July issue 2009
From Modernity to Tradition
Nurtured as a child of modernity but evolving as a devotee of tradition, it is artist Sumaya Durrani’s leap of faith that now gives substance to her aesthetic expression. Initially trained in the techniques and philosophies of western art, Durrani got her bachelors and masters degree in Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1985, followed by postgraduate studies at Sir John Cass School of Art, London till 1987. “No one questions you when you arrive from the US or Europe, and I was greeted with a lot of applause — but I am glad the standing ovation did not go to my head,” she muses while recounting the reception she was accorded here, as a radical artist, early in her career.
Today, in keeping with the Islamic chain of spiritual transmission, tareeqat ka silsila, she acknowledges Faqir Nasiruddin as her murshid and seeks direction from her spiritual guide, Syed Imamuddin Qadri. This transition in thought and attitude is grounded in Durrani’s eventual realisation that “modernity was imposed on us (as a people).” Remarking that “modernity is a very noble strategy except that it happened in another time for another civilisation for a people who wanted it,” she feels that “it [modernity] is obsessed with only the individual and how he can change things — so the individual is prompted not to surrender,” but rather pushed to constantly validate his independence with innovations, the more shocking the better. Recalling the inclusion of her work in a notable Pakistani women painters’ exhibition, Intelligent Rebellion, held at Bradford Museum, UK, in 1995, she now wonders what the ‘rebellion’ and defiance was all about and what meaningful victory it achieved.
While conflict between individual and society is a social reality, Durrani has moved on to another plane where the individual’s ability to recognise totality and “to weave into the whole” is primary. Subscribing to the principles of tauheed (unity in multiplicity), she is inspired by the Sufi or mystic strand of Islamic knowledge. In the Islamic order, Shariah dictates the formal relations of Muslims towards God and their fellows while Sufism teaches Muslims how to know God in their hearts. Clarifying her stand, the artist explains that in tareeqat you obey by choice — “because of love” or chahat. It is love, not intellect that brings you into the tauheed ka daira.”
Sumaya Durrani’s recent art delves in and around the ‘inner way’ or the spiritual journey towards God. Her Ibn-e-Maryam print series (2006) dwelt on the Virgin Birth as an article of faith. Aspiring for nearness, through the mediation of the Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him), was the motivation behind the subsequent ‘Rukh-e-Mustafa’ print (with glaze) in which the recurring calligraphic text emphasised tasbih or vird of Zikr-e-Ilahi. Yet another series under process, Jad-ul-Hasan wa Husain examines digression and return to the circle of unity, tauheed ka daira.
Still focused on the mysteries of the spiritual world, Durrani’s current exhibition titled ‘Shahab-e-Saqib,’ at Chawkandi Art, references a Quranic Surah that warns against the snares of evil spirits. The Surah accentuates how angels manifest the power of God and how different good is from evil and truth from falsehood, and speaks of the final extirpation of evil. The defeat of evil is throughout connected with Revelation, and in this verse the ranging fight is illustrated by a reference to the angels in the heaven and to the earlier prophets in our earthly history.
When viewed in this context, Durrani’s artworks document the artist’s personal struggle with inner demons, the eternal tug of war between forces of good and evil that man encounters at every stage in his life, and her ability to cleanse and purify her ‘self.’ She works intuitively, building her forms on flat painted surfaces that evoke the concept of infinity, which is a constant, as against the variables of form implanted on it. In a severely abstract and pointedly geometric visual idiom, a concentrated fusion of shaded, dark and luminous facets project the varying levels, degrees or kaifiyat of the soul as it fluctuates and oscillates between moments of clarity and illumination, and depths of despair and confusion.
To the uninitiated viewer, however, her geometric forms speak of a Cubist trajectory belonging to the manifesto of modern art because the inherent distinction between the ‘abstract’ nature of Islamic art and western art is not widely understood or manifest in prevalent art expressions.
“The two stand at opposite poles. The result of one form of abstraction is the glass skyscrapers which scar most modern cities and the fruit of the other is the Shah Mosque [in Iran] and the Taj Mahal. The one seeks to evade the ugliness of naturalistic and condensed forms of the 19th century European art by appeal to mathematical abstraction of a purely human and rationalistic order. The other sees in the archetype residing in the spiritual empyrean, the concrete realities of which so-called realities of this world are nothing but shadows and abstractions. It, therefore, seeks to overcome this shadow by returning to the direct reflections of the truly concrete world in this world of illusion and abstraction which the forgetful nature of man takes for concrete reality. The process of so-called ‘abstraction’ in Islamic art is, therefore, not at all a purely human and rationalistic process as in modern abstract art, but the fruit of intellection in its original sense, or vision of the spiritual world, and an ennobling of matter by recourse to the principles which descend from the higher levels of cosmic and ultimately metacosmic reality.” (Excerpt from foreward by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Art of Islam: Language and Meaning by Titus Burkhardt).
For Sumaya Durrani “language is just a vehicle.” She feels “your vocabulary is determined by what you want to say and how you want to say it.” For her, the communication of the ‘essence’ is of primary importance — the syntax of form is subservient to the portrayal of the experience. Yet, when we examine the history of Islamic art we are confronted with a tradition where use and beauty go hand in hand. Titus Burkhardt argues: “The divorce between ‘art’ and ‘craftsmanship’ is a relatively recent European phenomenon which parallels the scission between ‘art’ and ‘science.’ Formerly, every artist who produced an object was called a ‘craftsman,’ and every discipline which demanded not only theoretical knowledge but also practical ability was an ‘art.’” Taking into account Islamic calligraphy, painting, architecture and the plastic arts, we have evidence of the inner dimension of Islam and see the role art plays in the life of individual Muslims and the community as a whole — the role of inspiring the remembrance and contemplation of God. Islamic artists developed geometric patterns to a degree of complexity and sophistication previously unknown. These patterns exemplify the Islamic interest in repetition, symmetry and continuous generation of pattern. The superb assurance of the Islamic designers and architects is demonstrated by their masterful integration of geometry with such optical effects as the balancing of positive and negative areas, interlacing with fluid overlapping and under-passing strap work, and a skillful use of colour and tone values.
For contemporary artists tutored in the western model of art, the embrace of Islamic tradition is tantamount to opening up an alternative space where we see Muslim thought articulated with modern non-Islamic vocabulary. Sumaya Durrani’s art can be placed within this hybrid art practice which solicits the divine, not through the traditional Islamic art methodology of utility and beauty through symmetry and repetition, but in the prevalent language of art. This recourse to one’s roots spells a rejection of Eurocentrism, at least in thought, if not imagery (as yet), and a conscious effort to seek and own Islamic tradition as a means of understanding and elevating the state of the soul or qalb ki kayfiyaat.
Like artists, viewership here has also been weaned on the formula of modern art, and a change in sensibility is required for the assimilation of alternative practices. For an artist to achieve the goals set out during the creation of artwork, the viewer of the piece should experience the same passion, inspiration and spirituality felt by the artist during the creation of the piece — and such an accomplishment is, by definition, the origin and purpose of art.