Meet the Saudi artist who blends Islamic calligraphy with geometry
Gulf countries have a growing reputation as lovers and buyers of art, perhaps most clearly evidenced by the soon-to-open Abu Dhabi Louvre museum
Gulf countries have a growing reputation as lovers and buyers of art, perhaps most clearly evidenced by the soon-to-open Abu Dhabi Louvre museum.
However, people are often less aware of the thriving art scene in Saudi Arabia. While particularly strong in the western coastal city of Jeddah, the capital Riyadh also has its fair share of art galleries and studios.
Stepping through the doors of the Naila Gallery for the opening of Lulwah al-Homoud’s retrospective “Sublime,” there was a palpable energy in the air, with a vibrant mix of men and women, young and old, Saudi and non-Saudi.
Homoud is an artist, designer, curator, and founder of Dubai-based gallery and initiative Cube Arts.
Her work reframes traditional Islamic geometry and calligraphy using techniques such as silkscreen printing, painting and gilding.
Homoud considers herself an artist first - the labels ‘female’ and ‘Saudi’ are secondary. “I don’t see why it should be important to be female,” she told Al Arabiya English.
“I don’t like to segregate female or male. An artist is an artist, and that’s it. It’s about being a creative human being.
“Every woman has to develop what she has. It’s not about fame, it’s about being satisfied with your life and having meaning in it.
“I’m not the sort of person who likes people complaining, because if you’re busy doing things you won’t have time to complain.”
That ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude served her well when she was studying for her MA in visual communication design at Central St Martin’s in London.
“I did my research through interviews because I didn’t like what people wrote about Islamic art in books,” she says.
“I thought [Islamic art] wasn’t understood well, so I told my teachers, ‘I don’t like the references, I’ll interview scholars.’
“They told me I’d either get an excellent dissertation or a fail. I told them, ‘I’m going to do it.’ Did it work out in the end? Of course.”
One person she interviewed for her MA, whom she cites as a major influence on her work, is Lebanese artist and calligrapher Samir al-Sayegh.
Other influences include Dutch artist MC Escher, and 11th-century philosophers of Islamic civilization during the Abbasid period, when they developed new language and writing systems, as well as maths.
Other Arab artists to look out for at the moment, Homoud says, are Ismael al-Refaei (Syrian), Nja Mehdoui (Tunisian), Hazem el-Mestikawy (Egyptian) and Mohammed Syam (Saudi).
Speaking about why geometry and calligraphy are so central to classical Islamic art, she says: “I think it’s the only way to represent sophisticated ideas. If you look at Picasso, Matisse, Paul Klee, Mondrian, at the end of their lives when they became more spiritual, they went more to lines and shapes - they weren’t drawing people anymore.
“With the Islamic period, they started with the abstract because they were talking about the universe.
“It had to be abstract because it’s representing something spiritual. So the less comprehensive, the more depth in the work.”
Much of the “Sublime” exhibition focuses on Islamic or spiritual themes, the piece-de-resistance being “The Language of Existence,” a series of towering blue canvases featuring exploding silver geometric patterns, each of which is a graphical representation of one of the 99 Arabic names of God.
In another series, “Growing Cubes,” the pattern was formed out of angular calligraphic writing denoting the names of God.
“Art is spiritual, but when you’re not talking about yourself,” she says. “That’s why the exhibition is called ‘Sublime,’ because you’re somewhere higher than your inner self.
“It doesn’t speak about specific experiences, feelings or suffering. It talks about something bigger than us, about creation, about the creator.”
The cubes that feature so prominently in her work hold religious significance for the artist. They embody the Kaaba, the cuboid structure at the center of the Holy Mosque in Makkah, toward which Muslims worldwide face when they pray.
“The Kaaba is the center of so many things,” she says. “It’s the center of different civilizations."
Homoud talks keenly about reading and the search for knowledge. Some artists like to go to a particular place to find inspiration, but her artistic ideas often arrive when she reads a book.
“There are things I read that aren’t accepted very much here,” she says, “but it’s not about belief, it’s about opening up to knowledge, which was exactly what the Muslims used to do a long time ago. They never expelled or excluded anything.
“Knowledge was very important, and other people’s knowledge was very important. For example, when they created their geometric patterns, they used the Vedic square, which comes from northern India. This is what I like, opening up to knowledge.”
What is next for Homoud? “I’ll keep looking for and acquiring knowledge. I don’t know what comes out of that.
“For me, ‘The Language of Existence’ is my lifetime project. Whatever I do, I go back to it and do more.”