Shaimaa Osman (who is more popularly known as Salam Sanctuary), is a Dutch-born North African Sudanese junior doctor and artist based in Devon. She is renowned for her creative and fresh approach to Islamic art through an exploration of maps, calligraphy and collage. We talk to Shaimaa about her unique approach to Islamic art, how travel inspires her creativity and reflections on art as a space for peace and contemplation.
Tell us a bit about you, how did you start your journey as an artist?
I spent most of my childhood painting and exploring the outdoors and nothing really changed as I grew up. Once I started studying art at the end of high school, I got a better understanding of the huge variety of practices within art. Those years solidified my path to balance my creative spirit with my medical aspirations. During my year out prior to University, I came across artists on instagram that practiced Arabic calligraphy and traditional Islamic art - it was the first time I realised there was a rich art heritage linked to my faith. I became fascinated instantly!
You have a deep interest and fascination with maps. Why maps?
My fascination with maps was an unexpected stumble! I instantly thought of a certain verse in the Quran when I found a beautiful map of the world in a bookshop a few years ago. With my background in thuluth Arabic calligraphy, I began playing with the idea of calligraphy on maps and globes instead of a canvas. Since then, I have been collecting maps to calligraphy and design on - from world maps, tidal charts to celestial charts. A map or chart of the sky can hold a lot of stories, some that we all relate to as humankind, but also many personal ones. I have become obsessed with exploring this concept of connection through maps. Also, I am quite aware that many people are practising the art of calligraphy, and I wanted to find my own niche within that world.
Where do you find the inspiration to create your works?
I build visual language by heading to exhibitions regularly and visiting places with rich Islamic history or heritage. Being in the medical field, I also make time to keep myself in creative circles. Meeting artists and photographers such as Peter Sanders, Siddiqa Jumma, Sandy Kurt and many other inspiring creatives motivate me to cultivate my own artistic presence. In 2019, I interned with Peter Gould and his team at Zillej, now called Gould Studio in Sydney. I travel far to stay inspired and educated.
How did you learn the sacred art of Islamic geometry?
I started going to geometry art courses about 7 years ago, online and in person. My highlights have been Art Summer School taught by Adam Williamson and Richard Henry, founders of Art of Islamic Pattern, and learning parquetry at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in Jeddah’s Historic District. I have also collected a bookshelf of helpful books which I reference when I create patterns. In 2018, I spent three weeks living solo in Albaicin, Granada to study Spanish and immerse myself into the geometric patterns. That trip was very pivotal for my creative presence as I began story-telling as a student of Islamic Art and would go on to travel solo and share my experiences.I feel like that was important for young women who share the same passions.
You are not only an amazing artist, you are also a doctor. You are a true hero and inspiration, working through the COVID 19 pandemic. How did that experience impact you and your creative practice?
Thank you for saying that - I don’t feel like a hero but I will say that working through the pandemic as a junior doctor was tough. I had only been qualified for 6 months. A lot of my medical training has been in those exceptional circumstances since. I was in survival mode, and like many other healthcare staff I worked longer shifts, broke bad news more often and saw many heart-breaking situations..
My art persona is called salamsanctuary and it became even more important during that time. Salam means peace, in Arabic. It is a name I came up with to represent striving for peace through creativity and discovery despite life’s adversity. I discovered my creative presence did not only mean creating artwork but also story-telling through social media and short films and sharing my outdoors adventures as someone who loves camping, hiking and taking inspiration from the sea and sky
Has your heritage and faith influenced your creative practice?
A huge part of my art journey actually stems from a faith search, I was learning more about Islam for myself and came across different forms of Islamic Art, that’s how I got started.
In terms of my heritage, I have recently connected a whole lot more and found that Sudanese people are such creative souls - it has motivated me to keep cultivating my presence. Back in 2018, I visited Khartoum with more focus to learn about the art scene there, Sudanese art is vibrant and a fusion of Arab, African and Islamic Art.
What impact do you hope your work has on people who encounter it?
I hope that my work inspires connection to God’s creation, to different people and places. I hope that my double life and story-telling motivates others to start their creative journeys also.
What do you think of the representation of Muslims in mainstream arts and culture organisations?
I think it is slowly evolving to better and more authentic representation, however I don’t think this is because we’re represented better by others but rather because Muslims are choosing to take up more space, especially on social media. The mindset of going into traditional professions is changing, and we are starting to see more Muslims and those with North African, Middle Eastern roots, succeed in the arts and culture industries.
The likes of tiktok and instagram are becoming a powerful tool for creatives year by year to reach new audiences and more Muslims have chosen to share their work on those platforms.
What is your dream project related to arts and culture?
There is a lot of room for exploration with my map concept. I would like to experiment with size and mediums to create calligraphy. I have always filmed whilst travelling and creating work in my art studio, I’d love to immerse myself in film and story-telling whilst collaborating with other creatives.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?
This question excites me! Firstly, I hope that traditional art practices are preserved. I see Islamic Art becoming a huge diverse space that a lot of artists, modern and contemporary, come under the banner of. The world of calligraphy has become a lot more digital, I recently saw NFT Islamic Art which is really interesting and something I’d love to learn more about.
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