Ornamental Islam

I had six minutes ‘til I was late, it was a gloomy Monday morning – I was thinking about the aggrieved Mothers in the war-torn Levant, the harsh bullets from a Syrian rebel’s AK-47, and how well my £2.50-a-month was providing in Africa. Then, like the heartbreak of distant lovers – felt in abundance, the Sun came out. It was July 2013, everyone was heat-waving at one another, chaos had hit Egypt, Jay-Z dropped album number twelve, and I was on board the Boris Johnson express – TFL was packed like it always is. I overheard a dude on the train saying, “the bitches would be out today” the sadness in that very statement – the misogyny was coincidently followed by a group of girls at the next stop, looking like Renaissance statues. I think it was Nietzsche who said ‘the essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude’ – I was grateful believe me, but even with six minutes to spare, I still got to work a minute late; ‘bitches’ always making me late.

Ibrahim El-Salahi's Vision of the Tomb

Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Vision of the Tomb

I began to think that my thought processes were getting a little too artsy in July, things were getting repetitive, every morning I gave myself to the mercy of the train driver and said ‘take me forth, to the land of milk and honey!’ When I sat down, I entered the deepest pockets of my cogitation, my essential nature. Dali’s Persistence of Memory flashed in front of my eyes, melted clocks and dusty landscapes all over this one-way ticket to pound signs and pencil skirts. Then news came from golden steeples and marble minarets, Ibrahim El-Salahi was in town. I forgot about this dude – epitomizing art straight from the belly of Africa, with struggle and revolution in every brushstroke. Like the little crescent moon lying on the tip of Vision of the Tomb, I was done with this world of substance, stock-markets, atoms, and anatomy – tranquility was to be found when I got to the top of that Tomb, then I’ll chill – blow a smoke, sip a little apple tea, think of women – never to be late for anything again.

It was El-Salahi that put a little perspective in my commute to work, his rise from the depths of solitary suffering in Sudanese prisons to the heights of the art world, with humility and deep compassion narrating the twists and turns of the plot, sui generis in all aspects of elegance. To us, that perspective might come in a little cash at the end of the month, the make-up our women decorate their faces with, the love of music, drugs, a fresh palette providing all the pacification you need  – whatever it is, it’s art to you. Don’t worry, I won’t call it covetous interest or heathen idolatries, to you be your way, to me be mine.

But let me just explain for a minute, as an Eastern relic, the product of post-colonial migration, British subjects, and deep rooted racism seen through the windows of Tandoori takeaways – it seems, for the Islamic world, that Nietzsche’s gratitude is a long and arduous step back in time. A place where the epoch was power over another, Oriental obsession, the ‘Lustful Turk’ and ‘Oil-Mongering’ Arab, and it was under these dominative circumstances – through the ‘complicity’ between imperialism and ethnology, that we first witnessed the birth of Islamic art. We’re a long way from that now, and in the cloud of dust that has followed the closing of one door – seeping through the gaps of another is El-Salahi, a Visionary Modernist.

Mimar Sinan - chief Ottoman architect

Mimar Sinan – chief Ottoman architect

Muslims latch on, of course, to the roots of their innovation, from the likes of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Al-Haytham, Rumi, Sadequain, the satirical Idris Shah, the visionary architect Mimar Sinan, what greats! I remember my childhood being riddled with these wonderful figures, often as a form of self-justification, self-worth, combatting some of the extreme disharmonies of Islamic culture and it’s new home in the West. It would go as far as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and the Nation of Islam as pioneers of a place for Islam in this ‘factory of freedom’, otherwise known as the Western World. Yet despite Malcolm and Ali’s differences with the clash of Sunni’s and Shia’s in Iraq and Syria, the civil conflict in Sudan, Northern African struggle to break the shackles of the French and British, the Moroccan dynasty suppressing domestic oppression, the political disharmony in Pakistan, the plight of Afghanistan – both of these desert plains and the oppression they produced, were realities, and reality can produce the greatest of artwork.

Sadequain - Treasures of Time

Sadequain – Treasures of Time

It is of course, the aesthetics – Romanticism and the element of expression; present innately in our endeavours, away from the grasps of religious tradition, supplication, denial of a lower love for acceptance of a higher one, that fuel the current development of art in this age. And it is here where the mystery of Ornamental Islam sits – that within this sacrificial religion of observance, the battles with creativity, the dichotomy between democracy and theocracy, lies an unequivocal adherence, a free form of worship attended at every moment. Climb to the top of that Tomb and you’ll see what I’m saying, look back at El-Salahi through the canvas of your soul and give him something to paint, give him struggle, oppression, then a heat-wave for good measure. But if you fall on your way, don’t blame ‘bitches’ old sport, be grateful, there’s a better way out – it’s artistic and for your sake, it’s everywhere.


Catch the Ibrahim El-Salhi – A Visionary Modernist  exhibition at the Tate Modern until the 22nd of September 2013.