Foto: Walther Le Kon

Forgotten Enlightenments

Unknown stories about Islam in contemporary art

April 27 to August 4, 2019

All images: © HALLE 14, Walther Le Kon, 2019

Adel Abidin, Azadeh Akhlagi, Sarah Al-Abdali, Feriel Bendjama, Manaf Halbouni, Abdellah M. Hassak, Zarah Hussain, Soukaina Joual, Yara Mekawei, Mehreen Murtaza, Eko Nugroho, Erkan Özgen, Imran Qureshi, Anahita Razmi, Haythem Zakaria

Artist in Residence: Islam Shabana

 

Today, »Islam« and »enlightenment« seem to be in the greatest possible contradiction with one another. However, to demand that Islam must – as the Christian lands of the 18th century did – undertake a process of enlightenment, is to ignore history. However, to demand that Islam must – as the Christian lands of the 18th century did – undertake a process of enlightenment, is to ignore history. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, while witch burnings, heretics’ trials, book bannings and religious wars were taking place in Europe, the arts and sciences were flourishing in the Islamic world. In the 9th century, philosopher Abu Yusuf al-Kindi called for studying the ideas of other peoples. Polymaths like Abu Raihan al-Biruni and Ibn Sina (Latinised: Avicenna) spearheaded an »eastern Renaissance« in Central Asia 1000 years after Christ, established the principles of trigonometry and algebra, developed algorithms and astrolabes as well as the basis for modern medicine.

The rediscovery of the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle in Europe would have been unthinkable without Islamic libraries and scholars. Thus Raphael’s fresco »The School of Athens« pictures the Andalusian lawyer, doctor and influential commentator on Aristotle Ibn Rushd (Latinised: Averroes). According to Muhammad Sameer Murtaza, the West is indebted to Muslims not only for learning about the »Ancients« but also for the experimental spirit, which was still a foreign concept to the Greeks. The Quran itself calls for increasing knowledge through the observation of nature. Western modernity has benefited from the scientific achievements of these Aristotelian-rationalist currents of thought from Islam. It’s extent can hardly be overestimated, but over the centuries they became devalued, denied and invisible.

The Quran also calls for tolerance to society’s diversity. The basis of the pre-modern Muslim society was a »culture of ambiguity« (Thomas Bauer) that allowed Middle Eastern, Persian and Indian influences to combine. Legal theory made it possible for multiple settlements and legal principles to stand in parallel with each other. Commentators on the Quran and philosophers could present a multiplicity of interpretations and arguments without having to privilege one reading. Socially there were also several, more multifaceted role models available: »It was a society in which there was no mainstream, but rather niches, [...] in which Sufis could turn in their circles undisturbed while astronomers tried out new theories about the movements of the planets [...]«. (Frank Griffel)

In the wake of European imperialism and colonialism, Islamic societies have made considerable efforts to adapt to the European model of progress, modernization, industrialization and education – sometimes to the point of self-abnegation. Some Countries have cut themselves off from their own intellectual tradition and literature through the introduction of the Latin alphabet. In this sense, fundamentalist Islam is a child of modernity, rejecting the ambiguity of pre-modern Muslim societies just as it does Western modernization.

During times in which Islamism, populism and nationalism threaten equality and diversity, a new, 21st century project for an »exit from self-incurred immaturity« is not only urgent, but also vital. The goal is to map out the cultural connections between East and West in a millennia-long project of human enlightenment. What significance does the rich Islamic heritage have for artists from Muslim-majority countries or for artists with a Muslim background? Can classical forms such as ornament, mosaic, shadow theatre or miniature be interpreted in a contemporary way and expanded with new technologies such as video, computer and sound art? How do spiritualties such as those of Sufism connect with current aesthetic, societal and social issues? How do young artists defend themselves against despotism and the rhetoric of war, as well as against stereotypical role models of gender, origin and faith? 

Curators: Elham Khattab (Out of the Circle, Cairo) & Michael Arzt

 

 

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

ADEL ABIDIN

YA, 2019

Installation, 12 parts Inkjet auf Metall, Tape each 170 x 142 cm

Courtesy Galerie Tanit. Munich / Beyrouth

Shi’ism is the second largest religious branch within Islam, alongside Sun- ni’ism, and is characterised by the belief in infallible leaders who are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the dominant Twelver Shia, eleven of the Imams died in martyrdom long ago, while the Twelfth Imam, Mahdi, lives in seclusion. On the last day, the day of judgement, he will, according to belief, reveal himself as the Redeemer. In Adel Abidin’s country of origin, Iraq, posters of the Imams are popular; they hang on house walls and look down from billboards. In them, the name is preceded by a »Ya« that initiates wor- ship, translatable perhaps with »Oh«, as in »Oh God«.

In Shiite-dominated Iran, Abidin discovered painted depictions of the Imams that aroused his curiosity and led to the body of work titled »Ya«. This work revolves around worship and idols, whether individual or collective, freely chosen or traditional. Although imam translates as »role model«, the artist – currently living in Finland and Jordan – felt that the images as depicted appear far too similar to radiate something of their own that could be adequately admired. Rather, the unknown painter seems to have chosen the same basic figure as a model for the Imams and to have carried out the characterisation via attributes widely known to the target audience. Often, depending on the assessment of the prohibition of images, there is only a bright spot, rather than a face anyway.

Accordingly, Adel Abidin’s attention was especially attracted by the accesso- ries. The religious leaders are attributed with a feathered armour helmet (Imam Hussein), with a magnificent lion (Imam Ali, as the Lion of Allah), or with arrows (Imam Hassan’s pierced coffin). Abidin emphasises these additions by isolating them as excerpted representations em- bossed on metal. At the same time, the absence of the leaders raises questions about idols from yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Abidin presents the cut-outs in conspicuously unclean, provisional frames made of tape adhered directly to the wall. The twelfth frame remains empty; here too the hidden Imam pre- serves his secret identity. The visitor is free to think of idols of their own – pop cultural ones, for example, which the Imams themselves have long since become. Is the representation of the Imams much different from that of Michael Jackson? Sectarianism and fandom contribute much more to identity formation than lineage.

Consequently, Abidin’s second work in the exhibition is made of blank posters, printed only with adoration-evincing »Ya«. To which idol it assures discipleship is up to the visi tor. The choice is theirs.

Adel Abidin was born in 1973 in Baghdad, where he completed his art studies in 2000 and in Helsinki in 2005. He represented Finland in 2007 at the Venice Art Biennale with a fictitious travel agency for vacations in Iraq.

 

 

AZADEH AKHLAGHI

Tehran – Mahmoud Taleghani / 10 September 1979 (2012)
Tehran – Mirzadeh Eshghi / 3 July 1924 (2012)

Digital print on Hahnemühle paper, on Dibond

The power of media eyewitnesses is illustrated by the death of a young wo- man on the fringes of the »green revolution« against alleged manipulation of the 2009 presidential election in Tehran. Neda Agha-Soltan died of a gunshot wound while several smartphones were aimed at her. The recordings spread through the Internet and led US President Barack Obama to make a statement. For the artist Azadeh Akhlaghi, this sudden death raised the question of whether Iran’s history would have been different if there had been pictures of the deaths of important freedom fighters. This was the motivation for the photo series »By an Eye-Witness«.

The left-liberal cleric Mahmoud Taleghani died in the early hours of Sep- tember 10, 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution. The day before, as chairman of the expert committee on the re-cons- titution of Iran, he had been negotiating until late in the night. Then, the heavy smoker complained of chest pain. The 68-year-old was regarded as the bearer of hope for an enlightened Islam and drove the revolution forward, at the same time disapproving of religious dictatorship. The news of his death spread like a storm. While relatives paid their last respects, followers are said to have pressed against the house so violently that windows were broken.

Taleghani’s saying that a harshly imposed religion and forced veiling are worthless is often quoted. Supporters of a strict theocracy and the mandatory wearing of headscarves introduced in March 1979 were against such views. To this day, there is suspicion that the respected Ayatollah was poisoned. Without the tolerant jurist, the expert committee announced the introduction of the theocracy just two days later on September 12. In the image, the Ayatollah appears only as a portrait photo with a black ribbon. His painful absence seems deliberately staged in the scene. Kneeling women in black chador frame the tableau. In the background, grieving people press against the front window. At the bottom right of a window, a woman in a red headscarf catches the viewer’s eye and looks toward them. It is the artist herself, who has sneaked into the event as an eyewitness, much as the event has crept into her own life. Akhlaghi inscribed herself in every image in the series: sometimes her headscarf lies in the sand behind a shooting, sometimes she can be seen in a mirror.

Her second image is the murder of the publisher Mirzadeh Eshghi. In his newspaper, he repeatedly attacked Prime Minister Reza Khan and at the same time predicted that his legitimate journalism would cost him his life. Eshghi was only 31 years old.

Of the 17 deaths in the series, mostly political murders, there are no authentic photographs. The artist researched for three years before she – with a large team of helpers and her art historically-trained eye – attempted the re-enactment of the scenes that have settled in the unconscious of Iranians. »By an Eye-Witness« does memory work and raises questions of identity.

 

 

SARAH AL-ABDALI

Al Tabariyat, 2019

Installation

Jeddah, the second largest metropolis in Saudi Arabia, is located in the region of Hejaz. Home of Sarah Al-Abdali, it includes the two most important sites of Islam: Mecca and Medina. For the West, Saudi Arabia – more than any other Arab state – embodies the unacceptable side of Islam: an absolute monarchy in which human rights mean little and strict Sharia interpretations mean a great deal.

Early on, Al-Abdali was recognised internationally as one of the first street art protagonists in Saudi Arabia, with, for example, stencils that criticised the urbanisation of Mecca: skyscrapers instead of Kaaba. The spectrum of her artistic means of expression has since expanded. In London, she studied oriental handcraft techniques at the Prince's School of Traditional Arts. Her critical attitude has remained. Preserving almost forgotten Islamic traditional arts and returning to her own cultural identity are important foundations for her in helping to shape the future. The artist wants to transform the house built by her great-grandfather in the old city of Jeddah into a museum.

The woodwork in the object »Al Tabariyat« (2019) was created in a maker space in her hometown. On display is a nearly two-metre-high shrine with six windows, three of them barred and abandoned, three with noble female figures. Under their black-and-white headcoverings, colourful, ornamented clothes light up. The title refers to a family of the same name in Mecca who were highly educated and extremely charitable. From the 8th to the 18th centuries, many female family members enriched the sacred centre of Islam socially and economically by establishing charitable foundations, wells and schools. For example, the religious scholar Quraysh Al-Tabariya, who around 1600 taught many men and women, is considered to be a very influential historical figure in Mecca.

Sarah Al-Abdali has commemorated her as a significant representative of a female history of Islam, signifying that a generation is emerging in Saudi Arabia who are not satisfied with societal role restrictions.

 

 

FERIEL BENDJAMA

We, They & I, 2011

Lamba print on Alu-Dibond each 50 x 45 cm

Sometimes humour helps when, for example, societies that fancy themselves free and enlightened once again bitterly fight a dispute over headscarves. In her photo series »We, they and I« (2011), the Dresden-born artist Feriel Bendjama, who grew up partly in Algeria, performs three different perspectives on the veiled woman. From the Muslim perspective – a white scarf against a green background, the colour of Islam – the hijab wearer appears pious, pure, superior and educated. Opponents, in contrast, consider the veiled as oppressed, immature, imprisoned and silenced, transcribed visually by Bendjama as a black-and-white view. The wearers themselves enjoy the masquerade, deliberately position themselves, use or avoid sensual stimuli, and occasionally make fun of the irritations a garment can cause. This third perspective is visualised by the artist with a red scarf against a black background: vibrant with a pinch of the diabolical?

HALLE 14 presents a selection from theseries. »We, they and I« comprises twelve self-portraits with headscarves in total, arranged in three rows, each with four varying stagings. The two externally determined rows – the »we« and the »they« of the title – show Bendjama with downcast eyes, as, incidentally, the Koran also desires from women. In the third series, the »me«, the artist looks confrontational-open- ly towards the viewer. Here she is an active subject, no longer merely the object of dogmatic or prejudiced attributions from others. The work itself acts as an eye-opener, splitting a stereotyped topic into multiple perspectives. A headscarf can be many things. In 1978 women in Iran wore it in protest of the Shah’s oppression; only months later, they protested with heads uncovered against the headscarf requirement that had just been introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini. Paradox? By no means.

That even Feriel Bendjama sometimes runs out of humour, is hinted at in her exhibition »Blue Years« (2016), in which she sketches a dystopian Germany in the year 2026 in which a ruling party called »Abgründe für Deutschland« (Abysses for Germany) has enforced pure German residential areas and mandatory labelling for Muslims.

 

 

MANAF HALBOUNI

Arab Saxony, 2015, Map, Collection Bosslet
Battle of West, 2015 Map
Der General: I have a dream, 2017 , Yes, we can, 2017 Video, loop
What if, 2016, Video

April 1919. Great Britain. A Scottish servant pours tea while Arab and Ottoman colonialists discuss how European actors can best be played against each other. They agree: the ideal case is a dictator who can be controlled, the Tsar in Russia, for example. As long as they rule the market, he may play ruler over his people. On the British island, they face a more complicated situation. Here, the emissaries plan to support the Scottish Revolution until the English show themselves ready to negotiate and open their coveted market as a protectorate.

In rewriting history, Manaf Halbouni holds a mirror up to the West. In his work »What If« (since 2015), he lets the Industrial Revolution loose in the Arab world, with well-known consequences such as an insatiable hunger for raw materials, the capitalist imperative for growth and military superiority. What Western countries have actually done, he lets Europe experience in the imagination. In addition to the above-mentioned video, shot in 2017 in Scotland, the exhibition presents clips in which Halbouni, in the role of the battle-tested General Yusef Hadid, repeats two excerpts from political speeches that have entered the collective consciousness: Martin Luther King’s call for equality »I Have a Dream« and Barack Obama’s promise of social justice »Yes We Can«. Do they suddenly sound threatening?

The artist acts out the »liberation« of the Occident by means of antiquarian maps, which he redesigns with ink over- drawings according to his alternative historiography into »battle maps« with troop positions, front lines and attack plans. This is how a map of Saxon Switzerland turns into »The Arab Saxony«. Europe is divided between Arabs and Ottomans, the Saxon king submissive. Nevertheless, resisters on the Elbe supported by China are attempting an uprising that will be crushed by Yusef Hadid.

In an ongoing, years-long project of a series of reliefs, the artist uses Arabic words and expressions to create massive wall installations with reinforced concrete. Delicate, elaborate Islamic calligraphy appears here in the form of the landscapes of rubble into which many cities in the Middle East have been transformed. On exhibition is the saying »Al wakt kal Sayef« (Time is like a sword).

Manaf Halbouni, born in 1984 in Damascus, the son of German and Syrian parents, studied in his native city of Damascus and under Eberhard Bosslet in Dresden. He is not an artist who shuns confrontation, but rather goes where hate is unleashed. This can be seen in his »Monument« (2016) of three buses erected in front of the Dresden Frauenkirche. As a memorial, it was meant to build a bridge between Aleppo and the once bombed provincial capital, but was pushed to the background by the vociferous hostility of self-proclaimed patriots »against the Islamisation of the West«.

 

 

ABDELLAH M. HASSAK

Visible/Invisible, 2017

ZARAH HUSSAIN

Beauty of Abstraction, 2005

SOUKAINA JOUAL

I’m not So Innocent Anymore, 2015

Jail in my native land to freedom in exile, 2018, Neon

Halal, 2016, Light panel

Courtesy Le Cube, Rabat

The Arabic word »madhbuh« can be roughly translated as »slaughtered« and refers to animals that have been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic custom. The Moroccan media artist Soukaina Joual has engraved four standard, 20-centimetre long chef’s knives with variations of the verb, which read more like a massacre: he was slaughtered, she was slaughtered, they (men) were slaughtered, they (women) were slaughtered. The four knives hang one under the other on the wall and leave open who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. That the acts are religious is at least clear and is reflected in the title »Holy Knives« (2016). In Morocco, a dialectical meaning is added, where »madhbuh« can mean cheated and led astray.

Soukaina Joual was born in 1990 in Fez. When the rebellions against oppression in the Arab world broke loose at the end of 2010, she was just coming of age and confronted with upheavals that are now reflected in her artistic work. Dressed in a butcher’s apron in the video performance, »I’m not So Innocent Any- more« (2015), she cuts a piece of beef and pushes it through a grinder. Meat becomes a metaphor for the people who are sacrificed to nourish others. One thinks of the violent suppression of the Arabellion and that hardly anyone came out of it completely innocently.

The pictorial use of meat runs through further works. The wall installation »The Arab World« (2016) consists of 20 packaged pieces of meat, almost like those from the supermarket. Labels on the plastic wrap assign each of the dark red beef slices to an Arab country. Stickers certify the commodity to be Halal, »allowed«. This cartography of violence and defeat may reveal a quasi-cannibalistic threat to human interaction: peoples who have been led to the slaughterhouse.

The installation »Hanging Flags« (2016) points in a similar direction: 22 flags from Arab states hang side by side and lifeless from butchers’ hooks. As macabre as these works undoubtedly are, they also have a disarming sense of humour.

The neon sign »Halal« (2016) refers to an intercultural peculiarity: neon signs with this message can only be found in shop windows outside the Muslim world. Although Islamic regions are full of illuminated advertising, it goes without saying that goods are halal. Only in the diaspora does the sign make sense. The meaning shifts depending on cultural group and audience. Another blue neon sign eludes the local viewer for two reasons: it’s in Arabic and alludes to events in Morocco. It can be translated as »I prefer jail in my native land to freedom in exile«. It is a statement by the author Mohamed Choukri, whose autobiography »By Bread Alone« was banned for decades in his homeland, partly because of its description of homosexuality.

 

 

YARA MEKAWEI

 

 

MEHREEN MURTAZA

Transmissions From A Missing Satellite, 2013 / Installation

Mantiq of the Mantis, 2016 / Reading Room

Prohibited Enlightenment, 2019 / Installation

EKO NUGROHO

Melihat Dengan Hati Garden Full of Blooming Democracy #5, #10, #11, 2017

Acryl on Canvas

Courtesy Arndt Art Agency (A3), Berlin

ERKAN ÖZGEN

Wonderland, 2016

Video

The northern Syrian city of Kobanî is located directly on the border with Turkey. These circumstances turned the place, inhabited by around 50,000 Kurds, into a global news topic in autumn 2014. Here, from a safe distance, the fierce fight against the fundamentalist terrorist organisation Islamic State could be observed. For weeks they tried to take over the small town through military superiority. Erkan Özgen, who lives in the Turkish-Kurdish metropolis of Diyarbakır, but comes from the small Turkish border town of Derik, some 200 kilometres from Kobanî, does not separate his art – he originally studied painting – from being an activist, which he is as well.

In 2015, when Özgen heard from a family who had fled Kobanî and were staying in Derik, he started a clothing donation programme to help. He then met the 13-year-old Muhammad, who wanted to communicate with him, while many who had experienced the atrocities remained silent about their trauma. What was unusual was that Muhammed is deaf and does not speak. He has developed a very vivid body language whose expressive power exceeds words and is universally understandable as well. The activist in Özgen felt that the world must take note of Muhammads report, and the artist in Özgen quickly clarified whether he could make a video. He was allowed to.

Özgen extracted just four minutes from 40 minutes of material. Muhammed whirls around in a blue childrens shirt in front of the old, turquoise wall of a house. At the first, fleeting glance, his gestures appear like those of a boy playing. Soon, though, the drama becomes clear, and the brutality of what is described: heavy shelling, poison gas, untrustworthy passport controls, run- ning away, executions. Muhammed’s distorted expression reflects terror and torment, and the sounds he chooses bear witness to the nightmares he has lived through and which accompany him, even though he tries to shake them off.

Özgen's video with the confusing name »Wonderland« (2016) – something amusement parks are commonly called, or the name of the fantasy world in which Alice gets lost – testifies to the darkest side of Islam. Anyone who, as the Islamic State does, takes the traditions of the prophet Muhammad too unilaterally and too literally, legitimises the worst crimes in the name of God. The deaf boy Muhammed testifies to this more forcefully than anyone else can.

 

 

Imran Quereshi

 

 

ANAHITA RAZMI

Parties, 2018 / Installation, Video

Aaaaaaaaaaah, 2015 / Video

Reign Coat #1, #2, 2018 / Installation

Courtesy Carbon 12, Dubai

With a keen eye and gentle humour, Anahita Razmi draws her works from cross-border cultural overlaps between Occident and Orient. When the muezzin in Muslim countries invites the faithful to communal prayer, five times a day, one hears in his call – the adhan – a long, nasal »aaaaaaaaaaah«, which finally ends in an »Allah«. This is not just an appeal to visit the mosque, but also singing, and consequently a cultural performance. Although the prayer call may be a very serious matter, at this point it overlaps with the entertainment sector. Pop music, too, makes heavy use of the sung »ah«. Such vocal parts, cut out and edited together, alternating between sacred and pop-musical, form the soundtrack of Anahita Razmis video clip »Aaaaaaaaaaah«.

The visual image reinforces the cultural crossover. Two elements stand out against a dark background: a black sequined dress that could be interpret- ed as a western evening dress and two expressive hands. The dancer herself remains invisible. Her arms and hands perform dance movements, which in turn seem to oscillate between Western and Eastern expressions. The body, divined by means of the glittering dress, sways to the sung collage. Cultural interference lights up like the universe’s stars in the night sky.

The video »Parties« plays with the ambiguity of the English term »party«, again translated into Persian contexts. In the land of the public ban on dancing, a special form of two-handed finger snapping called Beshkan is extremely popular in exuberant celebrations and many other occasions. A guide to learning this technique of finger snapping forms one component of the video. The second component refers to the political landscape of Iran: Logos and banners of political parties and groups – contemporary and his- torical, legitimate religious ones as well as forbidden secular ones – light up in the rhythm of electronic sounds. »Parties« was created during a fellowship in London, where the artist also organised discussions on the future of Iran under the title »The Future State«.

Anahita Razmi’s third work in »Forgotten Enlightenments« also relies on a pun and a creative cultural misunderstanding. The title »Reign Coats« (2018), a new coinage based on »rain coats«, refers to the Japanese garment Jin-Baori, which samurai wore over their armour on special occasions. A precious 16th century Jin-Baori in Kyoto is made of silk, which presumably came to Japan via ancient trade routes from Persia and was more likely intendedto be a rug than a garment. Here, too, Razmi seizes the facts and bends them to their work. Based on the model from Kyoto, her Japanese coats for regents are made of Persian carpet silk. Therein lies a metaphor for the early influences of the Islamic world on even distant cultures.

In her intercultural border crossings, the media artist – born in Hamburg in 1981 – benefits from the fact that she has a Persian father and a German mother. Anahita Razmi completed her studies in Weimar with Christine Hill, Professor for Mode, Trend and Public Appearance, and in Stuttgart with Christian Jankow- ski, Professor for Video, Installation and Performance.

 

 

ISLAM SHABANA - Artist in Residence

Stop/Reverse/Loop/Speed: Notes on enlightenment, darkness, and hyper-technology, 2019

Installation

Islam Shabana has long been interested in alchemy and Sufism. »At that time, I believed that the knowledge of the past had been lost in our development, and there was a gap between ancient and modern knowledge« says the artist, who was invited to Leipzig for a three-month residency by the curators of the exhibition. When he visited one of the first Internet artists in Egypt – Kareem Lofty – in Berlin, Shabana learnt about enlightenment. Lofty convinced Shabana that the iPad is pure magic: although it consists almost completely of sand, it is still metaphysical. It can turn into knowledge, pictures and sounds and transport them to all, independent of time and space.

Since this experience, Shabana has chosen the digital as the vehicle of his art. For the project »C31S39« he worked together with the sound artist Amr Al Alamy. Shabana wrote an algorithm that transformed his brain waves directly into digital images via a headset. Viewers could watch live as Shabana's brain responded to Alamy's sounds.

»Stop/Reverse/Loop/Speed: Notes on enlightenment, darkness, and hyper-technology« is the artist’s manifesto-like reply to the exhibition theme. The dense text describes enlightenment and humanity as myths that obscure the view that machines have long since taken control of people. Like the political theory of accelerationism, Shabana locates the possibility of overcoming capitalism in accelerating technological development. Rebooting is only possible when the desperate cycle is destroyed by its own centrifugal forces. Shabana read the text at the exhibition opening under a flag that appeared inverted by a projection. Here the flags stand in for ideologies. »People always regard enlightenment and illumination as something good, as progress for society. For the terrorist organisation Islamic State, illumination means forcing the world into the Islamic Middle Ages through violence. Capitalism subordinates everything to the violence of automation. For Sufis, however, enlightenment is an internal process that must manifest itself in the world« explains Shabana.

 

 

HAYTHEM ZAKARIA

Dhikr, 2015

Installation

Courtesy La Boîte un lieu d‘art contemporain, Paris

The association of »the forgetful« reverberates in insan, the Arabic word for »man«. Insan comes from nasiya, which means »forgotten«. This primal human forgetfulness is a recurring theme in Islam. If there is one thing man should not forget, it is the names of the Lord.

»God has ninety-nine names, one less than a hundred. He who enumerates them will go to Paradise«, so said the Prophet Muhammad – although neither the exact number nor the promised reward should be taken too literally. What is certain is that there is a hierarchy in these attributes, including »The Ever-Forgiving«, »Master« or »The Beneficent«. They culminate in the hundredth name, which remains hidden to mortals. As a source of enlightenment, this hundredth name is a major topic for the Sufis, the mystics of Islam.

The visualization of God through meditations on his most beautiful names is called dhikr in Arabic (ceremony). Tools like prayer beads and dance are used as aids. Haythem Zakaria, born in 1983 in Tunisia and living in France, is inter- ested in an »alchemical« element in spiritual practice: making figures out of words. The Arabic Abjad numeral system uses letters as numbers. On this basis, adding the individual letters, Zakaria converted names into numbers. In this way he released hidden values, formed checksums: a rational approach to an irrational thing. The result was a code consisting of 99 blocks of numbers, the references of which escape the viewer. Additionally, the viewer is struck by a blank spot in the lower left. The artist uses mechanical hand counters to present the numbers: cheap products that appear expensive. The inspiration came from a part-time job.

He works in visitor services at the Musée d’Orsay, where he records guest flows with the meter in his hand and saw an analogy: Individual visitors turn into something more universal, click-by- click. At 45, Dhikr has the lowest value; the highest value word adds up to 1512. Between one visualization of a divine name and another, there are 1467 manual clicks. Laborious, value-generating work or blissful meditation? Capitalism or religion?

Another sculpture by the artist, not seen in the exhibition, consists of 99 ascending granite rods and bears the title »Sans Nom« – without name. When spoken, this is barely distinguishable from »Cent Nom» – one hundred names – which in turn refers to the blank space, the hundredth name. An early work of Persian literature, »The Conference of Birds« from the 12th century, already refers to the evocative relationship between names and numbers. In it, a bird people go in search of their king. In the end, those who persevere recognize that they themselves have been inscribed as numbers in the name of the king, which means »thirty birds.« Knowledge dwells in language, which in turn is inherent in the number.

 

Funded by

Gefördert durch die Kulturstiftung des Freistaates Sachsen. Diese Maßnahme wird mitfinanziert durch Steuermittel auf der Grundlage des von den Abgeordneten des Sächsischen Landtags beschlossenen Haushaltes.

In Cooperation with