New ‘House of Light’ uses Islamic geometry to promote cultural understanding

A student on the Journey into Islamic Pattern course, Fatima Al Marzouqi
A student on the Bayt Al Qindeel-organised course in Abu Dhabi (Fatima Al Marzouki/The National)

“If people who can’t dance have two left feet, when it comes to drawing, I have two left hands.” Manal Hamid’s introduction may be self-effacing, but as an icebreaker, her comment is spot on. A ripple of laughter spreads around the gilded meeting room at the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara and the 18-strong group – which includes professional artists, designers, teachers, students, and full-time mums – relaxes as the introductions proceed. They have gathered for A Journey into Islamic Pattern, a five-day introductory course in Islamic geometrical design, and the drawing pads, pencils, scale rules, and compasses stacked neatly at each seat act as a clear and slightly daunting indicator of what is to come.

Richard Henry, one of the founders of The Art of Islamic Pattern a school in East London dedicated to the geometrical arts of Islam (image: TAoIP)

Adam Williamson an award-winning sculptor, and Richard Henry, an artist, teacher and geometer, deliver the course. Both are alumni of the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London, an international centre of excellence in the practice of traditional Islamic arts, and both are former students of the renowned architect and thinker Keith Critchlow, one of the world’s foremost experts in sacred geometry. The pair met eight years ago while teaching on the British Museum’s World Arts and Artefacts program in London and now run their own school, The Art of Islamic Pattern from Williamson’s studio in London’s East End.

Adam Williamson, an award-winning sculptor and co-founder of The Art of Islamic Pattern, executing free-hand Islimi work (Arabesque) (image: TAoIP)

Dressed in a flat cap and waistcoat, Henry is eloquent, meticulous, and precise – everything you would expect from a man who has made philosophy, mathematics, and geometry his life’s work. Softly spoken, diffident almost, Williamson specialises in carving, sculpture, and illumination that use Islimi, the rhythmic, scrolling, and interlacing patterns more commonly known as ‘Arabesque’. The list of their teaching positions, clients, and commissions attests to their knowledge, experience, and skill. These include the British Library, the Victoria & Albert Museum, Shakespeare’s Globe, HRH The Prince of Wales, Westminster Abbey, and the Universities of both Oxford and Cambridge.

Adam Williamson working with students in The Art of Islamic Pattern workshop in Hackney, East London (image: TAoIP)

Williamson shares his calling as an artist and a craftsman with his whole family. “My father is a carpenter, my mother is a poet and a printmaker, but they were both very interested in Sufism so I’ve always been surrounded by arts from the East. I grew up in a Muslim environment.”

Henry & Williamson’s Geodesic Dome, V2 Icosi-Dodecahedron, constructed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London for Arab World Arts Day 2010 (image: TAoIP)

Richard Henry leads the teaching, starting with a brief lecture on the relationship between geometry, philosophy, and the natural patterns that repeat in everything from the microscopic structure of muscle tissue to the structure of Islamic architecture and the solar system. For Henry, geometry – from the Greek ‘earth measure’ – is something found in the world that enables us to relate to it. He quotes an epistle from a 10th century encyclopaedia, written by the mysterious Brethren of Purity, a secret society of Muslim philosophers from Basra, which describes geometry as “one of the gates through which we move to the knowledge of the evidence of the soul, and that is the root of knowledge.

For the students gathered at the hotel, that journey begins with a single vertical line, drawn by Henry on a flip chart in front of the class. The students follow his every move, creating eighteen replicas of his master drawing on the pads in front of them and as they do so, the room soon settles to the soft sound of pencils arcing across paper. Troublesome hair is soon tied back, and many of the students, who started the session sat down, now arch over the tables, desperate to get their pattern-making right. Within minutes, a rose-shaped diagram appears, a circle for each day of creation and another that signifies the eventual day of rest.

Henry then starts to draw lines of radial symmetry, more circles, and long, interrupted lines that bisect the page. Stars and then hexagons begin to emerge from the tutor’s diagram at the same moment confused giggles emerge from the group. “Sorry Richard,” asks one student, “but speed is not our forte. Would you mind doing that again?” “This is a complex drawing to start with,” Henry replies, “please don’t be disheartened.”

Richard Henry teaching on the Bayt Al Qindeel-organised course in Abu Dhabi (image: Sammy Dallal/The National)

Luckily, the group is undeterred and by the end of the five-day course, they have progressed to geometries that are more complex. Remarkably, the final session is a practical session in illumination and gilding. Manal Hamid, who started the week with “two left hands”, is delighted with the results.

If the calibre of the tutors wasn’t enough to dispel the notion that The Art of Islamic Pattern is little more than a diversion devised for ‘ladies who lunch’, the level of commitment displayed by some of the students is. Charlotte Baldini’s father may live and work in Abu Dhabi, but the 23-year-old art student has travelled from Italy for the week just to take the course. Rather than commute from Sharjah each day, May Rashed has come to stay with her sister in Abu Dhabi. She abandoned a career in quality management in 2011 to pursue her passion for art.

“I have an MA in quality management and I had a good job as a quality manager, but I went to the Venice Biennale in 2011 for one month and that made me see clearly what I want to do. Art is my passion and I have to follow it.”

A professional interior designer, Jessica Daw moved to Abu Dhabi from London at the end of 2012. She sees the course as an opportunity not only to engage with the culture of her adopted home, but to interact with its people as well. “I want to absorb something of this place, of being in the Middle East, into the work that I do. It’s also a chance to meet Emirati ladies, which is an opportunity you don’t often have, so it’s also interesting from a social perspective.”

When judged from this perspective, the course is already a success. Seventy per cent of the students are Emiratis and expats of different nationalities including Lebanese, English, Polish, and Indian fill the remaining places in the two classes held each day. By the end of the course, the effort made by the students has helped them to experience not only a sense of achievement, but of shared experience as well. The potential for this kind of interaction inspired Dr Zeinab Saleh Farah to organise the course under the auspices of her fledgling cultural organisation, Bayt Al Qindeel.

“The philosophy behind Bayt Al Qindeel is to create dialogue. Bayt Al Qindeel in Arabic means ‘House of Light’. Qindeel means ‘lantern’. I want it to be a forum of for cultural exchange. It’s just a very tiny contribution, but I want us to exchange ideas and to see how similar we are.”

Dr Zeinab’s family have lived in Abu Dhabi since 1967 when her father, Saleh Farah arrived as Sheikh Zayed’s legal advisor and as Chief Justice helped to establish the emirate’s judiciary. A respected scientist, Dr Zeinab became a consultant paramedical virologist at the Al Jazeera hospital in Abu Dhabi where she worked for 22 years. She then experienced The Art of Islamic Pattern course for herself in 2011 while she was studying for her second MA at the London School of Economics. “At the beginning, I introduced myself and I explained that I was a scientist, but that I wanted the other side of my brain to work as well. I’ve never drawn or done anything since school but I was pleasantly surprised.”

For May Rashed, the course is something that has exercised both her intellect and and her soul. “This has been an exercise for my eyes,” she explains. “It has been a good exercise for me as an artist, but this is not only about creating patterns. There is a spiritual side to the geometry that connects our faith to art. Art and Islam can be a sensitive topic, but doing such courses can enhance our faith and allow us to relate to it even more.”

Course tutor Richard Henry likes to think of geometrical design as a form of ‘visual yoga’ with an appeal that extends beyond an individual’s culture or ethnicity.

“I think experiencing that meditative aspect is one of the most important things somebody could take from this class. It’s about engaging with the process. You start with this circle, a perfect form, and you see how that unfolds. There’s a beauty… and a wonderful harmony in that.”

Beauty there may be, but for some students the therapy also comes at a price, as Manal Hamid explains. “Sometimes, I’ve gone away with a headache. When people see these patterns, they have no idea how much time, concentration, effort, and energy goes into producing them.” For Darcy Vasickowa, a full-time mother who hopes to establish her own fabric business, even moments of frustration brought some kind of reward. “It’s very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture… but it’s been nice to get lost in it. It was therapeutic for me.”

Richard Henry believes that much of that sense of engagement stems from the fact that the physical act of creation is a process that many of us no longer have in our daily lives. “Just doing things by hand is a very powerful thing,” he explains, “because it’s something that we’re losing in a world where we are used to doing everything by computer.”

Ironically, modern technology enabled Dr Zeinab to make the Abu Dhabi course a success as a direct approach through social media allowed her to reach out to individuals she would otherwise have missed.

“I have my daughters to thank for that. When my daughters found me getting in a twist they said, ‘Let’s put it online’, so that’s what we did. They set up a Facebook page and linked that to Twitter and Instagram accounts. That allowed me to reach out to a different audience.”

Dr Zeinab hopes that the audience will grow sufficiently to enable more courses to run in the autumn and for Bayt Al Qindeel to expand in scope.

“I hope to be able to bring other initiatives to Abu Dhabi that may not pertain directly to art but that will also foster cultural dialogue. They might be more workshops or speakers but whatever it is the idea is to foster interaction and to explore our common humanity.”

She remains however, a realist and admits that the key to future success lies in attracting funding to allow students “who don’t have big names or big money” to participate in Abu Dhabi’s burgeoning creative culture. Etihad Airways sponsored ten students for the inaugural courses, but Dr Zeinab hopes for increased sponsorship from a wider range of local organisations in future.

“I have lived to witness Abu Dhabi become a cultural hub and a melting pot. What I’m trying to do with Bayt Al Qindeel is to work with that wave. We just need something to create the right spark.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Weekend section of The National, Abu Dhabi

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