Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 14th January 2018

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London exhibition brings colourful interpretation of Quran


Challenging perceptions. 'Arcanes,' a visual commentary on the five pillars of Islam. (P21 Gallery)

Challenging perceptions. “Arcanes,” a visual commentary on the five pillars of Islam. (P21 Gallery)

London - London’s P21 Gallery celebrated the festive season with “Dhikr Pictural,” a distinctive exhibition of 19 unique pieces that provided a visual interpretation of the Quran through colourful images in which black and gold leaf featured prominently.

Visual artist Anissa Berkane, who took 20 years to produce the paintings, described the exhibition as an “open spiritual invitation to all regardless of their beliefs.”

“Over all this time spent on researching in the sciences and the mathematical codes of the holy book, the Quran, I share my findings in this collection, which I hope will raise discussions among many people around the world and challenge perceptions of those who only see terror in this religion, when its true core is uplifting and blessing,” Berkane said on the gallery website.

“Dhikr” refers to “remembering.” Berkane seemed to be remembering existence, God and creation through art – large mixed media works. She talked about each of her creations and the verses from the Quran that inspired them are recited in a video. Visitors embarked on a spiritual journey and interpret the delicate symbols, decorative patterns and mystic swirls for themselves and add a new dimension to their understanding of religion, a note on the gallery website stated.

Some of the works have a direct relationship to Quranic verses and others deal with awe-inspiring subjects such as the astrolabe and the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone Park in the United States.

“Arcanes” depicts the five pillars of Islam through five columns. Green is used for shahada, yellow for prayer, mauve for zakat and charity, blue for fasting and red for haj. There is an emphasis on the three primary colours and the pillars radiate light and a colourful, bright guide to life.

The impressionist work “Golden Number” refers to the divine proportions used by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, the architect Le Corbusier and numerous scientists going back to antiquity. The large circle is enhanced by smaller circles.

Like all the works, “The Tree of Life” has many interpretations and layered messages. It refers to the genealogy of the prophets, linking them to the holy book and the mystical tree of life in the Jewish Kabbalah, which refers to creation. The red, blue, black and gold colour scheme is very effective.

“Five Continents” is made up of 28 golden squares – the 28 questions Prophet Mohammad was asked when he moved from Mecca to Medina.

Berkane gives great care and attention to the number 19: The first verse of the Quran is composed of 19 Arabic letters, the total number of Quranic chapters is 114 (6 x 19); the total number of verses in the Quran is 6,346 (19 x 334), sura 96, the first in chronological order, consists of 19 verses, and sura 110, the last revealed sura, consists of 19 words.

Other works depict the Kaaba through geometrical shapes and Berber decorations. The image of the coil used to represent the universe shows that religion and science co-exist. “Shor” refers to the algorithm used in the field of quantum computing.

“The works show how rationality can be linked to spirituality in a very beautiful way,” Toufik Douib, the exhibition’s curator, said. He emphasised that each of the 19 pieces was indissociable from the rest and that Berkane would only sell the original works as an entire collection or as a permanent exhibition for an institution.

Douib said Berkane wanted to challenge stereotypes.

“She is very modern. She does not wear a head scarf and she defies the stereotype of what it means to be religious,” Douib said. “Her work shows that religion is not a monopoly of religious men and that religious texts can be interpreted – or misinterpreted – by anyone. She never studied theology or Arabic but uses art to show what her reading of the holy book has brought to her life. She wanted to share a very positive, beautiful message, very colourful, very bright with gold. It is an invitation for the people to communicate with each other.”

“People came to the exhibition for its artistic aspect. Some were interested in Sufism, others in calligraphy and those who had studied maths and science were interested to see the connection,” he said.

“This exhibition succeeded in bringing all these different aspects in one. It was a happy, feel-good, end-of-year event. The timing was perfect. We opened on December 1, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday. Then there was World Arabic Language Day followed by Christmas and New Year,” he added.

An extensive programme of lectures and presentations, including a whirling performance by a Japanese Sufi, was organised in conjunction with the exhibition.

“Dhikr Pictural” closed January 6. It was also shown in Algiers (2015) and Tehran (2016).