Safoura is a Toronto-based, award-winning architect, artist, and design educator with diverse experience on projects in Canada and internationally. Her work operates at the intersection of art and architecture, where she explores geometry as a universal language of unity through merging traditional analogue design methods with contemporary technology and digital fabrication. Her interests in Islamic geometry have led her on a year-long journey of traveling across the Muslim world on a mission to expand her expertise through exposure to places, perspectives and techniques often overlooked in Western contemporary architectural discourse and design education.
We talk to Safoura about travelling the Muslim world, documenting sacred geometry, finding inspiration in traditional crafts and the future of Islamic art and architecture.
You have a desire and dedication to document the art of Islamic geometry. Can you tell us more about your project and why this is important to you?
I had an early exposure to Islamic geometry through family trips to my parent’s hometown of Isfahan, Iran. Isfahan is a focal point for admirers of Islamic architecture and geometry. My personal favourite was the dome in the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. I would get lost looking up into its dizzying golden-ratio pattern that seemed to flow endlessly – I was hooked from a young age. This pattern, like much of Islamic geometry, is an effort to represent the harmony of our universe. Not many art-forms have the universal impact of feeling ‘Unity’.
Throughout my Western education I found the rich history of arts, crafts and architecture of Islamic regions was largely missing. I had to create opportunities to learn about and develop expertise on this work and along the way have at times had to educate my educators. Through my travels I have learned that this history is also not as celebrated as I had hoped in Islamic regions. We have much to learn from this rich body of work and I hope to contribute towards reintroducing it and its underlying philosophy into the design and architectural discourse and education.
The first step is re-exposing it to the world! Which is what I decided to do by sharing my travels through @365daysofgeometry
Why did you choose to focus on Islamic geometry?
Islamic geometry is about reflecting multiplicity in ‘Unity’ and ‘Unity’ in multiplicity. Nature, the universe and our souls are both infinitely complex and at the same time one. Geometry as an artform is a visual reflection of this Islamic and universal philosophy.
The potential to use this universal design language as a reminder of Unity in an overwhelmingly disparate world is what draws me to it.
Unfortunately, today the spiritual art form of Islamic geometry is often reduced to a capitalist ‘branding’ for ‘Islamic Art’ and ‘Islamic Architecture’ with no understanding or reflection of the philosophy underlying it. I hope to address this and return to a design approach rooted in an understanding and application of Islamic philosophy.
What intrigues you about Islamic architecture?
Architecture is not just a structure but a reflection of the culture, people and society that created and lived through them over time. Monuments capture both an aesthetic moment and how a people lived and expected to live in the future. As a designer, the physical and visual elements of Islamic architectural monuments help transport and connect me to that history. I imagine the diverse number of people that may have occupied a space, built it, enjoyed it, experienced the bad and the good of life. Buildings hold rich stories from our ancestors and if we listen closely, we can learn from their wisdom.
How many countries have you visited to date?
To date, I have visited 26 countries. But I try not to look at travel in terms of the countries I have been to and must knock off my bucket list. A lesson I have learned through my travels is how beautifully aesthetic languages permeate borders, people, and cultures. As you move in space and time you can see the influence of one culture and aesthetic language on the other. Tracing the cross-pollination of ideas and techniques is often what gets me most excited!
Do you believe the preservation of Islamic architecture is important? Why do you think understanding our past helps our future?
The short answer is, yes! I believe all historic monuments should be celebrated and preserved. These are buildings that served humanity historically and can continue to do so by sharing lessons from the past. At the same time, it’s important to evolve and innovate from these lessons and look at our current needs and how we can develop contemporary art and architecture based on Islamic principles but in our contemporary context.
Which monuments related to Muslim heritage and Islamic history have the most impressive geometry?
There are impressive geometric patterns in monuments across Islamic regions and hard to name just one. Personally, I am always looking for examples of two-dimensional geometry brought into the third-dimension. Some of my favourite examples of this in historic monuments are Muqarnas structures, like the ones in the Nasrid Palaces of Alhambra or the Imam Mosque in Isfahan.
Can you share your most memorable travel experience?
The moments I cherish most are those I spent learning from craftspeople in each country. I’m always overwhelmed by their generosity and willingness to share their knowledge – one that seems to be increasingly overlooked and undervalued in our consumerist culture.
I often like to share work of other artisans I have met in these encounters. I love seeing the excitement that appears on artisans faces as I show them the work of someone from an entirely different part of the world doing related work to theirs but from a completely different angle. Once, I showed an 80-year old master wood carver specializing in dragon statues in Inami, Japan, a video of a wood carver in Fez, Morocco, working on a muqarnas-style table. His eyes lit up and he took my phone to show his colleagues. I truly cherish the exchange of inspiration between humans.
What are your thoughts on the inclusion of women in travel writing?
Interestingly, I started reading the recently published ‘Three Centuries of Travel Writing by Muslim Women’ during my travels. It was so insightful to read about traveling in the past from a Muslim female perspective as I visited many of the same places. Like the pilgrimage journey by ship from Iran to Mecca in 1890’s or a woman’s first commercial flight experience from India to USA in 1940’s. Reading all this while traveling really opened my eyes to how critical the inclusion of women’s voices in travel writing is and how much we still lack it.
Travel writing, especially in the Muslim world, remains from a predominantly male perspective and this needs to change. For us to build an inclusive and equitable world, we need to hear all perspectives and it starts with hearing out 50% of the world’s population, women! Organizations with publishing power need to start prioritizing and supporting the inclusion of the female perspective. To me, this is all part of reclaiming our narrative as Muslims in the world which extends to traveling as Muslims, in Muslim regions, and as Muslim females!
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like, what are the opportunities and potential?
The future of Islamic Arts looks promising – however, this hinges on a re-education about the history of Islamic Arts which will draw appreciation and value for work that continues to be made today. From there, we need to innovate, while staying true to the underlying philosophies, so this artistic legacy can sustain and flourish into the future! There’s so much inspiring work being produced and thanks to social media it’s easier than ever to discover established and emerging talent.
My personal sights are set on building bridges between the traditional crafts and contemporary digital fabrication! Stay tuned.
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