Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Geometers Tale – The work of Zarah Hussain

This essay originally appeared in Araam published in Spring 2012. This beautiful publication documented the work of Zarah Hussain and Halima Cassell. The essay is reproduced here in its entirety with a postscript.

When immersed in the compelling form and distinctive colours of Zarah Hussain’s unique aesthetic, it is easy to forget that geometry is a pillar of mathematics and a cornerstone of Islamic art. In Hussain’s work geometry becomes a vibrant and very contemporary expression of the sublime and timeless beauty of abstract order. Looking more closely at the precision of angles, the exactitude of lines and repeated motifs, however, reveals underlying structures of phenomenal discipline.

First codified and named by the ancient Greeks, geometry formalised the properties and attributes of spatial relationships and, together with arithmetic, became the foundation of mathematical science. In the Islamic world eight centuries later an intense and long period of scholarship began in which Greek scientific and philosophical texts were translated into Arabic, and then absorbed, developed and disseminated. The unparalleled knowledge of astronomy in the Islamic world at that time made geometry of particular interest given its utility in the development of navigational tools such as the astrolabe. Culturally and spiritually underpinned by the Quran and its myriad references to the divine organisation of the universe and the principal realities of the order of the cosmos, it is no coincidence that the star became such an important motif in Islamic art and design.

The aesthetic that emerged emphasised the primacy of the word in the form of diverse calligraphic scripts and richly patterned Quranic manuscripts and books, while the use of tessellation and interlaced pattern on floor coverings, prayer mats, decorative carpets and ceramics was already well established. Incorporating a more rigid geometric approach to visual creativity, therefore, was intrinsically compatible with an existing sensibility that understood regularity of pattern and containment of decoration within space, be it a page, a rug or a tile. This organic rapport between Islamic worship and the art of Islam that developed over centuries is now instantly recognisable across the Islamic world. Geometry, with its simple genesis from a single circular point in space that leads to infinite planes of harmonious and perfect order, embodies both the unity and multiplicity of the universe and its creator. The repetition of Quranic verse and the supplication of prayer, the sublime order and beauty of the mosque’s tiled and carpeted interiors - all of these things are an antithesis to chaos and assist the spiritual quest to be at one with the unifying presence of the divine.

Early Work

Mosaic - Acrylic on canvas 60cm x 60cm

Zarah Hussain’s intuitive affinity with geometric form is evident from her very earliest work, created between 1997 and 2001 when she was studying History and English Literature in Manchester. This work is fascinating in terms of its negotiation between form, time and place with geometric order and pattern, combined with a brightly abstract op-art sensibility that also picks up on the emerging visual technology of the period. The net result is a series of images that suggest a digital origin but are in fact created and painted entirely by hand. This synthesis of form and disconnection of medium in relation to time is an interesting component of Zarah Hussain’s practice and approach to her subject at this time. This early body of work is important because it was the first step onto her creative path as a geometer and became the basis of her successful application to do an MA in Islamic Art in 2002.

Pink - Acrylic on canvas 111cm x 111cm

Dance -Acrylic on canvas 85cm x 85cm

The academic training received during her masters is very evident in Zarah’s first major body of work after graduation. In Handasah: Unity in Pattern, traditional geometric formality has been meticulously executed. In some cases it forms an almost palpable structural strength, while in others like Pomegranate, Twelve Fold Geometry and Radiance the viewer is drawn into the centre of the image and compelled to analyse the detailed complexity of the visual environment before being released to appreciate the whole.

 Radiance - Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 50cm diameter 2004

Pomegranate - Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 57cm x 57cm, 2004

Although Handasah uses a variety of mediums including egg tempera on gesso panels and the classical base for geometric design of ceramic tiles, most of the work ingeniously employs the unlikely medium of watercolour. This serves as a reminder of both the contemporary aspect of the work and the geographical locus of its creation. It also gives rise to the sublime delicacy of work like Inominate III and Purple Haze in which the subtlety of the medium is prioritised over the discipline of the form.

Inominate III Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 15cm x 15cm, 2004

Beauty of Abstraction
Unlike Handasah, which contained a diversity of both medium and compositional shape, Zarah’s next major body of work, Beauty of Abstraction, was an exercise in uniformity. All of the paintings in this series were the same size (90cm x 90cm) and all were created using acrylic on canvas. There are only three or four underlying geometric structures but each one is repeated two or three times with unique variations of colour and subtle design modifications. This gives each image a consistency of shape, visual effect and colour intensity, making Beauty of Abstraction a very cohesive body of painted work.

Muscida -Acrylic on canvas, 90 x 90 cms, 2006

However, this method of taking one geometric design and revealing a number of possibilities inherent in the structure is innovatively consolidated with an animated light installation projected onto the darkened gallery wall. Linking to the past by using a design from Handasah, this slow moving image continuously builds, dissolves and rebuilds in layers and sequences of colour and light. It is as mesmerising as it is beautiful, animating not only the processes and infinite potential of geometric design, but also the sheer joy of its contemplation.

Stills from Light Projection

This freedom of movement within the form, so succinctly captured in this animation, was to have a major impact on Zarah’s next body of work, Araam.

Araam is a chronological drama in which the viewer is able to follow the artist’s unfolding debate with her geometric practice in three mediums. The first two paintings in Araam are small, multi-sided oil on gesso pieces very reminiscent of previous work in their conformity to classical geometric discipline and aesthetics. However, the next piece in the oil on gesso sequence, Green Composition, signals a change in which the self-contained elements of each geometric motif are drifting away from their central core. This gives a palpable sense of disintegration and expansion.

Green Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

The subsequent Blue Composition seems to contain the essential debate in itself as if some reassembling were needed after the dilution of the previous panel. However, while many of the individual geometries are more robust, the very act of placing them in non-tessellated and sometimes overlapping positions is another innovation on traditional form.

Blue Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

Circle Composition also contains overlapping motifs, but this time they are very mixed. Some are basic and almost transparent geometric sketches, while others are densely complex in both colour and form. There is a freedom here which suggests that the debate has been resolved, but the disparity is slightly disorientating and prompts much closer scrutiny to find an underlying structure holding it all together.

Circle Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 150cm diameter, 2010

However, it is the final piece in the oil on gesso sequence that makes the biggest visual impact. This square panel contains twenty five identical geometric rosettes with a colour code running through each line that seems both ordered and random at the same time. It demands attention and plays visual tricks but perfectly exemplifies the end of a process in which traditional has been meticulously transformed into contemporary.

Rosettes in 5x5 formation - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

This is consolidated by the next sequence of works in Araam in which the medium changes to gouache on paper and rosettes become the whole work instead of just a part of it. There is a joyous sense of movement and freedom in these rosette compositions. Despite their apparent simplicities, however, the works contain a challenge to the viewer who must concentrate harder to find the geometric codes that can potentially extrapolate the pattern to infinity.

Composition with 24-fold rosettes – Gouache on paper, 100cm x 70cm, 2011

The final component of Araam is another animated light projection. However, this one does not create a pre-existing pattern nor repeat its own sequence. The building blocks of the geometer’s craft are separated from any whole and projected entirely as multiple shapes in their own right. The way in which they interact is entirely random. The beauty of this work is that the viewer is able to understand and appreciate each individual shape as well as have a complete visual experience that is totally unique at the time of viewing. Mesmerising in a totally different way to what is visually static, the projection provides a subtle and beautiful closing scene in the drama of Araam.

Still from Light Projection - Araam

As noted above the book in which this essay appeared was published in Spring 2012. Since then Zarah's work has continued to develop.

As a response to being commissioned by Vital Arts to create an installation at the Royal London Hospital, she took the extraction of singular geometric motifs further by creating 3D handpainted models. Cloud was conceived in two layers: vibrantly coloured shapes on the back wall echoed in muted colours on the windows.

She is currently working on all three tracks of her practice producing a new series of paintings, a series of 3D sculptural geometries and also researching new possibilities for light projection.

Desert Night Sky - Oil on Gesso Panel, 150 x 150 cm, 2012

Reflecting the movement, wonder and infinity of the night sky, her new paintings reveal an abundance of geometric shapes dancing over an ordered background of hexagonal stars.

Isometric Wave, based on zillige tiles from the Alhambra in Spain, blurs the boundary between sculpture and painting. Each shape has 3 edges and each is painted in gradating colours creating depth and movement that transform this traditional two dimensional design into a three dimensional object.

Isometric Wave - Oil, Gesso, Wood, 120 x 180 x 3.6 cm, 2012

For more information about Zarah and her work please see her website. 

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