In a desperate attempt to lighten the tensions I often feel living in a fast-paced urban environment, I attended a short course titled Planetary Patterns: Exploring the Geometry of the Solar System at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, in London. This unusual antidote healed me: I revisited a magical world, and experienced silence, calm and focus. As part of the programme, each day began by invoking a planet. We had to honour these planets through music, meditation and finally through sacred geometry. We were introduced to the coincidences of mathematical ratios existing everywhere, from the human body to the solar system and more learnings from the sacred arts.
We then spent two days learning how to create our own pigments by following Old World alchemical processes and foraging. Principles of medieval and Islamic Art propose removing the ego from the artist. What remains is a messenger of the divine. One feels positively enslaved by a sacred art. Another pillar of this art is using material you create yourself- since that too would carry this divine energy. Our professor, Daniel Doherty, deeply committed to such practices, was a generous, ethereal and patient pedagogue. I was envious of his ability to resolve his urban tensions. He lived by a stream in Surrey, and could easily forage for rocks that would then turn into stunning hues, many of which he shared with us.
Days later, Ayesha Gamiet took us on the journey of exploring fantastical creatures in medeival Islam and manuscript illumination. I fell through this rabbit hole of absorbing the layouts of manuscripts, learning the painting technique halkar, which used the finest possible paint brush and deep, rhythmic breathing to lightly paint imaginary forests full of animals steeped in symbolic meaning. The patience, devotion and pain demanded by a single page was counter-intuitive (today, quick printing and digital resources are everywhere), yet instilled so much determination in us to complete this task. Finishing felt like conquering a mountain.
Returning to Dubai, I wondered whether I would be able to forage for colour and build my own manuscript as well. What did foraging look like in the urban world anyway? Could searching for colour bind me with the natural world, in a way that would ease my city life exhaustion? Would it mean that the principles of the ancient world would need to be reimagined and reconfigured to suit today’s urban world? Could I carry Daniel with me through a supermarket aisle and link it to the magical stream strolls he described? Could I experience the same kind of wonder when stumbling across a vegetable in the produce aisle, as one would when encountering a sandstone with huge potential? Or would the adrenaline rush of stealing residue and dust from a stranger’s car in my parking lot equal the controversial smuggling of pigments through trade? Would experimenting with hygiene products evoke that same youthful anticipation at a school science lab that we re-experienced in Daniel’s workshop? I believed that by introducing the archaic into the hyper-contemporary, I had the potential to catalyze a new lens that inspires different paces, melds pasts and transfers knowledge.
As I began to create these colours, knowledge and problem-solving came very naturally to me. I do after all, practice alchemy in the food that I cook everyday. I easily understood that almost any material I was drawn to could be ground, pounded, boiled and bound to turn into a colour. The act of foraging for these colours itself became a way to map Dubai and experiment the different ingredients on display. The tourist-ridden Deira Spice Souk was no longer just a place to oggle over bygone spices and herbs, or use them in the culinary or medicinal worlds. Global Village became a platform for bargaining over Lapis Lazuli- one of the most expensive pigments in the world--for prices close to nothing. A friend saved me pollen from a bouquet of flowers received from her husband, who needed to find a way to celebrate their marriage anniversary. Dust and residue of an abandoned car in my building--the very symbol of economic flight in Dubai--turned into a deep bluish gray.
This project grew past making colour. Every aspect of this body of work has been collaborative: conversations with vendors, alchemists, Campus Art Dubai tutors and colleagues; existing culinary and urban research commissioned by my day job; delivering workshops on this secret practice and transferring knowledge at hosting institutions.
Finally, the most important collaboration of all has been working with the materials themselves. The silent agreement I made with each material was to allow it to express itself and reinvent itself into the colour of its choice. Once a colour was produced, though at times unexpected, perhaps even disappointing, I promised it that it would be a shade I would honor, name, respect, and showcase.
The project will be presented as an installation peppered with colour studies, encounters and recipes on paper and silk.
This project was supported by the Jameel Arts Center Research and Practice Programme, The Alchemy of Dyeing and Art Dubai.
Launched in 2012, Campus Art Dubai (CAD) is an internationally-recognised community arts residency programme which works closely with UAE-based creatives to provide them with an incubator for ideation, development and mentorship. The programme is led by tutors Uzma Z. Rizvi, Murtaza Vali and programme curator Munira Al Sayegh in addition to a thoughtfully chosen group of local and international guest instructors that are invited to co-present and teach. CAD 8.0 called for artists to engage with the city and its culture through conversations with various stakeholders, historians, cultural practitioners, critics, academics, curators, gallerists, and peers, further developing the creative ecosystem in Dubai.
Working with the theme ‘Animal/Vegetable/Mineral: Symbiotic Life in a Parasitic World,’ the artists (Ameena Al Jarman, Layan Attari, Zahra Jewanjee, Zena Adhami and myself) present process works highlighting the critical nature of the climate crisis, especially in relation to the recent global political call to action towards a more sustainable future.
Photo Courtesy Kathleen Hoare, (2020).