SAIC undergraduate Haseeb Ahmed and his Islamic-influenced art
Haseeb Ahmed, a SAIC undergraduate in the Visual and Critical Studies and Architecture programs, has recently garnered a lot of publicity for his architectural installations. In September 2007 Ahmed constructed a minimalist mosque entitled The Common Sense, installed at the Around the Coyote Gallery, where he also built a site-specific installation as an artist-in-residence. His work Muqarnas. Expansion.Chicago is included in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Mapping the Self, which opens on November 3, 2007.
This was not his intent, and he welcomed an article discussing his work in a more critical and complex manner.
The Common Sense was a sparse installation constructed from unpainted wooden beams partially exploded on the top end. The resulting splintered pieces were held outward by tension to create the effect of simple wood pillars, rising to the ceiling, and branching outwards at the top in the form of arched architectural supports. The pillars were aligned in a grid with the axis facing towards the Kaaba, an ancient cube-shaped, stone structure covered in black silk, which is the center of Muslim worship and is located in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Each end of the installation’s axis was marked by a black square painted on the wall to point the way towards the Kaaba and simultaneously to symbolize the “absolute embodiment” of God’s relationship to the people of Islam and the “absolute negativity” that the black square may symbolize in modern art. Other elements were incorporated in the installation to make the mosque, including a prayer rug, a megaphone, the Quran, and an Arabic-English dictionary. Ahmed scheduled public prayer services and lectures to be held every Friday at 1:30 p.m. for the duration of the exhibition in September, but no one attended.
Ahmed’s use of common construction materials and architectural form carries over to the Muqarnas.Expansion.Chicago piece. Muqarnas are a structural and decorative form used in traditional Islamic and Persian architecture, including mosques. They are block-like modules that may join together in any desired order to transform and reconfigure architectural space, such as to create a dome. Ahmed used polyurethane foam, a material used to fi ll cracks and insulate buildings, to create his muqarnas, and the foam’s off-white color remains unaltered.
Muqarnas.Expansion.Chicago appears as an “occurrence” growing out of its pre-existing architectural environment. As Ahmed explains, it is “excreted or necessitated by the building.” In this way architectural form becomes sculpture, and viewers may form a relationship not only to the particular sculptural object but also to the greater building environment—and by extension, their social world—out of which it grows.
The subject matter of Ahmed’s work and the current political environment surrounding it renders it problematic. The formal simplicity of Ahmed’s mosque and muqarnas belie the history of Western and Islamic relations. For better or worse, Ahmed must contend with the identity politics of being Muslim and Pakistani-American in a Western country which frequently equates Islam with Arabs and violence.
He must also cope with the conflation of artist and subject matter. The general liberalism of the contemporary art world notwithstanding, there is a tendency to expect artists of ethnic minority, artists of color, and still, to some extent, women artists, to act as “native informants” to an assumed white, affl uent Western audience.
Ahmed explained his identity forms the basis of knowledge and experience, which he uses as a starting point to create art, but he also expressed hope—through the instability of identity and the possibility of transformation: “My identity, and identity in general is variable. This is what makes things hopeful for me: People can actually be transformed and transform themselves into something other than what they are. We can go beyond mere circumstance. I think that art has the capacity to prove this and contradict the conception of subjectivity today.”
Mapping the Self, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Ave., Chicago, November 3, 2007, to March 2, 2008.
Haseeb Ahmed: The Common Sense, Around the Coyote Gallery, 1935 1⁄2 W. North Ave., Chicago, September 8 to September 29, 2007.