‘Contemporary Muslim artists are fascinating’
KARACHI: Ethics is at the heart of contemporary Muslim artists’ works and to understand them we need to understand our times, said Prof Dr Jonas Otterbeck in his lecture on ‘Contemporary Muslim Artists and Creativity’ on Friday.
The event was held in the multipurpose hall of the Centre for Innovation in Medical Studies at the Aga Khan University Hospital.
Dr Otterbeck, who is a professor at the Institute of Muslim Civilisations in London, began his presentation by mentioning a few of his observations, the first of which was that pop culture was mass mediated. Being that it brings on some problems, such as that of originality.
In order to know originality one has to understand the mass mediated character of the culture, which is very much conditioned by consumer society, he said, adding: Nowadays, for example, the main gallery for most artists is the internet. A number of people are studying pop culture (anthropology, culture studies, sociology, etc) but they often have a blind spot –– they know very little about religion.
Dr Otterbeck said: “[These days] there is a massive engagement from Muslim artists all over the world whose ambition it is to come across as Islamic. They can do that critically and positively, their focus is on affirming their Islamic identity.
“It is not a marginal phenomenon. In 2014, the Muslim halal brand market was worth $1.8 trillion. In the list of top 500 influential Muslims of the year, art and culture is acknowledged. Recently, there were 46 artists (directors, writers, photographers, architects and novelists) on that list.”
Dr Otterbeck showed an image of a painting made by Ruh al-Alam, a London-based artist of Bangladeshi descent. It led him to talk about the concept of ‘anchorage’ and a way of exploring heritage and tradition. He then discussed the comic book figure Ms Marvel (Kamala Khan) who has Pakistani roots and Muslim background. Her first costume was a burkini. It is part of American identity politics, a tale of youngsters trying to find themselves in American society. It is one of Marvel’s most popular comics, soon to be made into a film.
After that Dr Otterbeck shifted his focus to creativity. He quoted from statements of a few of scholars and artists on the subject such as Tariq Ramadan and South African singer/songwriter Zain Bhikha who stress on the importance of responsibility to audience and consistency.
The last segment of Dr Otterbeck’s presentation was about a music production company, Awakening. He said it was formed in London in 2003. In the beginning it carried works of artists such as Sami Yusuf and later Maher Zain (whose songs Dr Otterbeck mentioned on a few occasions during his lecture). It has produced many albums and has had 6.8 billion views on YouTube.
Giving a sense of the philosophy of the company, he quoted views of Awakening’s CEO, Sharif Banna. For example, “Our challenge is to articulate a vision transcending identity politics and more towards Islamic humanism.” He said, ‘charity’ was a key element for artists [associated with it] because, as Mr Banna has espoused, “Civic engagement is not limited to political participation.”
Dr Otterbeck at that point emphasised that Awakening is “part of an ethical turn”.
Concluding his presentation, he said Muslim contemporary artists are fascinating. [Even] scholars are [now] paying attention to them. We need to know that their creativity is related to faith, and ethics is at the heart of it all. [But] almost all art is part of consumer culture logic. We need to understand our times.