The hidden influence of Islamic art, from Cartier to William Morris

What is culture? In today’s globalized world, we are used to seeing various cultural objects and ornaments outside of their original location or context.

These models were constructed and adapted, and as such may not even be recognized as bearing the imprint or influence of Islamic societies.

What may appear to some viewers in some contexts as quintessentially British design, such as the patterns on William Morris’ “Holland Park” rug, is in fact inspired by Islamic arabesque (Islimi) ornamentation. [Photo: Sepia Times/Getty Images]

Influence of Islamic art on Western design

A recent exhibition Cartier and Islamic art: in search of modernity, at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris presents the influence of Islamic art on the creations of French jewelry designer Maison Cartier. For example, the 19th-century English designer William Morris—renowned for his patterns that came to prominence in fabrics, furniture, and other decorative arts of the Arts and Crafts movement—was inspired by the biomorphic floral patterns of the Islamic arabesque ornamentation (Islimi).

What is fascinating about this exhibition is the pairing of jewelry and precious objects with artifacts from Islamic lands, such as a 14th and 15th century Iranian mosaic that were Cartier’s original sources of inspiration. This exhibition travels to the Dallas Museum of Art in May 2022.

“Cultural Translation”

Part of the reason for this shift in culture is the mobility of people and the portability of ornamental items.

The notion of “cultural translation”, coined by the cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha, is the act of translation, which is neither a cultural tradition nor the other cultural tradition, but the emergence of other positions. The root of the translation of the English word comes from Latin translation meaning “to carry” or “to cross”.

The movement resulting from migration gives rise to acts of cultural translation of people. Translation is the negotiation born of the meeting of two social groups with different cultural traditions.

For Bhabha, cultural difference is never a finished “thing”. The experiences of migrants exist at the borders or borders of different cultures and are constantly changing. Therefore, acts of translation of language or visual signs and symbols are an act of constant negotiation between cultures.

In this process, the struggle of the migrant takes place in a process of transformation in the intermediate space of cultures called the third space. The third space is a hybrid space for negotiating cultural interactions.

Diaspora Muslim Artists

A good example of these types of cultural negotiations occurs in the works of contemporary artists from diverse cultural backgrounds living in Western (diasporic) societies.

For diaspora Muslim artists, traditional Islamic art forms contextualize their connections to their cultural origins within broader social, political and cultural concerns – concerns such as migration, cultural identity and diversity.

Pakistani-Canadian artist Tazeen Qayyum uses the language of traditional Islamic ornamentation in works such as A waiting pattern (2013) to investigate what it means to live between two cultures.

At first glance, the viewer perceives an aesthetically pleasing geometric design reminiscent of the arabesque tiles of Islamic architecture. However, closer inspection reveals that the ornamental pattern is a repeat of cockroach silhouettes.

In a recent article for black flash magazine, Qayyum explains this work:

“I also intricately painted a set of airport lounge chairs representative of the liminal space of an airport, where migrants and refugees are neither here nor there, but rather await clearance at their arrival at Pearson airport. The title “holding circuit” reinforces this thought because it evokes an aircraft waiting for authorization to land. It is a state of expectation that refers to my own displaced identity of living between two cultures, always in transit and never really at home.

“Intermediate Space”

Contemporary cultural theorists, such as Sara Ahmed and Bhabha, have argued that these artists enter a mode of cultural translation.

What do you see in this golden connective pattern engraved on geese and mallard ducks? [Photo: Soheila Esfahani]

The artists destabilize the idea of ​​a monolithic culture and instead construct works influenced by places of cultures that reflect an “in-between space”: a site of dialogue reflecting these interconnected influences.

I have recently created artworks in which I investigate cultural translation and question the displacement, diffusion and reinsertion of culture by recontextualizing culturally specific ornamentation. This work is intended for an exhibition of three people, The art of living: on community, immigration and the migration of symbols, Jude Abu Zaineh, Soheila Esfahani, Xiaojing Yancurated by Catherine Bédard, at the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris, opening this month.

In my work mallard ducksa vintage wooden sign featuring a flock of Canada geese and mallard ducks flying over a marsh at sunset has been laser engraved with an arabesque design.

By placing the arabesque design on the wooden cutout of Canada geese and mallard ducks – a vintage “Canadiana” object – I aim to question the origin of culture and the role of ornamentation. I acquired this item from a local business where I live in Waterloo Region, Ontario that salvages and salvages wood materials. At one point, the sign was apparently hanging in a restaurant.

This motif is reproduced from sections of the mosaic design of the inner dome of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.

Detail of the interior dome of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. [Photo: Diego Delso/Wiki Commons]

This mosque, also known as the Royal Mosque, is part of a complex of buildings in an urban square designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site.

Experiences, cultures inform readings

As art historian Oleg Grabar notes in his book The mediation of ornament“…ornament is the ultimate mediator, paradoxically questioning the value of meanings by channeling them towards pleasure. Or is it possible to argue that rather than providing pleasure, ornament also gives the viewer the right and freedom to choose the meaning?

My work aims to become a mediator allowing the spectator to enter the third space and revolves around an act of negotiation. Viewers’ unique experiences and cultures inform their reading of the work. This allows them to “enter the third space” by engaging in cultural translation: viewers transport their culture through and onto the artwork and vice versa.

I am interested in the notion of third space not only in contemporary art/culture, but also as a means of opening a space for dialogue between fields of study in order to mobilize multiple perspectives.

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