Semitic Art London
Semitic Art London is the brainchild of Abbey, a British-born artist from Essex. Abbey grew up in a predominantly white, Christian and Jewish part of London (now changed over the last two decades), during which he had ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ ethics instilled into him, complimentary to an Islamic faith. His artwork is inspired by comparative religious narratives and parables spanning across the three Semitic faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Seeing patterns and connections from everyday life, he expresses common ideas through modern geometric design, in some sense re-inventing a tradition of textual illumination. Particularly influenced by Biblical and Qur'anic illumination and calligraphy, and incorporating various modern artistic sensibilities based on abstraction (such as Cubism), he considers his work to be akin to the 18th century iconography of William Blake, who sought to depict the often complex relationship between humankind and God.
For Abbey, such an enquiry is about broadly engaging an introspective critique of the nature of the ‘self’ and its liability to ‘impose’. He does not set out to impose or tell the audience what or how they should interpret from the text-as-image, rather it is for them to reflect upon his 'artistic portrayal of truths'
An important 'truth' that Abbey sees conveyed by his work is one of hope not hate, of tolerance and coexistence. He would argue that if God is able to afford choice and tolerance to those who deny the divine, allowing them access to everything in this world, then why do we as humans feel the need to deny humanity that same choice and tolerance? To quote from the Qur’an:
2:256 there is no compulsion in religion 10:99 had your Lord willed all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [Prophet] compel people to believe? 88:21 So [Prophet] warn them: your only task is to give warning, 88:22 you are not there to control them. 11:15 whoever desires the life of this world and its adornments - We fully repay them for their deeds therein, and they therein will not be deprived of anything they ask for during their worldly life.[The Holy Qur’an, a new translation by M.A.S Abdul Haleem, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0–19–283193–3. The Qur’an Saheeh International Translation edited by A.B al-Mehri, www.quranproject.org, Maktabah Booksellers and Publishers, United Kingdom, 2010, ISBN 978-0-9548665-4-9]
Thus 'coexistence', a reality created by God, becomes denied by the opposing forces of 'religion' and 'irreligion'. The mutual fear of each not knowing the other perpetuates a state of ignorance; this leads those in each camp to unwittingly hate that which they do not comprehend. But it is the key of wisdom which can unlock knowledge, an understanding to be sure, that allows us to appreciate our shared ethics and values, in place of emphasising our insignificant differences or personal subjective (often biased) opinions.
The process of creating
"When creating new artwork I have to fully inform myself of established and current scriptural reasoning, which I attain from theological, academic and practiced traditions across the globe. I then apply my artistic prism, resulting in multiple threads, towards visualising the completed image before it is realised. The ideas tend to come to me at the most unexpected of times and in the most unlikely of settings - settings often not religious."
Previous and upcoming exhibitions
Previous collaborative exhibitions included ‘Faith in the City’ at the Red Gallery, Shoreditch (December 2011), in which artists from different faith backgrounds united in a celebration of cultural diversity in the capital. The exhibition was part of the ‘Urban Dialogues’ project (organised and curated by the ‘Three Faiths Forum’ and its sponsors) which builds connections between artists of different faiths and beliefs, enabling them to use their art to promote social change and closer cooperation between communities. Future collaborative exhibitions are planned at The Brick Lane Gallery (London), as well as plans for a first solo exhibit, at The Gallery in Barking during Aug 2012.
Audience responses to artwork
"My work receives mixed reactions. The 'traditionalist' or 'literalists' tend to find my work overtly 'vulgar' and 'repugnant', insulting to religious sensitivities as it freely mixes religious texts and traditional calligraphy across the Semitic faiths. However, I was surprised by the overwhelming majority of critics who appreciated the advancement of my unique perspective by mixing scriptures and iconography. Maryian Greene, who is the Intercultural Educational Director at the V&A Museum in London, felt my work would be beneficial to school children who visit the museum on a regular basis, as it speaks of a shared humanity and coexistence instead of projecting dogma and differences. In short, it speaks of a common word between 'us' and 'you'.
Below are several pieces of Abbey’s art with descriptions of the ideas they represent according to their creator (please click through the folio in the top-right of this page to select and view images):
Heaven Heights Hell (calligraphic and square Kufic technique)
The residents of the heights (‘Al-A`raf’, the third dimension) are in transit, residing in a temporal location between heaven and hell, looking up and down both at inmates of Eden and Hell. Inmates will clearly see each other in all locations, but it seems those who enter the heights are likely to enter Paradise. The people of the heights neither did too many good deeds nor too many bad deeds, hence their scales measure sifr (zero). Such people could be similar to those who mix their good deeds with their bad deeds but admit their shortcomings and seek repentance from their Lord who is oft forgiving and most merciful. The only sin God does not forgive is the association of demi-gods in union to a godhead (‘polytheism’). But if God can forgive ‘Cain’ for murdering his brother ‘Abel’ and forgave Moses for killing a man ‘out of anger’, then there is hope for us all. In today’s society we are constantly reminded of heaven and hell, and the heights is overlooked. Thus we remain blissfully unaware of God’s mercy. We must keep in mind that there are also three types of people on the day of Judgement: those brought near to God (the best of the believers), those on the right (the ordinary believers), and those on the left (the disbelievers).
“Al-A`raf's residents are those whose good and bad deeds are equal, as Hudhayfah, Ibn `Abbas, Ibn Mas`ud and several of the Salaf and later generations said. Ibn Jarir recorded that Hudhayfah was asked about the people of Al-A`raf and he said, ’A people whose good and bad deeds are equal. Their evil deeds prevented them from qualifying to enter Paradise, and their good deeds qualified them to avoid the Fire. Therefore, they are stopped there on the wall until Allah judges them.’ ”
Tafheem al Qur’an & Tafsir Ibn Kathir
Garden of Eden
The notion of original sin comes from the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were expelled, but God forgave them and asked them to spend a while down here on earth. Ever since then, we (the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve) are trying to find our way back into the Garden, in order to seek God’s pleasure. The righteous will reside in gardens with spring. The Garden of Eden is a story I am trying to convey in this artwork. From a surrealist point of view, it could be argued that we are all in some way trying to express our own unconscious ideas of Eden through gardening. The Hebrew clarifies the Garden of Eden and the flowers are from the garden watered by its stream. The word ‘hand’ is typed using Arabic (but can also be understood in Urdu). God has the whole world in his hands as the Qur’an describes metaphorically that God will clasp the entire universe into his right hand. Yet for me, the overriding question will still remain, how did 'evil' enter the heavenly immortal garden of Eden? Does 'evil' need to exist in order for 'good' to occur?
Wisdom in Hebrew & Arabic
Wisdom - ‘حكمة hikma’ (Arabic), ‘חכמה hokmah’ (Aramaic/Hebrew) - is the Key that unlocks Knowledge - ‘ידע’ yeda (Hebrew) and ‘علم’ ilm (Arabic – specifically all systematic knowledge, religious and scientific/’secular’). Prophets of God had to acquire Wisdom from Knowledge; only the latter was given, even in the case of Adam whom God taught the names of things which the angels were not aware of. Knowledge is redundant if it brings no Wisdom, akin to a donkey with books ladened upon its back.
The Four Quls
Surah Kafiroon, Surah Ikhlas, Surah Falaq and Surah Nas. These four chapters are very small in verse, but very powerful in nature. Each starts with letter quaaf, thus the verses are called the four ‘Quls’.
Surah Kafiroon clarifies that with those who believe in different Gods to those in Islam, the Muslims have 'agreed to disagree' and have shown tolerance in matters pertaining to theological differences. A trait which is sadly lacking within the Islamic diaspora of modern times.
Surah Ikhlas is unusual in having as its title a term not mentioned in the body of the Surah. Ikhlas conveys the sincerity in one’s religion and total dedication to the One true God. Because of the importance of this theme in Islam, the Prophet said that this Surah, despite its brevity, was equal to one-third of the Qur’an. Say [Prophet], ‘He is God the One, God the eternal. He begot no one nor was He begotten. No one is comparable to Him.’
Surah Falaq is a Meccan Surah used as an invocation against 'evil'. Say [Prophet], 'I seek refuge with the Lord of daybreak against the harm in what God has created, the harm in the night when darkness gathers, the harm in witches when they blow on knots, the harm in the envier when he envies.'
Surah Nas is another Meccan Surah commonly used as an invocation against 'evil'. Say [Prophet], 'I seek refuge with the Lord of people, the Controller of people, the God of people, against the harm of the slinking whisperer – who whispers into the hearts of people – whether they be jinn or people.'
Wasiyyah (a Testimony or Legacy)
The message is simple and self-explanatory. The Wasiyyah was engraved onto the hilt of the sword of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), which was later given to Ali (RA) the cousin of Muhammed (PBUH). These are three important axioms of faith that we must all remember in our daily lives.
“Keep relations with those who cut you off.”
Muhammed (PBUH) was known by his enemies as ‘Abtar’ (when the Prophet lost his last son, an opponent who hated him taunted him with being ‘cut off’ without posterity. This Meccan Surah comes to reassure the Prophet and as a retort to his enemy). Even his own tribe (the Quraysh) had disowned him and wanted him gone from Arabia, or worse killed. Converts to Islam, on the whole, tend to cut off relations with their own families, who are non-Muslims. Rather it is preferred that Muslims remain civil to parents even if they are not of faith or a different faith: lessons which we can learn from Abraham.
"Do good to people even if they harm you."
This is essential reiterating of what the Qur’an informs us: to love your enemy for one day your enemy may become the greatest follower of Islam. The story of Umar, the second Caliph of Islam after the death of Muhammed (PBUH), explains. Umar set out in the morning intent on killing the final messenger of God, only later to embrace him and Islam, after he came across his sister on the way to Muhammed (PBUH).
"Speak the truth even if it be against yourself."
This emphasises that power is easily corrupting by its very nature; even the best of leaders can become corrupted by power. With power comes great responsibility, so use your power to judge between people wisely and fairly, and with Justice. An analogy could be taken in the sword itself: just as the sword is ‘bent’, a leader can become 'crooked'.
Random Square Kufic Icon
This signifies the random nature (or ordered-chaos) of the universe, comprising ‘Dark matter’, ‘Dark flow’ and ‘Dark light’. There is thus the notion that another entity or creation of God possibly uses this ‘Dark’ prefix as a medium and means of transport within a ‘parallel existence’. As humans, there are things we can ‘see’ and things we cannot with the naked eye. Within this artwork you either see it for what it is or you see something that is not there; although it has structure and form it is still by nature random and not comprehensible as any one word.
More about Abbey
Abbey is descended from Sunni Muslim South Asian parents who came to the UK as refugees. His mother, whose father worked for the Nawab of Kanpur (India), was escorted at the age of nine during the middle of the night to Lahore (Pakistan), and later became an Urdu and Farsi language teacher at University. His father was born and raised in the British colony of Uganda in East Africa, working as a teacher at the Shia Ismailia Aga Khan School from 1960to 1965. Anticipating a mass exodus of Ugandan-Asians due to the harsh economic war and persecution being waged by Idi Amin, he finally left for London in 1970.
Abbey has studied Islamic Art & Architecture under Prof Peter Morgan at Oxford University and has spent time learning various calligraphic styles whilst in the Middle East. He practices as a graphic designer, artist and photographer.
Related to his artistic pursuits he also participates in ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ discussions and debates at the Faculty of Divinity, Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge. These seek to study Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures more analytically within current and future paradigms.
Abbey, like his parents, does not believe in 'sectarianism' in matters pertaining to faith (such as of Shia and Sunni in Islam, but also of the three divided Semitic faiths); he sees all humans as either 'believers' or 'non-believers'. And then, it is only up to God to Judge; not humans who, in usurping this position, perpetuate 'sectarian' divisions.