The Sublime in Islam

The Sublime in Islam

Ehsan Atiq
by ehsan on 13 Apr 2019 for Rookie Awards 2019

The Sublime in Islam attempts to explore the philosophical study of Aesthetics within the context of the Islamic Artistic Expression. It consists of an academic research paper and a visual exploration of the same. The exploration consists of a series of 25 motion media videos and 20 still illustrations. The correlation

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Growing up in the post 9/11 era, Islam has been constantly under attack for as long as I could remember. Being a Muslim, I have been directly or indirectly affected by this very phenomenon. I didn't want to be the person that just expressed their frustration on social media. It really made me question myself as to how might I use my immediate capabilities as a designer in helping change this perspective—show the true beauty of Islam. 

The Sublime in Islam attempts to explore the philosophical study of Aesthetics within the context of the Islamic Artistic Expression. It consists of an academic research paper and a visual exploration of the same. The exploration consists of a series of 25 motion media videos and 20 still illustrations. The correlation of Islamic Geometric Patterns with the western philosophical construct of the Sublime is something that has never been attributed in the past, which gave me more incentive to pursue the subject.  As much as it is me attempting to change perspective and show Islam in a new light, this project to me is an attempt at grasping my identity as it stems from a variety of experiences and influences I have had growing up as a Muslim in Abu Dhabi. 

This project has currently been nominated for the Curator's Choice awards and will be showcased via projection mapping upon buildings at the Digital Graffiti Festival 2019 taking place in Alys Beach, FL.

The Exhibition

I wanted people to engage with the visual representations physically so as to give the project some sincere context and an additional layer of depth and meaning. I decided to create a visual experience through hosting an exhibition that took place in Adler Hall. The exhibition utilized projection mapping as a manner of visualization. It also consisted of four of the still patterns that were printed out 24inch steel as additional artifacts.

With the help of my friends, we sourced some cubes made of wood and then set up the mapping of the motion media visuals in a manner that made the cubes seem dynamic. We initially did a test run at a location that was open to the public. After witnessing the reactions it was getting from the visitors, I decided to rectify certain subtleties of the projections and eventually proceeded with the full exhibition.

The Auction

I was persistent on trying to have a pragmatic application of the designs that were created as a result of these projects. They were aesthetically pleasing and had a symbolic connotation but I just had thought that this project was meant for more. These questions bogged my mind through out until I could figure out something.

I realized since this project stemmed from Islam, a religion that is grounded in being charitable (Zakat) as one of it's pillars - it needed to give back in some manner. I started to print out some of the still patterns that were eventually used for the exhibition, on pieces of 24in x 24in steel. I used the material with the intention of having some of the metal shine through as a means of being able to reflect on yourself.

With the help of my friends, I began searching for interested buyers for through Instagram. I uploaded a posted asking for help to spread the idea. I got a lot of positive responses who were looking to purchase these pieces, with an eventual buyer who was ready to buy the pieces. The idea was to use the profits so as to give back to the community through any of charitable causes present in the community of Savannah, GA.

The Story

My formative years of education have been in the post 9/11 era where Islam has been in turmoil ever since. It has been 18 years since the disastrous event occurred and the repercussions of which are still evident today. Many a times I would be at the receiving end of the situation—being singled out for practicing one's own faith is against basic human morals.

Riddled with questions, I simply asked myself, what am I doing to help change this perception of Muslims in the modern world? Thinking about my immediate capabilities as a practitioner of design, I dwelled on this matter further and wondered, How can I use design to change this negative perception of Muslims in today's world? How could I show the beauty of Islam through a new light?

Being brought up in Abu Dhabi, the environment was such that I was constantly surrounded by these fascinating Islamic Geometric Patterns. Appreciative of how it always was so pleasing to the eyes, I never really made an effort to delve into the finding the true essence of the same. There was something about this form of expression that always spoke to me.

The Research

The Golden Age of Islam was a period in history where various fields such as Art, Science, Philosophy flourished within the Islamic Caliphates. Economic development occurred at a rampant rate and overall there was an encouragement in the notion of seeking knowledge. It was during this time that there was a peak in the interest of developing the Art of Islam, the three notable elements of which are Calligraphy, the Arabesque and Geometric Patterns.

What if we could relive this prosperous time in history and bring back the Golden Age of Islam? What if we had something that reminded us of that glorious past? How could we visually represent this perfect time? Islamic Geometric Patterns are something so timeless that it has managed to survive millenia and still manages to capture the imagination of millions around the world, irrespective of cultural lines. I decided to use these Geometric Patterns, to try and show a side of Islam that was mostly hidden.

To go about addressing the situation, I really wanted to be grounded in research. I wanted to know what went in the minds of the Artisans that were making these geometric patterns. Seeking help I contacted religious scholars and even the experts in the field of Islamic Philosophy. I ran into more dead ends as Islamic Philosophers never really spoke about Aesthetics as a philosophical branch.

One thing that I knew was that Islam was all about the Sublime. When I really dwelled upon Islamic Geometric Patterns, I found it's characteristics in accordance with what would be considered Sublime. It only made sense for me to attribute them together and strike comparisons. Over a period of nearly two months, I went about researching and writing a paper about "How Islamic Geometric Patterns are a representation of the Aesthetic notion of the Sublime." This paper is currently under review by the Islamic Art Society of the United States in an effort to get published.

Please click here to read the research paper.

The Visualizations

I proceeded to then apply context to the research and visually explore each of the features that the Islamic Geometric Patterns represent. As much as I wanted to stick to the convention of compound shapes and tessellations, I felt the need to interpret them in a unique manner that was more reflective of the current age. I felt I needed to make them my own.

The visual styles I have used vary greatly amongst each example. It was me attempting to explore different ideas and trying to visually represent factors and focus on each of the individual characteristic that I discussed in my research paper. The first exploration consisted of attempting to illustrate still images of the Geometric Patterns. Apart from creating a singular unit of the pattern that existed within space, it also exists as an all-out, seamless pattern when focussed inwards at the central motif.

The Animations 

The idea of making these patterns dynamic and constantly changing was something that was persistently lodged in my head. There was scope to represent more subtleties when motion was factored in. Make it ever-changing in manner where every frame gives a slightly different interpretation of the initial pattern. 

Over a period of ten weeks, I started to experiment on how I might be able to achieve this. I proceeded to then create a series of nearly 25 pattern animations that were able to express a different aspect of the Sublime. I incorporated different colors and genres of music depending on trying to give each animation it's own personality. The following videos are some of the latter videos from amongst the series. These were created in Illustrator, animated in After-Effects with the final treatment being done in Final Cut Pro X.

Please click here to view the entire playlist including all the process videos.

The Process

The process for getting about making these patterns really started two years ago. It was when I found that I was genuinely interested in utilizing mandalas and patterns as background graphics for the posters that I had made while freelancing within the entertainment industry.

My initial attempts were just getting used to the idea of lines conforming to a singular shape. I tried playing with different line styles, trying out different strokes.. Sometimes I would add some color using the Live Paint tool on Illustrator. I even tried animating the pattern on After Effects getting it to scale up.

Once I started getting more familiar with technique, I played around further with the styles of the strokes. Adding as many strokes as possible was always a temptation but as I learnt, it might not always seem beautiful and failed to remain an integrated form. Adding complexity had to be in a subtle manner which didn't make it seem aggressive.

Trying to incorporate motion within them was something I was constantly experimenting with. I toyed around with them in After Effects initially trying to play with masks and trim paths. In order to achieve the animation, I had to make sure the strokes were not overbearing with just the right amount of complexity.

This is an ongoing exploration where I constantly revise the research paper and with the intention of making it more legitimate and robust. Below are some of the process shots from the exhibition and the work that took place in preparation for the same.

I started this project to rediscover my my identity and explore what I deem my culture but now, it has given me the confidence to overcome mental barriers that previously existed. I have been approached by Lazy Eight Design, an agency in India to incorporate these dynamic animations in a solution that could perhaps help in alleviating stress for the current social media generation. Apart from trying to get the research paper published, I have been in talks with the Islamic Art Society with an interest to have them sold as physical art pieces. 

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