Born and bred Londoner, Moazzam Malik was British Ambassador to Indonesia, ASEAN and Timor-Leste from 2014 to 2019. He then served as Director General in the UK Department for International Development and subsequently Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office from 2019 to 2022.
Prior to his appointment as Ambassador, Moazzam held a range of senior roles in HM Government including overseeing the UK’s engagement in the Middle East, Western Asia and led the UK relationship with multilateral organisations.
We talk to Moazzam all things culture, heritage and tradition.
You have undertaken many official representative roles for the British Government across the world, has this given you an opportunity to experience a wide diversity of arts and cultures?
Yes I have had the opportunity to experience arts and cultures across many countries on my travels both official as a civil servant and diplomat with the British government and also in my personal life. I like to collect hats from my travels (photo with some of my collection on the wall).
You have worked in Africa, across Western Asia and South Asia. Did you have an opportunity to travel and discover any of the Islamic heritage and architecture?
I always try to attend Friday prayers when I'm in a new country, to enjoy the architecture and ambience that is different to my home in London. For example I recently prayed at a beachside mosque in Dakar Senegal which is run by one of Senegal's largest religious orders. You can only enter the mosque wearing traditional white Senegalese robes I was lucky enough to be able to borrow from a friend.
What has been the most memorable cultural experience you have had?
I have had many memorable experiences, it is difficult to think of one that is the most memorable. But three years ago we went to Konya in Turkey and witnessed the sema ceremony in the shadow of the mausoleum of Maulana Rumi . That was deeply moving. To see his writings and personal effects dating from the 1200s preserved so beautifully really brought to life the continuing immediacy and relevance of his teachings.
Most recently you were British Ambassador to Indonesia, did you have an opportunity to engage with the arts, culture, and heritage? Did you find any connection to the local culture?
In Indonesia I was privileged to experience its arts culture and heritage across its many diverse communities. I was lucky enough to learn to speak bahasa Indonesia before I went and therefore was able to make many connections. I found deep cultural affinity in that, as in South Asia, Islam arrived in the archipelago in a Hindu and Buddhist context.
What were your thoughts on the preservation of Islamic art and heritage in Indonesia?
In my experience many Muslim countries are are struggling to preserve their art and heritage in the dash for modernity. This is true in Indonesia too though many culturally important aspects such as batik and music for example are hugely valued.
Did you encounter any contemporary Islamic Indonesian artists?
We came across many Indonesian artists, many rooted in the Islamic heritage. I loved the work of Indonesia's most famous painters, Affandi. He built his own museum to house many of his art works in Yogyakarta. It is a wonderful place to visit, an oasis in Indonesia's cultural capital. I also loved the sculpture of Deolorosa Sinagha (a Batak Christian) - we bought two wonderful contemporary statues by one of her students, Budi Santoso (photos, 'In the night, there is a prayer' and 'A Child's Story"). We encountered many artists at exhibitions in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. Through our Indonesian Australian friend, Warwick Purser (a great champion of Indonesian arts and craft), we met young artists exploring what it means to be Indonesian in the modern world. One of those was a young Afghan, Amin Taasha, who had sought refuge and married local Javanese woman and was painting and collaging, mixing his Afghan heritage with Indonesian experiences (photo, 'Untitled'). We also became friends with Nyoman Nuarta (a Balinese origin sculptor now settled in predominantly Muslim West Java), who has become internationally renowned for his masterpieces. His gallery in Bandung is simply stunning.
Islam is culturally and ethnically diverse, in an ever-increasing globalized world, what are your thoughts on preservation of traditional arts as a means to preserve local cultures and identity?
I think it is hugely important to preserve, celebrate and learn from arts, reflecting the diversity of the Muslim world. The richness, creativity and reflectiveness embodied there has has the potential to inspire us as we navigate our futures in a globalised and uncertain world.
Do you think the arts have the potential to bring about social change?
I do believe that arts have the potential to bring about social change. Artists expressing themselves in paint, in music, in words can help us to feel and experience and find meaning in our lives.
Who are your favourite artists?
I love cities and I love music. And so perhaps my favourite artists are the architects who designed and built the stunning mosques and gorgeous interiors of Istanbul; and musicians like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who brought to life the poetry and wisdom of writers like Ghalib, Khusro, and Faiz.
Which book has had a profound impact on you?
My favourite book is 'A Family Matters' by Rohinton Mistry. It's a set in Bombay and tells the story of a Parsi family navigating differences and modernity across the generations. I've also enjoyed contemporary writing by Elif Shafak, Vikram Seth, and Pakistan's famous short story writer Manto.
What are your thoughts on the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture?
I hope that Islamic art, heritage and culture will flourish over the coming years. The diversity, depth and richness of more than a billion people needs to come to the fore and help us make connections, find grounding and togetherness, to celebrate all the blessings that we have, and to make sense of the challenges that we face as Muslims and as humans.
For more information check follow @moazzamtmalik on Twitter
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