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Reviving Tradition, Rayhana K Haque

‘Reflecting upon the beauty, love and compassion of Allah, The Mighty and The Majestic. Drawing from His beautiful names, using art as a contemplative and therapeutic process, tool for serenity, tranquillity of heart, ultimately, attaining (Nafs Al-Raadiyah) a contented soul.

You trained as a counsellor but describe yourself as an artist at heart. How did your journey as an artist begin?

Although I trained as a counsellor, which I consider a privilege and an honour, my love for art began early on in my childhood. It was quite a profound moment, which I remember clearly to this day. I must’ve been about 5/6yrs old and we were living in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the time. I remember my maternal uncle who was visiting and he had painted a portrait of one of our neighbours. Seeing the picture beside the finished portrait was awe inspiring, I was captivated, trying to get my little head around how he created such an exact replica? I genuinely thought it was magic and in the most innocent way I made a little wish/prayer in my head to be able to do what he did when I grow up. This particular incident awoke something deep within me.

Growing up I spent my early childhood in Bangladesh, between Dhaka and Sylhet where my family is from. Staying in Bari (Village), in Sylhet for nearly 18months, I experienced rural life first hand. I remember seeing chickens kept in the backyard, jhonaki (fireflies) glowing in the evening, which we would catch between our palms then putting them in our pockets to make it glow. The period between mid morning prayers and late afternoon prayers were long so my paternal aunties (fufu) would sit on the floor of the long veranda extracting the gold silk from old Banarasi saree achals (borders) to use for embroidery, they would weave baskets from bamboo that grew on the same land, collected liquid from the rice for starching cotton Sarees. Picking fruits in late summer, sun drying and pickling them in mustard oil. I was totally entranced by it all, thought my elders were magicians and remained glued to their side, waiting patiently, jumping at the chance to participate at any opportunity and luckily, my aunties were very generous and indulged me often. It was such a beautiful, fascinating, rich, sensory exposure leaving an indelible impression on me. This fascination with creativity, craft continued throughout my formative years. Growing up in the 80s and 90’s in UK we didn’t have internet/smartphones, so one had to resort to a hobby or interest when children’s TV stopped broadcasting at 4:30pm. Having a father who was a tailor by profession and a perfectionist, he encouraged my siblings and I to preoccupy ourselves with reading or arts & crafts. My late father taught me how to sew and take proper measurements to make a dress. I used to love doodling and sketching as a hobby, getting to read my Fathers’ Reader’s Digest was a treat, I particularly loved the dad jokes section. Most of my doodling was just copying calligraphic fonts or landscape sceneries from magazines. Fast forward to adulthood, despite doing GCSE Art, the dream to become an artist was something I would have to wait for, as late as 2016/17. The flame and the love that was ignited during my early years burned slowly. Although I wasn’t actively engaged in any art throughout my adult life, my attachment to my wish/dream remained unchanged, my heart and soul always felt an affinity when viewing art, nature, Monet exhibition or the cartoons of Raphael in the V&A museum hence, I refer to myself as an ‘artist at heart’.

How did you find a specific connection to Islamic Art?

To quote Plato, “Beauty is the splendour of truth”. Beauty is very powerful and can move our soul to seek and chase pleasures. These pleasures can be satisfying our ego or a higher purpose. I have always been drawn to beauty, everyday magic, splendours of the world and environment around me. Fascination with colours, symmetry and harmony is innate within us; I feel it can be a way to travel deeper within our soul. Soul or (ruh) in Islam, was created upon truth, knowledge of God and His bounty. Wondering, reflecting on the shapes, colours of leaves, how varied they are despite being nourished by the same brown soil, is a quest for truth, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the vast miracles of life on earth. There are many ahadith (sayings) of the Prophet (SAW) that state,

“God has written beauty upon the face of all things” and

“One hour of contemplation is worth more than one year in prayers”.

Such profound and beautiful statements serve as a reminder to witnessing beauty, contemplating on of basic living reality can lead one to think of the cosmos. I get great relief from reading these statements. This association of beauty with God is sacred, redirects my intentions and purifies the act of engaging with beauty. This provides a spiritual frame, connecting Islamic art with seeking closeness with God.

As most Muslims would attest, learning to read and recite the Quran in Arabic is mandatory, which also contributed to falling in love with Islamic arts. I used to find the Quran covers and the Arabic letterforms beautiful. A little travelling to Morocco and Turkey introduced me to zellige and arabesque. This sealed the love for Islamic art. However, the world of Islamic art remained unreachable, a mystery. It wasn’t until end of 2017 that I was able to do an introductory course on Islamic geometry with Samira Mian and since then, I have been a seeker of demystifying the glorious world of Islamic patterns. It’s a leisurely pursuit of stolen moments but the rewards far outweigh the lack of opportunity.

Did you undergo any formal training or education to become an artist specialising in traditional artforms?

As mentioned earlier, I have had the good fortune to do many short courses with Princes School of Traditional Arts and The Art of Islamic Pattern, but not any formal education. The courses have all been different disciplines of Islamic Art such as calligraphy, geometry, biomorphic and illumination. Even though the courses are short, the skills I have gained are invaluable and have given me the necessary tools to build on my practice. I continue to apply skills such as analysing and constructing patterns that have basic geometry or biomorphic configuration.

Does your cultural heritage influence your practice?

I would say I try to draw inspiration from all aspects of my life be that on a physical, human level, or on a metaphysical level, dreams, khayaal (imagination, fantasy), visions and memories collected by a wandering soul traveling between the conscious and the unconscious realm. Having grown up in London, I have had the privilege of meeting and knowing people from a diverse range of backgrounds, cultures and communities. I believe this has enriched my life; I cherish encounters of people from all walks of life and enjoy exchanging shared themes and culture. As a Banlgadeshi, Asian, Muslim, female living in western society, I struggled with my identity, belonging, finding ‘home’. Although this was distressing at the time, I feel with age, I appreciate the wisdom of struggles and feel it has lead me to be empathic. I feel my psyche is painted with the beauty, love of the people, not to mention an array of artistic influences ranging from South Asian heritage, Caribbean, African, to Celtic, Gothic, Renaissance ornamental art. I love to use my collected childhood memories and sensory experiences for visual arts, such as Mughal/Persian patterns. However, I also love drawing classical architectural buildings of Florence/Rome inspired by Michelangelos’ sketches, Venetian master Canalettos’ perspective drawings, Gothic cathedrals, rose windows and flamboyant ornamental details from Roccoco, Baroque period.

There is a resonance with inanimate structures, geometric shapes and symmetry but equally with vegetative, floral vines. This resonance comes from deep within, it is sacred and I feel it is linked to the fascination with people, places, our differences and sameness, our shared humanity, brother/sisterhood. There is a vibration that is felt from way beyond, it’s ancestral, primordial. This again, is informed by the teachings of Islam and within the counselling field. Allah says in the Quran “Oh mankind, We have created you from a single male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may recognise each other. Indeed, the best among you is the most righteous” [Quran, chapter 43:13]

This resonance is strong and its presence beautifies my experience of connecting with kindred spirits, it helps to break barriers, removes tension, opens the heart to receive love and bear witness to the wonder of the invisible through the visible signs. Love of beauty, is described by Plotinus as a longing and nostalgia for the eternal. God is the eternal and ever living. According to Jungian depth psychology being creative is partaking in a divine way of being. The root word of creation comes from Latin; meaning ‘to bring into being or to form out of nothing’. The way I interpret these philosophies is that by being creative, one is seeking proximity with the Divine, heaven. This has set the premise for the way I draw inspiration for art.

What is your creative process like and what tools do you use?

Being God conscious is an important aspect of my daily endeavours and art is a component part of spirituality, worship or (ibadah). There was a time I believed art could not serve the purpose of worship but my understanding has evolved and I intend to incorporate this deliberately and intentionally, throughout my process as my journey develops. During my training as a therapist in a psycho spiritual model, the importance of (ibadah) was emphasised when sitting opposite a client. We were encouraged to perform (wudhu) abulution before a session, treating the therapy space as a communion with God as well as the client. It served to purify intention, orientate towards qibla (Makkah), treating the issues clients bought as a trust (amana), something they are entrusting me with, it’s precious, be gentle with it, don’t judge, approach with love. This teaching has remained with me, I try to hold the highest self when dealing with people, my own personal issues, pursuits, goals and incorporate it in my parenting philosophy (not an easy feat). Treating each interaction as an act of virtue helps to discipline the self. Early philosophers taught that virtue is twofold; the higher self must be oriented permanently towards the One, through philosophy and meditation, while the lower self must be subdued lest it interfere with the higher selfs’ contemplation, although not extinguished altogether. This is in sync with the teachings of Islam. I believe for me being engaged in art helps to perfect this struggle between the higher and lower self. Therefore, I take a long time before I commit to a pattern to complete. Quranic manuscripts/verses, scouring my collection of books, absorbing images from magazines I wait for the image/inspiration to emerge from my khayaal (imagination), where I believe treasures are buried, waiting to be discovered. All the while holding the original pattern in mind, making sure I don’t deviate from the authenticity of the style when I render the pattern. This is one of my favourite stages of creative process. Continually checking my intention and where the ‘self’ is throughout the full duration and completion of rendering a pattern. Having said that, sometimes I run with sudden, spur of the moment impulses and render patterns ad hoc too.

What stories do you hope to tell through your work?

The subjective, limited nature of our minds restricts us from fully perceiving another’s narrative, the viewers lens will only reflect according to their own experiences and encounters in life. To claim I can convey the divinity I feel when I engage with art would be delusional. At the least, I hope anyone who views my work feels the invitation to a spark, joy of life, that they notice my efforts to convey the beauty that courses through my psyche, that my art is explorative, fun and playful. I hope it makes the viewer wonder about my journey as an artist, be curious about the sources of inspiration for my work, which part of the self was at play when I created the work.

At the most, (might be asking for a lot and I say this with hesitation), I hope they experience what I experienced when I saw my uncles painting for the first time. Through art, I witness beauty and grandeur of creation, which is a mirror of The Creator, His Beauty. If any work of mine awakens, and evoke memory, dreams, wishes, moreover a reflective, meditative state, it would mean they have seen a quieter, shy, private, hidden part of me and have connected to a soul that has been woven with things that please the eyes, a soul that’s deeply in love with the beauty of Gods bounties on earth.

Your work has a contemporary aesthetic, how did you create this style?

I would say my art moves between traditional and contemporary art. Migration has been a common theme in my life and this is reflected in the way I fluctuate between styles, disciplines; I think this must come from not being stationary so there is a tendency to give a nod to my inner nomad. Perhaps this is why I struggle to commit (to a specific discipline). To create something by hand provides the greatest pleasures. So if I had to pick a discipline, it would have to be traditional arts because my deepest desire is to become a calligrapher. The science and transcendental quality of calligraphy reverberates on a higher plane. Out of all the branches of Islamic art, calligraphy is the highest form, it binds knowledge and penmanship to preserve, propagate, transmit and adorn sacred scriptures and spaces. I hope to be a part of the community by formally committing to the art. To me it’s the purest form of art therefore requires sincere commitment, devotion and grace. InshaAllah this path will be facilitated soon.

Drawing from your experience as a counsellor, do you use art as a tool for wellbeing and improving mental health?

Wellbeing is a broad concept and attainment of it is faceted. More and more research is showing evidence and creativities’ connection to wellbeing, neurological and mental health. A new field of art therapy is emerging as a result of the perceived connection. My relationship with art is a deeply personal one. I would say it is informed by my training as a counsellor as well as my experiences in life. The themes of healing, awareness, being human, and stillness, witnessing self, disciplining the soul are repeated within my creative practice. By undertaking the decision to honour the creative currents that run deep within has helped me to reawaken, embrace a new dawn, a rebirth. I found a way to connect to the exiled, neglected and forgotten parts of myself. I feel I am getting to know the young girl who had dreams, passions. With each piece I embark on reveals another layer of my inner world, a form of self archaeology, unfolding discovery towards self knowledge.

My religious sentiments pertain to the soul being endowed with knowledge of God and all things contained within His creation. It is our conditioning, life experiences that create veils, barriers, mist that covers this knowledge, forsaking us to disturbance, distress. Gaining knowledge of the soul liberates us to live a life of virtue and lessen distress. This is demonstrated by the following hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

“One who knows himself knows his Lord”.

Using art as a tool to learn a little bit more about myself, helps me to sit with my own and others’ imperfections better. Understanding human beings’ propensity to paradoxes, that we harbour a myriad of, emotions, characteristics, fears, shadows, secrets, we are nuanced and it’s all part of being human. Sitting with that, bearing witness is profound, it helps me to accept my most vulnerable way of being, I am able to see with the eyes of compassion, love, humility, and patience. Modernity is rushed, can be cruel, robbing us of peace. Engaging in art is the opposite of rushing, because intricate details are impossible to do in a hurry. This helps me to detach from the end goal, a slow weaning of quick fixes and instant gratification. It’s my feeble attempt at attaining a contained, wholesome and balanced approach to life. Integrating all the parts of self, learning to detach from worldly pursuits, seeking validation from creation, rather, moving towards a higher self and seeking validation, unity with The One, The Compassionate, (Al-Ahad, Al-Rahmaan). This introspection, inward strife, being a witness to psychomachia helps to perfect my character and acts as a purification of the soul, directing energy towards the light of God who is the source of eternal light.

For those looking to start a career as an artist, what advice would you give?

I am not sure if I am qualified to give any advice on art as a career as I don’t relate to art this way. However, what I would say to anyone who wishes to start their journey is follow your heart in the things that you love and what makes you feel alive. Even if you have a goal in mind, don’t let that stop you from being playful, explore all the elements and facets of the field that you are passionate about. It is not a random phenomenon that you love what you love, whether it’s writing, drawing geometric patterns or calligraphy. It comes from a place of knowing but we are not aware of it because it is below the threshold of our conscious awareness. As soon as you connect to this calling, the magic of it will become apparent and it will leave you with a sense of arrival, home. It’s so important to honour the deeper impulses, whether you are good at it or not, everything else will fall into place organically. I am a firm believer in this. Think of it this way, every time you engage with a piece of art you are filling the vessel of your inner container. It helps to reach the deeper reservoir that resides within, a sanctuary to draw from; it is a way to excavate new well to nourish a parched soul. To paraphrase Carl Jung “The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable”. To think, engaging with the creative impulse is one less debt to the imagination; otherwise we are plagued by it.

Which artist inspires you?

Doing short courses has introduced me to a lovely group of contemporaries, masters and craftspeople. It goes without saying that I admire and am inspired by the talented group of artist from around the world among this group. Their presence on social media helps to overcome inactivity, the ebb and flow of artists’ block and stay connected which I am grateful for. Along with my contemporaries, I have a tremendous amount of respect, love, admiration for the masters who continue to invest their time and efforts teaching, inspiring, guiding and supporting upcoming, aspiring artists like myself. They are key in keeping traditional art alive. Apart from their expertise and skillsmanship, I am inspired by their humility, generosity and depth of knowledge. During one of the course on basics of woodcarving, our teacher covered the philosophy of the craft, which was taught to him by his master. The masters hold a high regard for the material, environment, the eco system by interacting with it all in a reverential way. The students and master prepare long before undertaking the task with contemplation, stillness, being in state of harmony, equilibrium, respecting the source of the materials, using a steady, gentle approach. This resonated very much as it’s akin to prayer, acknowledging and recognising the sacredness of the gifts bestowed by God. This was immensely inspirational.

What has been the most memorable reaction to your work?

I feel very fortunate to have a space to post work on social media. It can be very exposing to post and share work. For me the piece that stands out (though its not my favourite) would be the shamsa from Sheikh Lotfollah mosque dome, from Isfahan, Iran. I think the roundel, mandala like shape and pattern appealed to a lot of people. I enjoyed every stage of the journey with this piece. It was one of the first zoom online courses that I completed; it took me over 60hours to complete. This pattern, colour palette synthesised my journey so far, it was very meditative, the closest to reaching a state of khushoo, somewhere between divine love, ecstasy, elation and intoxication that would fill hearts of whirling dervishes. It really was a delectable ride, a profound connection to divinity, which steered my heart and moistened my tongue with remembrance of God, by repeating His beautiful names. Al-Jamal, Al-Jalaal, Al-Raheem (The Beautiful, The Majestic, The Beneficient). My favourite pieces that I have worked on would be Ibn Bawwab and Sultan Uljaytu fronticepieces. Both of these combined took over 130 hours to complete. They include all the branches of Islamic art; geometry, calligraphy and illumination. Manuscript illumination harks back to my connection to the Quran and remains second favourite to calligraphy.

What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep the tradition alive?

I think due to Islamic art being rooted in classical, traditional methods, it goes through flourishing and receding periods, but I think this is common with art linked to civilisations. It seems to have something though that stood the test of time because almost a hundred years of post Ottoman era of suppression hasn’t managed to erase the art of calligraphy alhadulillah. In terms of awareness, accessibility and visibility, it’s very different from the days when I was growing up. Due to the internet, social media content, the community is connected and love to share knowledge therefore interest is continually growing. Having said that, I feel its presence is still limited to a niche, alternative, circle of individuals who are already inclined and have a keen interest in seeking classical, traditional, sacred art. My own journey began with a search on the internet for a calligraphy image to paint, I discovered Patterns in Islamic Art website, following that, Princes School of Traditional Arts, Art of Islamic Pattern which lead me to Samira Mian. I followed their journey for years before taking the plunge to do a course. It is encouraging to see new and emerging institutes such as Deen Arts Foundation, Script & Scribes producing masters in calligraphy, tezheep. They are working effortlessly to further develop accessibility and scholarship alhamdulillah. Even though, it is still very removed from mainstream educational settings in the west. I say this because I remember doing a calligraphy introduction for my sons schools RE project. It was received very well but his teacher had never heard, nor seen Arabic calligraphy before. Even saddening is Islamic civilisation, doesn’t feature anywhere near school curriculumn. I guess what I am wishing is this may be reconciled by building more awareness, visibility in wider spaces in future.

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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.


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