Known for her ingenious use of colour and mastery of geometry, Esra Alhamal is a Saudi artist, researcher and podcaster based in London. Not only does she create breathtaking artworks, Esra is a popular art and travel blogger, creating content to share her journey into the world of Islamic pattern to help inspire others to do the same. We talked to Esra about her current projects, aspirations, teaching and more.
Can you tell us about your journey as an artist? Why did you want to pursue art as a professional career?
I studied interior design for my BA and then interior architecture for my MA, my plan then was to graduate and work as a design lecturer, but during my final project in the MA, I started exploring Islamic art and architecture and that altered my career choices. After a few years of learning more about the various types of Islamic arts, I felt very connected and inspired by it and it became my main focus and lead me to a professional career.
Why did you create the lslamic Illumination platform and what do you hope to achieve from it?
At first, it was a platform to share summaries of the workshops and tutorials I was learning. When I started there was hardly anything about islamic illumination online and my instagram audience was curious. So, I didn't really have a plan or specific goals that I wanted to achieve, it was a website to share lessons and art. However, the platform grew to become an educational website with workshops, tool and book recommendations and an art shop. Currently, it is a great resource for anyone that wants to start learning about this art and for my students to learn and be supported.
Does your Arab / Saudi cultural heritage influence your artistry?
I am mostly influenced by Turkish and Persian art rather than Arab or Saudi culture. I feel like my work relates more to the collective Islamic identity rather than any specific culture.
How does your work experiment and reinterpret traditional practices in contemporary ways?
The traditional aspect is my starting point when I am doing my artwork, but then I let the work itself take me to a new direction. I really enjoy experimenting with various ideas like using unusual colours that are not typically used in Islamic traditional arts. It is an area I am still working on and I have so many ways in my head to push the boundaries further.
It Matters 2018, Esra Alhamal, Mixed media including shell gold and natural pigments
You are completing a PhD in Islamic biomorphic patterns, what can you tell us more about your subject of study and why did you choose to specialize in this?
My PhD is about the Safavid biomorphic patterns in ceramics that are typically present in mosques and interior spaces. It is a really interesting process researching for a PhD because when I started I just wanted to tackle all Islamic biomorphic patterns, but then I had to be extremely specific and narrow down the search to only one Islamic period, one geographical location and one style. The reason why I chose biomorphic patterns is because I really enjoy them. The organic motion and the motifs are the most beautiful in my eyes and I wanted to spend the five years of the degree diving deeply in them. It is such a privilege, and I am very thankful I got to do it.
Inwards and Upwards 2018, Esra Alhamal, Mixed media including shell gold and natural pigments
The Art Illuminated Podcast is AMAZING! Why did you start the podcast and what have you learnt from podcasting that has influenced your work as an artist?
Thank you so much! I absolutely enjoy talking to other artists and I have lots of these wonderful conversations in my life and I thought these shouldn't be just for me, these chats need to be shared with the world. I also wanted to solidify the importance of traditional practice and how it impacts our contemporary work. Another focus point for the podcast is to feature artists from South West Asia and North Africa, which includes the Arab world and beyond. These artists are not always featured and their work is so valuable, so the podcast helps me shed the light on their talents. I am so pleased to have three seasons of it live and I am planning on the fourth season soon.
I guess speaking to artists has taught me that every artist is unique and that the creative process is free flowing, which has definitely boosted my confidence as an artist. I also get great energy from these chats and I always want to make art works afterwards.
Through Bristle and Brush you make and sell natural and plastic-free watercolours. Can you talk us through the process of making natural pigments and why you started this service?
Making watercolours is not a difficult process, it is basically a mixture of pigment and a medium. However, mixing the two is very laborious and time intensive, but I find it very meditative and enjoyable.
I first started to make my own watercolours, but then my students wanted to try some and my husband and I thought we should start a business doing it! I have various ranges and collections such as the Latin Terra that is made with natural Earth from France and Italy and Travel Slow that is made from natural pigments from all over the world. I also added a modern illumination set, which is mainly created for my students and it includes the gold lustre and the other colours that are needed to complete a lovely illumination.
The plastic-free aspect is so important to us especially with the rapid decline of our ecosystem. There are so many considerations that we try to take throughout to make sure that our business is as sustainable as we could from sourcing ethical materials to reducing the amount of international imports.
You also teach both online and offline, what has been your most memorable moments teaching Islamic artistry?
I can't recall one specific moment, but I really love seeing my students look at their own completed design with such love and admiration to the work that they have done. Being able to transmit knowledge and to see the outcome is true joy.
What are you most proud of achieving in your career as an artist to date?
Being able to live from my art without the need for external non-art related work. I wasn't sure that could be possible. We always hear the narrative of the "broke artist", so to be able to do what I love for a living and not be constrained to the 9-5 race is an achievement I am very proud of. I am not sure if it will sustain me for the rest of my life, but it is doing it for now and I am so grateful. Alhamdilah.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to learn more about Islamic art and practice as an artist?
Research! Honestly researching anything that you are interested in is a big step towards doing anything. Reading books is so underrated as well. There are so many books filled with knowledge, like the ones I recommend on: https://www.islamicillumination.com/blog/books-for-islamic-art-and-patterns - I personally enjoy learning through a workshop or a course, so I would highly encourage you to attend one. My biomorphic pattern monthly series is great for beginners: https://www.islamicillumination.com/shop/online-biomorphic-drawing-and-painting-workshop
or there are plenty of recorded courses that I have available: https://www.islamicillumination.com/learn and if you aren't sure which one to take you can read this post: https://www.islamicillumination.com/blog/Islamic-art-courses-and-workshops
What is the potential for Islamic art in the future, and what do you think we can do collectively to see it flourish?
Learning about Islamic art and knowing our own beautiful heritage is so needed in a world filled with Islamophobia. Islam, Muslims and the Muslim world is filled with beauty that is displayed in our art and architecture, so learning and practicing are the way forward.
For more information check out https://www.islamicillumination.com/
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.