Marwan Bassiouni is a photographic artist based in Amsterdam. Growing up in the Western surroundings of Switzerland but regularly in touch with his Egyptian, American and Muslim roots, Marwan learned to see the world through multiple perspectives from an early age. He questioned local narratives in the West surrounding Arabic and Muslim culture, observing the mainstream media’s perceptions from a distance. As a consequence, his work focuses on the representation of Islam through an exploration of the documentary and formal qualities of the photographic medium.
We talked to Marwan about how his identity as a Muslim influences his work, experience of Islam in the West and the emotional impact of his work.
Image: New Dutch View #08, The Netherlands 2018. From the series New Dutch Views. 165 x 125 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
Why photography and what led you to that medium of artistic expression?
As a teenager I used to avidly write poetry up until I graduated from high school. When I discovered photography some 15 years ago I think that I wanted to approach photography similarly to the poetry. But without words.
Image: 17:15:38, November 11th 2020. Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
You explore your aspects of your heritage and identity through your work, why did you focus particularly on your faith as a Muslim?
I was looking for a way to make photographs with purpose and meaning as a Muslim. I also wanted to respond to the need I saw in my environment of presenting the religion from a different perspective. Growing up in Switzerland confronted me with different ideas and cliches that people had about Islam. When I was 15, 9/11 happened. This had a dramatic effect on all of us. And on the reputation of Islam. When I first began making work I hoped InshaAllah that I could contribute to a more truthful representation of the Muslim religion.
What has your experience of Islam in the Netherlands been in comparison to other places you have lived?
I used to live in Switzerland and over there it was more difficult to attend prayer in a mosque, to meet Muslim brothers or to find halal food. Here there are larger numbers of Muslims and it is quite easy to find such things in most of the cities. However, things are changing for the Islamic community in Switzerland. The community is growing and developing more. I see a lot happening within Muslim communities all across the West. There seems to be a lot more going on.
Image: 14:00:34, July 21st 2019. Pindos National Park, Greece. From the series Prayer Rug Selfies (2017–...). 44 x 44 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
New Dutch Views positions itself in the perspective of a Muslim who is looking at his country from inside mosques. How did the idea for the New Dutch Views series come to you?
The idea came about progressively. I photographed inside dozens of mosques with the intention of making an image that could question the Western perception of Islam. I hoped that the mosque would be a clear symbol for the religion. That was my starting point. Then, while photographing inside mosques one day I focused on the window and discovered something unexpected. That led me to making an image that would bring both the Dutch landscape and the inside of the mosque together in an image.
mage: New Dutch View #15, The Netherlands 2018. From the series New Dutch Views. 165 x 125 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
You’re not presenting these “views” as something alternative. Instead, they are Dutch. What was the thought process behind this and why was this series important for you to make?
Dutch mosques are built on Dutch soil, with Dutch bricks; Dutch architects design them and they combine a diversity of cultural and artistic influences. They are the product of a geography and a set of national building standards. Besides, despite having a variety of cultural backgrounds most of the people who attend these mosques are Dutch as well. They are born and raised here. I wanted to point out that Islam is universal and diverse. And today it is Dutch. Some people in Europe claim that Islam is foreign and that it does not belong here or that it is not compatible with Western values. I wanted the title of the series to point out that Islam is now part of the local culture.
The Netherlands is home to more than 400 mosques, how many did you photograph and do you plan on adding to the series in the future?
Between 2018 and 2019, I photographed 30 Dutch mosques for the New Dutch Views book and exhibition at Fotomuseum The Hague. And this summer, I began producing two new series New Dutch Views 2 and New Swiss Views. In order to depict the diversity of each national landscape and of the Islamic interiors I would like each of the series to include at least 50 mosques. However, I hope to continue making this work in other countries as well so that could mean hundreds of more photographs of mosques. InshaAllah.
Image: New Dutch View #10, The Netherlands 2018. From the series New Dutch Views. 165 x 125 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
How did you capture both the interior and exterior of the mosques so clearly in your photographs?
In order to have an image that is closer to the actual experience of being inside and looking outside I must push the technical limitations of the photographic technology. It is impossible to even come close to imitating the perfection of the human eye, however by making multiple photographs I try to offer a more realistic impression. The images are printed large-scale 165x125cm in order to to immerse viewers inside the actual spaces through the photographic prints.
Image: New Dutch Views exhibition view, Fotomuseum Den Haag, The Hague, 2019.
While working on New Dutch Views, you also started a more personal project, prayer rug selfies. What was the inspiration behind this?
With my mobile phone I began to document the surroundings in which I performed the five daily prayers during my studies in art academy. Praying outside of a private or Islamic space was something new for me at that time. One day, after I prayed I looked at my prayer rug laying on the ground of the studio space and it appeared as if I had stepped outside of myself, space and time. So I took out my phone and made a Prayer rug Selfie. I then continued to do repeat this process for several years. I enjoyed photographing without having the intention to photograph. You see, each photograph is not the result of an intention to photograph but a result of an intention to pray, inshaAllah. So this allowed me to follow what I see as an organic pattern in life without intervening. Although my approach may seem quite controlled, I look for things that are outside of my control to photograph.A form of pre-existing compositions. Prayer is a means to transcend space and time. The prophet Muhammad peace be upon him stated in a hadith that the world was created as a mosque. I feel that these images remind me of that and of the fact that one should always be in remembrance no matter where one is.
Image: 16:54:08, June 27th 2019. SBK Gallery & Kunstuitleen, Amsterdam, The Nether- lands. From the series Prayer Rug Selfies (2017–...). 44 x 44 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
There is a unique vulnerability in you sharing such an intimate spiritual moment before prayer. Why did you want to capture this moment?
I do not photograph the actual moment, I photograph just a few moments after the prayer has ended. This is a special time inshaAllah– one of brightness and tranquility. With time, after making hundreds of prayer rug selfies, I felt that something emerged from the series. The images seemed to embody an encounter between my faith and my everyday environments. Although, it is my carpet that I see in the pictures I hope that people can look at the images and be reminded of their own spiritual or religious experience. The series shows where a Muslim prays due to an absence of mosques and congregational prayers. Alone facing The Creator. Praying is everywhere “Everything in the Heavens and in the Earth glorifies Allah.” ( Al Isra: 41).
Image: 23:06:56, August 26th 2019. Dunkerque ferry terminal, Dunkerque, France. From the series Prayer Rug Selfies (2017–...)
What emotions do you feel when people interact with your work and what has been the most memorable?
People have reacted in different ways. Both in favor and against; and sometimes quite passionately. This is because of the very strong ideas some people have about Islam and religion in general. The most memorable moments were those when people expressed a sense of joy, tranquility or hope when seeing the work. Alhamdulilah.
Image: Prayer Rug Selfies exhibition view, Gallery Dürst Britt & Mayhew, The Hague, 2020. Installation photo by Gert Jan Van Rooij.
Why is collective representation important to you?
I believe that we are all coming from one soul and that we are all part of a collective. Without a purpose beyond my own self my relationships are superficial and my doings are superficial as well. In order to make work that can go beyond the self and the ego I must learn to be more sincere. I try to give this advice to myself.
Image: 15:55:58, September 11th 2019. University Hospitals of Geneva, Ge- neva, Switzerland.From the series Prayer Rug Selfies (2017–...)
Will you continue to explore Islam and Muslim identity in your work?
What is your dream project?
New Western Views which is the one I am working on right now. I hope that New Dutch Views and New Swiss Views are only the first chapters to the long term project of photographing the Western landscape from inside mosques in more countries such as the USA, the UK, Germany; France, Sweden, Denmark; Spain and possibly others.
Image: 22:27:23, March 12th 2020. Hôtel Paris La Villette, 19ème, Paris, France. From the series Prayer Rug Selfies (2017–...). 44 x 44 cm, pigment print mounted on dibond and framed.
What do you think of the potential of the future of photography in Islamic art?
During several years I wondered whether photography can be an Islamic art and I did a considerable amount of research about this question as well. My recent conclusion was that no. I do believe that photography has the potential to embody an Islamic spirit and bring benefit but I wouldn’t give it the label of an Islamic art. In my opinion, Islamic art is sacred due to its content. Without the Qu’ran I do not think there can be Islamic art. The recitation of the Qur’an, Islamic calligraphy and Islamic architecture contribute towards a sacred experience through the presence and remembrance of the Holy Quran. Through it we have a sacred experience. Photography on the other hand is a pure image that mirrors a part of the material appearance of the external world by recording traces of light. It is in its nature worldly whereas Islamic art is otherworldly. But this doesn’t mean that I do not see potential. I think the future of a Muslim practice of photography will depend on the sincerity and adab that we as Muslims show towards The Creator in combination with a mastery of the medium of photography. There is a lot to learn from the Islamic calligraphy artist who has traditionally questioned himself. With technique, it was humility, patience, dedication and contemplation that were considered the primary means to infuse work with a special presence and a beautiful realness.
For more information check out www.marwanbassiouni.com
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