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Sacred Heritage, Aziza Iqbal

Aziza Iqbal is an Indian visual artist, surface design and pattern specialist currently based in Doha, Qatar. Working with both traditional and digital media, she creates intricate patterns of varying styles. From geometric compositions, drawn and painted using classical tools and techniques, to vibrant, contemporary renditions of textile weaving patterns.

What was your journey to becoming an artist?

Growing up, I was always interested in art and crafts – and maths. I was the kid in class who was always doodling in textbooks and going the extra mile for every art project, but also enjoyed solving algebra problems in my spare time. Ironically, I failed geometry in my 9th grade (I blame the teacher).

When time came for college, I didn’t want to attend a fine art school because drawing and painting realistic art was something that I was not good at, not interested in improving, and not willing to suffer the mediocrity just for a degree. Unfortunately, at a conventional art school this is the foundation study, so instead I radically opted to go to an Economics and Accounting college instead, just like everyone else. Thankfully, during this time, I also stumbled upon graphic and computer aided design, which was quite new at the time. I did part-time courses, random internships in design, while still wading through my accounting and law classes.

Fast forward a decade as a full-time graphic designer, I still felt like a bit of a misfit because my style wasn’t conventional and I still struggled to find my own space. I’ve always had a strong inclination to maths, patterns and abstract art, but the local market I worked in didn’t offer many opportunities for that style of work. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this natural predisposition to abstract patterns and surface design was programmed in me as part of my artistic Islamic heritage.

I say this with tremendous gratitude that it was only when I moved to the UAE and then Qatar that I found my artistic voice. I received more commissions to produce the kind of work that I was actually interested in. One project leads to another, and I can now say – very gratefully – that all I do is draw patterns.

When did you discover an interest in this traditional sacred art form?

I didn’t have a single awakening moment, because the interest was always inherently there. The simplest answer to this is, because I identify as a muslim, I’ve always felt spiritually connected to the legacy of all Islamic art traditions. And, since I grew up in India, the inspiration was also all around me, thanks to the Mughal influence in the region. It’s just that the opportunities to practice it were rare at the time, but the connection to tradition was always present.

Do you think education is necessary for learning the art of Islamic geometry?

It depends on the quality and approach of the education. I personally find the term “self-taught” delusional and mildly dismissive. No one is self taught – we all learnt from somewhere or someone, may it be someone’s YouTube video or some pin you found on Pinterest. Credit should always be due when new skill is learnt. Besides, Islamic art study must have a dual approach: spiritual and practical, scientific and artistic, and often only one aspect is in focus. This is true even for geometry.

I do feel the professional study of Islamic art is essential and required for our times, as we do need this generation to carry forward the tradition. But, and this might be my own bias, I don’t believe having a masters degree makes one more or less qualified than someone with years of traditional experience in practicing the art form. Sometimes the old tradition of learning from the right master, a thorough transfer of knowledge, is all you need.

How have your travels to Andalusia, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and India impacted your creativity?

Travelling is always an enriching experience. But I strongly recommend it for anyone who considers themselves interested in Islamic patterns. For many, Islamic patterns are just surface design with limited creativity. But living in a Moroccan dar, or praying in a Mimar Sinan mosque, or visiting a Persian carpet workshop – this practical application of beauty – puts a whole new experience into the art. You can feel the serenity resonate with you, and finally able to see beyond “it’s just surface design”.

For me, the biggest impact that my travels had is learning from the humility of every artisan who worked on these gorgeous traditions. There is no name, no credit, no signature, no recognition of the artisan who worked his life for this craft. Because God is Beautiful and He Loves beauty, so there should be beauty. That is all. I consider myself the same – another pair of hands that is blessed and fortunate enough to create this art. There is a bigger picture and I am just a small tile in the tessellation.

What made you feel a connection to Mughal art and architecture?

As I grew up in India, I experienced the influence of the Mughal art first hand, so the connection is pretty much direct. When I started to learn Islamic geometry, I always had it in my mind that someday, I would focus on my own geographical inspiration. Also, not a lot is studied about Mughal geometry, in the light of the more advanced Moorish, Mamluk, Persian traditions. So I always felt like I wanted to look deeper into this and somehow make it my own little niche.

Which of your works you have created is your favourite and why?

This is always a tough call for any artist. But let’s say, if I had to delete everything from my website and keep just one project, it would be A Light Within. It’s not only a representation of my lifelong love of Mughal jaalis, but also a metaphor of the duality that I love and experience with Islamic art.

How does it feel having your work recognized in this way?

I feel extremely grateful for these opportunities, but everything in life is transient and I’m just one more artist who, like the millions of artists and craftspeople through history who created so many masterpieces, but have no names left behind. As I mentioned above, my experience of visiting these beautiful monuments built by anonymous hands, or watching artisans creating beautiful household items with such skill, grace and humility has impacted me tremendously. I strive for gratitude and humility as my first reflex.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to become an artist?

Theoretically, being an artist is simple: practice, learn, teach, repeat. But in the eye of social media, with instant gratification and easy access to an anonymous audience, things are less simple. It’s important to manage your ego but also maintain your identity. Develop the right attitude and always remain in the learning zone.

On the subject of social media, I’d like to add that it’s wonderful to learn from and be inspired by other artists, but remember that there’s a fine line between inspiration and outright copying. If you’ve replicated someone’s work to learn from it, that’s absolutely fine, but don’t post it on Instagram with the caption “Saturday Nite Shenanigans” or some such thing. Challenge yourself to learn and find your own voice, your own style. It’s so much more enriching that way.

Why do you think it is important to preserve traditional skills?

Art, like food, is a language that connects cultures and civilisations. There are traditional arts that travelled and are seen across continents – an example is Damascene metalwork, which connects Meknes in Morocco to Bidar in India. Suzani embroidery from Uzbekistan is also seen in Kashmir as Aari work. It’s absolutely essential to showcase and preserve these traditions – these are the simple things that unite humanity.

What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?

I’m not really equipped to anticipate a clear direction for Islamic art as a whole – but I’m happy to see more access to legitimate learning centres coming up across the world that teach not only traditional Islamic geometry but also other arts and craft forms. I hope this enables a whole new generation of artists to incorporate the beauty of Islamic art into more modern forms, while still respecting and showcasing the traditions.

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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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