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ARAB CONTEMPORARY | Architecture, Culture and Identity

United Kingdom Architecture News - May 10, 2014 - 12:42   4891 views


Architecture, Culture and Identity

31.1.2014 - 4.5.2014
Gl. Strandvej 13
3050 Humlbaek
LOUISIANA-Museum Of Modern Art just released this article written by the groundbreaking and talented garffiti artist, and historian and designer Bahia Shehab.

In the article Shehab describes and discusses her art pieces shown at the exhibition Arab Contemporary – Architecture, Culture and Identity at LOUISIANA MUSEUM of MODERN ART:

”After spraying the walls and streets of Cairo for the past three years I did not feel the need to create a work of art that is permanent, because everything around me is changing so fast and everything is fleeting, especially memory. (…)The revolution is the realization of where you came from and who you are today, and a growing belief that you have the potential to change your future.”

“Landscape/Soundscape: 20 Minarets from the Arab World” – Arab Contemporary Louisiana Museum of Modern Art – Denmark

Bahia Shehab



Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.” Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism

Six months ago, Louisiana approached me with two exercises, the first one was to produce an artwork for their exhibition ARAB CONTEMPORARY and the second one was to choose one item or element that represents what “Arab Identity” today means to me and bring it to Denmark, also to be exhibited at the same event.

Graffiti is a very ephemeral medium and I have grown accustomed to creating works of art that do not survive, that are not forever, that can be easily erased by any passer by or by the power that be if it happened to be pissed off by its message. The themes I sprayed where those of lost heritage and rejection, with the “Thousand Times No” project that originated in a museum and went on to the streets after the January 2011 revolution in Egypt. I kept working on the theme of loss, which continued with the project of the children of Assyuit where I sprayed 51 children who were killed on a train accident because of government’s negligence of public transport in 2012. I painted each child with their names and their dreams all over town in the hope of keeping a part of them alive. In a way my work is part expression part documentation, it is a reaction to what is going on around me. After spraying the walls and streets of Cairo for the past three years I did not feel the need to create a work of art that is permanent, because everything around me is changing so fast and everything is fleeting, especially memory. Since Louisiana’s first request left me the freedom of creation, I decided to paint on their wall a work that will be erased when the exhibition is concluded. This solution was  inline with where I am humanly and creatively; I am still surrounded by the themes of loss of lives and loss of heritage in the Arab world.

On the theme of loss, a serious cultural disaster to our heritage was losing the minaret of the great mosque of Aleppo, which was bombed in April of 2013. Yasser Tabbaa calls the mosque “a continuation of the ancient North Syrian churches and an entirely localized phenomenon, centered mainly in the region between Aleppo and Edessa.” While Ernst Herzfeld calls the architectural style of Aleppo’s minaret “a product of Mediterranean civilization”, the Encyclopedia of Islam confirms that “the minaret was quite unique in the whole of Muslim architecture.”  I am not undermining the loss of over 150,000 lives killed till now in Syria’s civil war, I just want to highlight that what is being lost is not only human lives but also thousands of years of human heritage, history and collective memory. In this exhibition I pay tribute to a very important, somehow forgotten and unfortunately now controversial structure in Europe and the Western world, the minaret.

As a human being living in the Arab world, from one side our heritage is being physically destroyed, and on the other it is being attacked intellectually and labeled as backwards and terrorist by Western countries. In here I site the 2009 decision that was voted on in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets with the famous poster that circulated featuring the image of a woman wearing a black niqab, a face veil while the flag of Switzerland illustrated in the background with Ottoman pencil shaped minarets protruding from it as if they were missiles. It was disappointing to see the Islamophobic and xenophobic side of Europe so bluntly and openly displayed to the world. If it reflected anything, it reflected a culture of fear instead of the culture of tolerance and openness that the West keeps promoting that they stand for.

Throughout history, minarets spanned the Islamic empire from Casablanca to Baghdad. A minaret is an integral part of the urban fabric for most of the cities in the Arab world. It is a monument that can be seen from a far distance, a recognizable feature for travellers to feel that they have arrived to a city where Islam is practiced. It is not  only part of the landscape but it is also by virtue of the “adhan”, the Muslim’s call for prayer, an integral part of the unmistakable soundscape of a predominantly Muslim city.

If you visit one of the old mosques in Cairo it is surprising how quite the courtyard  is. After walking  in  very  busy  loud  streets you  arrive  to  a  serene  peaceful space that is almost noise free. The only sound you hear when you are inside is the call for prayer that is usually emitted from the minaret. In the modern city with all of the noise  pollution,  the  calls  for  prayer  from  the  minaret  are  sometimes  muffled.  The increase  of  small  neighborhood  mosques  that  are  not  supervised  by  the  government  all raising the call for prayer at the same time on cheap sound equipment only adds to the chaotic soundscape of the city. Even in the Arab world the minaret as a symbol has lost its  impact  amidst  the  Islamic  revival  and  its  strange  alliance  with  parasitic  capitalism where  the  idea  of  giving  and  alms  become  associated  with  building  mosques;  and  when urban and city planning became a de facto absence with corruption of officials and so-­- called  city  planners.

For my artwork I wanted a sound installation that negates all of the above, a sound that represents a new perspective on the region. The first person in the history of Islam to raise the call for prayer was Bilal. The Prophet chose him because he had the most beautiful voice. Only 100 years ago the adhan was chanted in the Hussien area of Cairo to different musical scales on every day so the people could tell which day of the week it was. Just like red roses were hung outside a sick man’s door to tell the street sellers and the passers by to keep their voice down because there is a sick man in this house. The noise of the city was controlled to provide comfort to it inhabitants. I kept looking for a call for prayer from the old recordings of the old master reciters to reflect the beauty of the adhan to my audience. But after going through many recordings I discovered that what I am looking for could not be found in the past but had to be  created in the present. I decided to have the call for prayer raised by the voice of a woman instead of a man. Mai Kamal is a 21-­-year-­-old mezzo soprano training at the Cairo Opera House. After several working session we were able to produce a new call for prayer, the one that is currently playing at the Louisiana ARAB CONTEMPORARY exhibition. For the past 1400 years only men have been raising the calls for prayer all over the Arab world; I felt that it was time for the feminine to raise their voices with the same chant calling for people “to hasten to worship and to hasten to success” using Mai’s melodious young strong voice.

The work for Louisiana features 20 minarets from different cities in the Arab world illustrated in proportion to each other, starting with the smallest minaret from Mogadishu and ending with the tallest from Abu Dhabi. The Aleppo minaret stands where it should have been in the lineup, but as rubble. After painting the minarets it became evident that the structure, when compared on face value just by placing it in terms of height next to its cousins in the different countries of the Arab world, lent some interesting  findings.

The height of the minaret became an indicator to the economic status of its hosting country and its marginality economically and culturally within the Arab world. It is logical that the countries with the most economic strength will want to prove their piety and adherence to Islam by building higher and higher structures, thus we find that the tallest minarets in the Arab lands lie in countries where there are monarchies in the government seats. The tallest minaret in the Arab world can be found at the mosque of Hassan II in Rabat – Morocco standing at 210m. Its height is almost double that of the second highest minaret in the Arab lands which is in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates at 107m in height, which I chose to feature in the artwork. Because Morocco historically has had a long history in building durable high minarets I decided to feature a historic tall minaret from Morocco, which can be found at the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh standing at 77m. The line-up of minarets also yielded another interesting finding in regards to a country like Lebanon, which has the sixth highest minaret in the line- up even though economically and in terms of population the country is very small. Mohamad al-Amin Mosque with a 72m minaret was build by the now assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq el-Hariri in Beirut with support from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who has the second highest minaret in our line up with the minaret in Medina at the Masjid al - Nabawi standing at 105 m. All of the tallest minarets in the Arab world were built in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries except for Morocco’s which was built in 1199 CE and which stands as the fourth in my line up, interestingly build almost nine hundred years ago.

But just as the line-up reveals the powerful states, it also highlights the marginalized ones. The shortest three minarets lie in Arab countries that are in the African continent, Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan. It was very difficult to find exact dates for the minarets in these countries and a tentative by century date was assigned, there is very little documentation or study on these minarets. They are marginalized even in the collective memory.

As an artists and a historian I tend to look at works of art not just historically but also esthetically and it cannot be denied that Arab countries that are republic states currently host the most beautiful minarets in terms of design. Whether the malwia minaret in the Great Mosque of Samarra which was built in 851 CE, or the minaret at al-Azhar mosque built by the Mamluk Sultan al- Ghrui in 1509 CE with its double mibkhara. The richness in design and variety of the minarets in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Tunis and Egypt cannot be denied. It also cannot be ignored that these countries all went or are still going through political turmoil. Palestine is being systematically erased as a state to be replaced by Israel, Iraq was invaded by the United States of America and had a lot of its cultural heritage looted, Syria is suffering a civil war and Egypt and Tunis are in the midst of revolutions. These countries have paid the price in lives and heritage. The Egyptian thinker and political analyst Mohamad Hassanian Heikal estimated that in the past 60 years nearly 2 million Arabs have lost their lives in the attempt of eliminating the state of Palestine, the civil war of Lebanon, the invasion of Iraq and Libya, the different revolutions in Egypt and Tunis and currently the civil war in Syria.

But when all of these finding are put aside, I would still like to look at the minaret as a unifying structure that is present all over the Arab and Islamic world. Tall or short, built a thousand years ago or a year ago, beautiful or disproportioned, it is still the same symbol. The revolution is an awakening, a chance for us to rethink our present and try to change it. As a human who has been grieving the loss of almost two million Arab lives for the past six decades and has been awakened and changed by the revolution, I would like to pause and grieve the loss of the meaning of a structure. By showing the variety, size and presence of the other minarets, it becomes clear that even though the loss in heritage is grave we still have remaining cultural treasures to look out for and protect as heritage. The revolution is the realization of where you came from and who you are today, and a growing belief that you have the potential to change your future.

Louisiana’s second exercise was to choose one item or element that represents what “Arab Identity” means to me today and bring it to Denmark. It is always important to remember that Arab landscape and soundscape is not, and historically has not been exclusive to Islam and minarets, there are other voices and other religious beliefs in the region but what truly unifies the Arab world is the Arabic language.

You do not need to look far to recognize an object that has come from the Arab world. Arab artefacts can be found in most major art collections all around the globe just like Arab food stalls can be found on the streets of every major city in the world. When asked to choose an objects that represents the Arab world, I did not want to bring anything with me, because I know that a representation of the Arab world is already present in any city I go to, you just need to know where to look. Historically Arab culture has extensively contributed to humanity’s evolution in the sciences and the arts; it is only natural for it to be present in many places and on many cultural levels.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Arabic culture is its script. Arabic calligraphy has graced the walls of many buildings across the Arab world from Rabat to Baghdad. It has been applied to books, plates, carpets, garments, cups, woodwork, rock crystal, coins, vases, tiles, doors, and much more, on many items in many mediums and in varying sizes and styles. From writing whole Quranic verses on a grain of rice to painting huge verses on big domes and minarets, Arab calligraphers have used the Arabic script to communicate messages and also to decorate and inspire their audience.

Housed at the David collection in Copenhagen is a very precious engraved piece of wood taken from the Quran lectern of judge Zain eddine Yahya produced in Cairo-Egypt in 848H/1444CE. I chose this lectern to be my object for Louisiana’s exhibition. By moving an object from one institution in Demark, one that highlights and features the history of Islamic and Arab artefacts, the David collection, to another one that wants to deal with contemporary Arab culture, Louisiana, the point of a present global Arab culture became evident. The lectern was originally housed at the complex of judge Zain eddine Yahya who served in the court of the Mamluk Sultan Jaqmaq (842H/1438CE-857H/1453CE) . What is very special about this wooden panel is that it is one of the few Islamic portable artefacts that actually mention the name of the patron and a date of production. It reads:


“The most noble authority, the exalted, the Zayni, the majordomo of the exalted house, may his victory be glorious, ordered the construction of this blessed kursi in the months of the year eight and forty and eight hundred”.


By reading the calligraphy on the panel, a big story unfolds, a story that involves a judge who served a sultan and who built a big complex with a school and a mosque attached. By engraving the artefact with calligraphic writing, a piece of wood seizes to be a piece of wood, it becomes a small line in the much bigger story that narrates and preserves the history of a whole civilization.

The Arab world is in a state of constant flux, change and evolution. We have started on a journey in the hope of finding dignity in our countries, but not all journeys lead to the same destination. What we discovered is how different our views of what democracy is and how long the way still is. It is only through looking at history are we reminded of the value of what we have. Arab culture should not only be looked at or studied in Arab countries, it is found all over the world in different cities and on different levels as the Arab diaspora has unfolded from time immemorial. People of Arab origins are in every country in the world contributing to their societies as taxi drivers and waiters and shop owners but also as intellectuals, scientists, doctors, engineers and university professors. It is time for their collective voice to be heard, we have to start looking at a global Arab culture instead of one that is only linked to the locality or geography of Arab countries. Arab culture has extended beyond the boundaries of its geography and has been central to the formation of world civilization, and more specifically the West, its cultures, and its modernity.


List of Minarets:

1.Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates, completed in 2007 CE, height 107 m.

2. Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, Medina - Kingdom of Saudi Arabic, built between 622 and 2007 CE, height 105 m.

3. Sultan Qaboous Mosque, Muscat – Oman, completed in 2001 CE, height 90m.

4.Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakesh – Morocco, completed in 1199 CE, height 77m.

5.Grand Mosque, Kuwait City – Kuwait, completed in 1986 CE, height 74m.

6.Mohamad al-Amin Mosque, Beirut – Lebanon, completed in 2008 CE, height 72m. Mosque, Manama – Bahrain, completed in 1987 CE, height 70m.

8.King Hussein Mosque, Amman – Jordan, completed in 1923 CE, height 70m.

9.Grand Mosque, Doha – Qatar, completed in 2010, height 65m.

10.Maidan al-Jazira Mosque, Tripoli – Libya, completed in 1928 as the Roman Catholic Cathedral and converted in 1970 CE into a mosque, height 52m.

11.Great Mosque of Samarra, Samarra – Iraq, completed in 851 CE, height 52m.

12.Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo – Egypt, completed in 970-1509 CE, height 50m.

13.Great Mosque of Aleppo, Aleppo – Syria, completed in 1090 CE destroyed in April 2013 CE, height 45m.

14.Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem – Palestine, built between 705 CE and 1278 CE, height 37m.

15.Great Mosque of Sana’a, Sana’a – Yemen, completed in 1130 CE, height 34m.

16.Great Mosque of Algiers, Algiers – Algeria, completed in 1097 CE, height 32m.

17.Great Mosque of Kairouan, Kairouan – Tunis, completed in 836 CE, height 31.5m.a

18.Grand Mosque, Khartoum – Sudan, completed in the 19th Century CE, height 30m.

19.Great Mosque of Chinguetti, Chinguetti – Mauritania, completed in the 13th Century CE, height 12m.

20.Abdulaziz Mosque, Mogadishu – Somalia, completed in the 11th Century CE, height 10m. 


For more info on the artist:

> via LOUISIANA-Museum Of Modern Art