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Living on a prayer

27th October 2014

GULF TIMES, By Anand Holla

Captivating geometric symbols replace the human form to represent the five postures of prayer.

Egyptian-born artist Ehab Mamdouh’s debut exhibition titled Muqeem – A mesmerising call to stillness – promises to be a far-reaching exercise in contemporary Islamic art in how it moves away from calligraphy and embraces the human figure to advance the dialogue.

Muqeem Series I opened Thursday and is on till December 12 at Riyadh’s Alāan (meaning Now) – the key contemporary forum, at the heart of the city’s emerging arts scene. The exhibition combines “a reverence for that which is spiritual and universal, though distinctly Islamic, with contemporary ideas about art that results in a thought-provoking and profoundly beautiful body of work.”

Signifying “stillness” or “settling the mind,” the title Muqeem is used by Mamdouh to suggest not the mere physical performance of prayer, but rather to express the idea of entering into prayer or ‘settling’ into the spiritual place of being before God. Therefore, the works can be interpreted as a call to press pause on chaos and conflict, appealing to both the religious and secular.

Interestingly, Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art is a great source of inspiration for Mamdouh’s works, according to Neama al-Sudairi, who is holding the show and who is also known to be Riyadh’s youngest and perhaps the most cutting-edge contemporary gallerist.

Mary Teeling, curator of the exhibition, explained, “Mamdouh’s entire life has been an immersion and exploration of the visual culture of Islamic art and architecture. Starting with the influence during his childhood of his mother who has an expertise in Islamic studies, Mamdouh has travelled the Middle East studying the great treasures of Islam, some of the finest of which are represented in Doha’s extraordinary museum collection.”

Apart from being influenced by his mother, Mamdouh was also inspired by ancient Egyptian art. While it had disappeared from the Egyptian scene during various periods of colonial occupation, that art returned with the liberation of Egypt from its external conquerors, manifesting itself in the work of such pioneering artists as painter Mahmoud Said and sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar.

The striking scale and the use of repetition in Mamdouh’s work create a deep impact, compelling pause and meditation. “The work reflects its birth in an environment of mass national prayer, shaping the rhythm of daily life. Although he has led most of his life in Saudi Arabia, Ehab Mamdouh is Egyptian-born, and influenced by this ancient pictographic heritage,” said the note to the exhibition.

Merging ancient and ultra-modern techniques, Mamdouh designs his work digitally. “The images are printed in Philadelphia’s acclaimed Silicon Fine Art Press, where velvety ink is applied to German-made Hahnemühle fine art paper. One outstanding piece features black figures surrounded by hand-applied gold leaf,” said the note to the exhibition that features 22 limited edition prints.

A film and video maker by profession, Mamdouh is a self-taught artist. What stands out is how Mamdouh’s prayer figures or ‘prayer vectors’ in Muqeem, represent a marked departure in the world of Contemporary Islamic Art, which usually employs contemporary forms of calligraphy as the artistic focus.

To understand why Mamdouh’s work is an exception, a glimpse into an essay written on his works by noted Saudi art historian Maha al-Senan, PhD, will help. “Mamdouh uses prayer as the symbol to represent himself in his art, though he uses it in a unique manner, employing both modern abstraction and the abstract art used by ancient Arabs to conceptualise God, religious arts, and symbols,” al-Senan writes.

Al-Senan further points out that Mamdouh artfully merges the five postures of prayer, within repetitive patterns of geometric designs derived from classical Islamic art, in order to portray one of the fundamental duties of the Muslim faith. Like all great art, Mamdouh’s work engages on several levels simultaneously: visually, emotionally, and intellectually, said Teeling.

“Mamdouh’s powerful and contemporary portrayal of the human figure in the five gestures of prayer in Islam has a clarity of vision and a pristine graphic beauty that engages the viewer no matter what’s one’s belief,” said Teeling, “Muslim and non-Muslim, and those with no faith background at all will appreciate this work.”

Alãan Artspace Events

Alaan (meaning “Now”) Artspace is Riyadh’s key contemporary forum, at the heart of the city’s emerging arts scene. As a proudly authentic Saudi style evolves, on its own terms, in Riyadh, Alaan Artspace fosters the city’s growing arts community through exhibitions, event programmes and an important arts library.

Our stunning exhibition space is deliberately set at street level, welcoming a relaxed, immersive experience. We seek to exhibit four shows a year, allowing the freedom to examine, contemplate and discuss each show in depth.

The gallery’s roster of resident artists has grown to include Ehab Mamdouh, Abdullah Al-Othman, Sarah Abu Abdallah and Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali.

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