Vatican - his work was seen sa the first
and most significant cultural event of its kind throughout
the history of Christian-Islamic relations.