Exploring Contemporary Muslim Art, Culture and Heritage in Britain
Last month I attended a conference organised by the Muslims in Britain Research Network. The event invited artists, creative producers and academics to explore contemporary Muslim Art, Culture and Heritage in Britain.
The day consisted of a wide range of lectures, presentations and panel discussions relating to issues such as how Muslim art should be defined a range of discussions and debates which questioned how we as Muslims should brand ourselves in the modern world.
I was inspired by the imaginative ways scholars and artists alike chose to convey their faith through creative means as well as how they used their spiritual practice to develop common ground with others. Dr Abdul Aziz Ahmed gave an informative presentation on popular youth culture and how rap has become a vehicle to testify one’s faith, an encouraging fact at a time when the index for the younger generation expressing religiosity is in decline.
PhD candidate Mirina Paananen has spent many years in the Middle East researching the recited Qur’an and the Islamic musical tradition. In her talk, ‘The Mosque Choir: Engaging with Muslim choral heritage’, she discussed among other things, how statistics show that choirs help to improve the quality of life in deprived communities.
A senior lecturer at the University of East London, Rula Al Abdulrazak, spoke about the power of story in making our narrative known to the wider public, an act that also develops a sense of familiarity and trust. With this she encouraged the younger generation to write, recording our cultural heritage for posterity.
Playwright and co-editor of Critical Muslim, Hassan Mahamdallie, encouraged us to look at how other disenfranchised groups have used the Arts as a platform to convey their angst at the injustices in society and an opportunity to counter negative stereotyping by destabilising authoritarian power through free expression.
Lead organiser Mobeen Butt expressed that his intention when developing the event was to take the conversation back to 1976 and the World of Islam Festival which was held in Britain, at a time when Islam was celebrated. Although much has changed since then, the underlying motive of the conference was to inquire as to where we go from here. At a time when presenting the beauty of Islamic Arts and heritage is an imperative, our commitment to promote the Arts is stifled by a need to progress academically away from the study of humanities. The unfortunate truth is that the younger generation and many before them have not been encouraged to develop creative skills. Instead many are steered towards careers that rely on studying maths and the sciences. This lack of appreciation for the Arts has left us out of touch with the concept of beauty and how it relates to tawhid, a core principle of our faith. Every heart understands beauty making it a powerful way to connect with those of other faiths or none. The conference provided a timely platform to consider such ideas and new ways in which this cultural capital can afford us greater sway in these challenging times.
By discussing Muslim art, the art that people in Britain who identify themselves as Muslim are producing, rather than Islamic art, conversations were able to explore how the movement could develop as an art form in its own right. Muslim artists want to use their craft to highlight issues, express themselves and create beauty but there is a worrying lack of opportunity and development. Funding is thin on the ground but more importantly the mentoring of new creatives is desperately needed as is the necessity for audience development and the consolidation of understanding as to quality over quantity. The recognition of self-investment, that goes into producing artwork and the need to support creative development.
Whilst the conference set the premise that Muslims are producing art, not enough is getting through to the mainstream. The opportunity to explore how this could change gave hope to many artists who have spent their careers facing one closed door after another. A decade ago the Arts Council was the main funder of the Arts in the United Kingdom. Now funding bodies such as the Aziz Foundation and Amal are creating greater opportunities for Muslim artists to find financial backing to develop projects. And in the current climate, this movement to create a more positive image of Islam is much needed.
“Our history and heritage haven’t been allowed to be passed down. Our culture and arts have been disorientated and placed mainly under ‘Asian Arts’ – classical dance, bhangra and Bollywood or Middle Eastern arts where the spirituality and religion are stripped away and the politics are played. We need to create a new narrative.” – Mobeen Butt
Mobeen believes that art and culture provide a means of communication, an alternative platform to share stories, celebrate contributions to society and challenge misconceptions and stereotypes. With a rising generation of young British Muslims using artistic forms such as music, film, literature, photography, poetry and comedy to express themselves, there is hope for the future. As well as celebrating the diversity of British Muslim identity, these artists and cultural producers explore difficult issues and help bridge divides between communities. This new possibility creates exciting opportunities but also uneasy tensions as to where this expression can fit into the traditional canons of western visual art and popular culture in Britain.
Where are we now?
While we need to come together and focus on ways to share and develop our cultural heritage, we also need to demand our rights for creative spaces, resources, funding, access, as well as develop the skills necessary to professionally execute this dream.
What Mobeen hopes for next is action. That the 120+ people in attendance feel less isolated and are affirmed in the belief that they can pursue a career in the arts beyond the boundaries they may have experienced in the past.
What is also important is that they reach out to one another forming collaborations which develop them as individuals and the Arts as a whole. This, he feels, will be a catalyst for something bigger, more structured and better formulated. And perhaps by 2026, we can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the World of Islam Festival with British Muslim artists and cultural producers at the helm.
The Place to Be
The Muslim Museum Initiative
The Muslim Museum Initiative is an online resource which explores the 1400-year relationship between Britain and Islam and celebrates the arts, culture and heritage of Muslims in Britain.
The initiative works with heritage, arts, culture and educational institutions to help individuals explore, engage and feel inspired by a shared past, present and future.
It also provides expertise to organisations wanting to engage Muslim communities and explore elements of Islamic culture and Muslim heritage in Britain.
For more information visit www.muslimmuseum.org.uk
World of Islam Festival
Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1976, this event presented 6,000 objet d’art from 32 Muslim nations and 162 seminars by scholars and academics over six weeks.
Most of the major cultural institutions in the UK were involved including the BBC, British Museum, V&A, Science Museum and the then Commonwealth Institute.
For more information visit www.everdaymuslim.org/single-post/2016/04/14/What-was-the-World-of-Islam-