Mihrab: Mysticism, Devotion, and Geo-Identity
By Athoub N. Al Busaily
Published on May 11th, 2021
What tames our behavior, belief-system, and emotional response, is an unconscious negotiation with the codes of culture. Traditional clothing, norms, the inherited role of the male and female, and their instructed relationship with worship are few of the rigid codes that Salman Al Najem tries to divulge. The stinging satire directed towards culture and its ideologies reveal the essence of individualism and the experiences within. This and other investigations are prompted by Al Najem in his latest series Mihrab, presented by Engage101.
Salman Al Najem. Image courtesy of Hady Elcott and Noor Althehli via Engage 101.
The Bahraini artist joins the platform for its first showcase outside of the UAE. From May 3 to 13, the Mihrab series is available online seeking to instigate dialogue, community-building, and be acquired by emerging collectors. Over the past week, a live-streamed opening, and a critique session with Bahraini cultural pioneer Latifa Al Khalifa discussing the ‘Gulf Gaze’ have taken place.
The exhibition is calculated to coincide with the sanctity of the Holy Month. As stated by Al Khalifa, who introduces Al Najem’s artist profile “Showcasing the works in this series for the first time during the holy month of Ramadan is a deliberate choice acting as a vignette into the Khaleejis’ relationship towards worship.”
“Showcasing the works in this series for the first time during the holy month of Ramadan is a deliberate choice acting as a vignette into the Khaleejis’ relationship towards worship.”
-Latifa Al Khalifa
Since August 2020, Engage101 has been broadening their features of artists in the Gulf region. Carrying out that task is Gaith Abdulla, one of Engage101’s co-founders, who expresses that “All that is expected is that this produces a more accurate and true vision of the artistic practices that are emerging and evolving in the region.”
This perspective is further validated by Salman Al Najem as illustrated in the exchange below,
Athoub N. Al Busaily: Congratulations on your brilliant show with Engage101. The outcome of the exhibition is positively significant.
Salman Al Najem: I’m really glad and happy with the response. Selling is an important part of being an artist, a lot of it has to do with my philosophy in creating my work. When I make art that goes to people’s spaces, it infiltrates it. My message is physically moving, from my studio to their house. The mere fact that my work is traveling outside the studio and existing in someone else’s space is a continuation of its life.
A.B.: Art has always infiltrated multiple spaces and it's interesting to see the impact it creates when being displayed in different settings. It’s not just about monetary gain, that is just a side effect.
S.N.: Exactly, when my work moves outside the studio it continues its life-cycle. I want to literally and physically spread love.
Later, Al Najem adds “I make space for grace and facilitate the work through me.” His words and analogies remind us, even if tangentially, that there is a phenomenon of mysticism that exists within Islam. Mysticism is employed by many as an intangible tool, so much as a gateway to the celestial realm. Existing without doors or clear direction, the pathway to other-worldly existence seems to be contingent upon one’s stage of devotion and fidelity.
That quasi-religious direction that is indicated in the Mihrab is a space conquered by unity. Gathering Muslim worshipers into a singular focal point. Such an element is prominent in Al Najem paintings where he lures us into the singular perspective in his spatial paintings. Informed by his own personal journey with God, his style is blanketed with omniscient observations towards his surroundings.“I always wanted to create artworks that are spatial,” he confirms.
Mihrab in the making. Image courtesy of Salman Al Najem.
In the Mihrab series, architecture and space are being choreographed through paint and canvas. There’s volume and loud mass that encompasses the structure of the Mihrab in his paintings, what that creates is a movement that draws us, a new form of spatial awareness. By doing so, space is created and two-dimensionality no longer survives. Spray-paint freely roams the surface of the Mihrab; borders, and lines no longer exist in his version, this freedom allows for a secure spiritual encounter.
But what is it about the Mihrab? The Mihrab is often found colonized with Islamic decorative symbols. Aniconic representations, geometrical patterns, vegetations, and calligraphy are some of the elements that usually cloak the concave niche, allowing it to reclaim its religious identity. However, deprived of mathematical geometry or any aniconic representations, the only element related to the architecture of the Mihrab that survived in Al Najem’s paintings is the dominating symmetry, which ultimately reads as an equilibrium within human spirituality. The symmetry here leaves a predominant effect in the viewers, it indicates, directs, and creates a united focal point.
“The only element related to the architecture of the Mihrab that survived in Al Najem’s paintings is the dominating symmetry, which ultimately reads as an equilibrium within human spirituality.”
-Athoub N. Al Busaily
Is that unapologetic, luring symmetry on the surface what indeed conceals the subliminal messages in Al Najem’s paintings? What lies behind the surface is a dense thought process, filled with irony and wit, but what one encounters are softness and lovable characters. The shockingly friendly figures are placed at the center of the Mihrab. Both cultural and religious figures are being deprived of a foreground that anchors them, instead, a calming floatation is what draws the balance between them and the background.
We witness a sort of transient state that only exists through devotion and worship. When it comes to composition the following exchange takes place,
A.B.: Your Mihrab is not how it is in “real life”, it is not an object of ornament, there’s no iconography or decoration, only colors. It reminds me of how when we look at the sun, the inside of our eyelids pick light and transform it into an intangible wash of colors. Your figures are drawn with careful observations, however, there’s an absence of details in the Mihrab. Why did you choose to have those two ends of the spectrum?
S.N.: The thing about the sun is that it was one of the starting points for this work. I have always wanted to make paintings of what it looks like when you close your eyes. I wanted to create an ethereal world that doesn’t exist. Not bound to the rigidity of this one. I wanted the characters to seem as though they’re floating in space, a space that doesn’t exist, a liminal space that is not found in this reality. That’s definitely the reason why I did this, I wanted the tension that comes with the less concrete background. We can argue and say there’s no foreground, it is not standing, or sitting it’s just floating. There’s no depth, the depth is in the absence of depth.
“I wanted to create an ethereal world that doesn’t exist.”
-Salman Al Najem
While body proportions and posture follow the historical canon, placed at the core of the Mihrab, the central figures in Al Najem’s paintings continue to demand attention. The observation boils down to one remark: There is a dense Khaleeji language that speaks through the traditional clothing.
A.B.: Khaleeji iconographies are carefully selected and depicted in some of your paintings. Did you deliberately choose such iconography to create a point of reference and establish relatability?
S.N.: Yes, definitely. Born as a Khaleeji man makes me want to talk about this experience. I want people around me to relate, and to represent the people, these times, and the culture. With the specific paintings, you’re talking about, the Khaleeji ones, where they’re skeletons and they’re still wearing their cultural dress and it’s like Khaleeji culture is so ingrained within us to the point where we act as though we will take this to our death.
A.B: It becomes like a biological identity.
S.N.: Exactly, it transcends the superficial and goes into the biological.
“Khaleeji culture is so ingrained within us to the point where we act as though we will take this to our death.”
-Salman Al Najem
With these brief insights, what Al Najem ultimately aims to reveal is the multi-dimensional aspects of devotion we have towards our culture, from fame and wealth to nationalism. Being tenants on specific land plots, living, playing, and devoting, that fidelity and growing sense of duty births through time physical elements that could be distinguished and exclusively limited to the tenants in our region.
“What Al Najem ultimately aims to reveal is the multi-dimensional aspects of devotion we have towards our culture, from fame and wealth to nationalism.”
- Athoub N. Al Busaily
Without realizing it, we are grappling with the notion of geo-identity, that physical construct that translates into norms. Or, in other words, the physical characteristics and behavioral patterns that a particular region is associated with.
The rapid growth of Khaleeji artists and their identity towards the region leaves us with plenty to wonder about. Culture, in contrast to geo-identity, grants us the choice whether to follow certain practices or not. Its survival is dependent upon the transmission from generation to generation. Geo-identity, however, is even more fluid in its nature, and its survival is not dependent upon generational transmission. Rather, geo-identity is continuously reshaping itself in parallel to the geographical changes of the said region. Ultimately, birthing an attachment and a sense of devotion towards our lands.
Mihrab #25 by Salman Al Najem (lights on and lights off). Artwork images courtesy of Hady Elcott and Noor Althehli via Engage 101.
MIHRAB by Salman Al Najem is on view online via Engage101 until May 13th, 2021. Follow Engage101 and Salman Al Najem for showcase updates.
Salman Al Najem (b. 1992, Bahrain) identifies as a creative force and a self-expression of the divine. He uses common symbols and materials from contemporary life to disentangle Khaleeji societal complexities. A level of physicality and intensity exist in Salman’s paintings, created through the use of heavy physical gestures and industrial materials and paints. His works go through an aesthetic filter of colours, symbols and images derived from the culture he consumed as a child. Being in authentic self-expression, Salman facilitates space for grace and chance to allow the divine to flow through him. Salman holds an MA in Fine Art from the Royal College of Art and BA Interior & Spatial Design from University of the Arts London, LCC.
Latifa Al Khalifa is a curator and writer investigating contemporary culture of the MENA region, with a focus on the Arabian Gulf. As a way to champion artists and creatives from the MENA region on a global scale, Al Khalifa launched Too Far, an arts consultancy in Bahrain in 2016. She is a regular contributor to Khaleejesque and Tribe Magazine and is an alumnus of the Bangkok edition of the ICI Curatorial Intensive (2018).
Engage101 is an art collecting and research platform that grew out of countless discussions about the art ecosystem in the UAE and wider region between independent curator Munira Al Sayegh and art critic Gaith Abdulla. By way of quarterly art sales featuring non-gallery represented artists, original research, and public programming, Engage101 addresses a gap in the local art collecting ecosystem. We believe grassroots movements and collaborations are necessary to sustain, anchor and counterbalance the strong leaps the local art ecosystem has witnessed through government-led efforts.
Athoub N. Al Busaily is a Kuwaiti artist currently living in Abu Dhabi. In her work, she investigates the notion of borders, hunting, and the desert environment of Kuwait, often underlined by a tone of irony and the use of visual metaphors. Her works have been exhibited at Warehouse421 (Abu Dhabi), The Hub Gallery (Kuwait City), Maraya Art Centre (Sharjah), Art Budapest (Budapest). In 2019, she received a fellowship from the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation as part of their 7th Cohort. She is currently completing an MA in Art History and Museum Studies at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. Prior to that, she received her BA in Fine Arts from the University of Sharjah.