The works of Saudi-Palestinian artist Dana Awartani are acts of continual revival, performances of contemporisation. Intricate manuscript illumination, parquetry, ceramics, and embroidery, on first encounter, to be finely wrought examples of traditional Islamic art forms.
She is a highly skilled practitioner, traditionally trained at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts – where, after obtaining her BA at Central Saint Martins, she completed a two year Masters. She is furthering her practice and commitment to preservation of these skills through the completion of an ‘Ijaza’ certificate – the highest form of recognition and authorization to eventually transmit the skill of Islamic illumination. Her pieces are firmly rooted in these traditional practices and she uses only their methods, such as only using materials and pigments she has prepared herself. Influenced by these two diverse routes, her work is in their materiality and methodology, absolutely traditional, yet enacted in a contemporary moment.
To understand how the contemporary infuses her work, it is necessary to first understand Islamic geometry – not as a lost decorative art, but rather as a highly codified and philosophical mode. Symmetry, harmony and infinite structural forms refer towards Qu’ranic and divine perfection. Revered Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr traces the meditative allure of the form’s purity and its active capacity for divine connection in pre-Islamic thought, “as Plato said, ‘beauty is the splendor of truth’. Traditional art provided this beauty on the external, formal level, which itself acts as a support for the attainment of inner beauty. This art also speaks, often in silent language, of the truth whose attainment constitutes the very raison d’être of human life.” In this way, the art form can have an intercessional effect.
Series like Five Stages of Grief, works which revive traditional Saudi textiles, demonstrate how codified variety has been eroded, and what has been lost in this process of elision. All of her works extrapolate historic variance in this way. By exploring systems of signification, she traces genealogies of meanings in relation to greater truths. For the uninitiated viewer, the great intellectual depth of Islamic art forms are lain bare – this is not an abstract, generic or decorative mode, rather the rigor and variation of the form as practiced through history is enfolded in her contemporary deployment.
Awartani’s practice stands within this sign system, reveling in and revealing immutable patterns. Her acts of revelation revive and sustain meaning. Works such Your Lord You Should Glorify – a palindromic piece – initiate a literal “running backwards” that leads the viewer from their present, contemporary moment, into the heart of the eternal and hermetic order. The palindromes are part of an ongoing direction, experimenting with the development of codes. She obscures and elucidates interior meanings, converting each letter of a sentence into their numerical value using the Abjadia system. Reveling in the system and revealing the structures, she demonstrates how, in their purest essence, these traditional forms can be revolved and remade endlessly. Kaleidoscope like, she maps unity in eloquent expressions of a fundamental Islamic principle – that of ‘tawhid’.
She draws the viewer into this world, extrapolating not only to reveal meaning – which she does by helping the viewer to better decipher – but also to reveal the implicit structures which make such meanings. Works become emanations of form and content. In her Progressional Drawings and works like The Islamic Caliphates accumulation is depicted, blueprint like, so that the viewer may understand acts of making and unmaking – whether of meaning, history of the form in and of itself.
In Awartani’s practice, these active performances have a secondary affect. By reviving the ritual, she gestures not only towards an inherent divinity but concurrently reveals power hierarchies that both bolster and obscure interpretations of the holy text. The contemporary rendition of an ancient form becomes a very postmodern act of deconstruction.
These experimentations evolve and revolve, turning (with)in traditions so that they can be made new once again. The kaleidoscopic reorientations show how meaning is made and, in some instances, controlled. In the Scroll of the Prophets she literally unfurls what have been tightly bound, imposed meanings to transcend the limitations placed on physical forms. She teases at questions conflated by contemporary structures of theological control, particularly those of idol worship and representation, to deconstruct how these faulty modes have become invested with their power.
Her deployment of the absolutely pure geometric mode, in faithful acts of repetition and revival thus becomes a radical reinterpretation. Only through her adherence to the traditional can she engage with the purity of meanings embedded in the art form. In demonstrating how meaning is structured, how faulty interpretations have come about, she manages to (re-)imagine new possibilities emanating from the same places. Mapping the interior of these unified, vastly codified sign systems, she reveals, in the contemporary spirit of deconstruction, the radical and active potential of engaged interpretation and re-interpretation.