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The key aspect of my project.


My project’s core focus is the exploration of the various effects and meanings—visual, spiritual and political — of the constellatory nature of geometric pattern. The installation based on Islamic tessellations in fact addresses the critical issue of cross-cultural translation and global geopolitics as a central repeating motif reproduces in fact the layout (or bird’s eye view) of the Pentagon. The integration of the architectural plan of the American Department of Defense located in Virginia, U.S.A. into the wider overall aesthetic of Islamic pattern proposes an interesting critical rereading of both. My particular interest in the materiality, rhythm, and visual effects of the geometric interlocking constructed shapes and the organic quality created by their arrangement, renders only more salient the underlying intended intercultural and anti-war theme made evident by the implied symbolic coming together of the often polemical American discourse on Islam with the Islamic tradition. Revealing similarities between cultures and/or a possible space for Islam within American society is intended to evoke the Qur’anic verse from the Surah al-Hujurat (49:13), putting forth that nations and tribes were created to come to know and learn from each other.


The conceptual framework of my project.

The metaphor of beauty remains an essential element of Islamic culture that explains the continued relevance and resonance of the saying “Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty” (Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 0164). As a self-identified Muslim artist, I take this hadith to heart.  My art effectively attempts to create works in which the aesthetic and the conceptual are reconciled and reflect each other.  In this particular project, part of what I have currently titled “The Pentagon Series”, I wish to produce graphic symbols whose beauty represents and visually enacts the possibility of peace between the Muslim world and America, which of course symbolizes the West more generally. Being both North American and a Muslim facilitates the endeavor as my daily existence and artistic practice are informed by a positive double cultural vision. All too aware of the criticality of the present East-West cross-cultural misunderstandings, I searched for an emblem that would globally and unmistakably represent the United States but one which also possessed formal and symbolic characteristics associated with the Islamic world and more particularly with Islamic art so that I could radically alter -at least in visual terms- the current enmity and difference posited between the two cultures. Interestingly, the symbol I found that could best enable a powerful visual statement of unity may also be viewed as controversial. The Pentagon, while echoing the geometric emphasis of Islamic art, also simultaneously brings to mind the American war apparatus as well as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 allegedly committed in the name of Islam. It therefore formed the perfect site for a radical and innovative visuality as it both embodies the present conflict and possesses the potential seeds allowing for its rewriting into a symbol of human interconnectivity beyond the boundaries of culture and nation states.

Researching the building’s history, I effectively discovered parallels that could be drawn between the two cultures. While the Pentagon’s architect, George Edwin Bergstrom, was inspired by the architecture of army forts, the pentagonal shape stems in fact from the shape of the Arlington Farm tract upon which the institution was built and whose peculiar asymmetrical pentagon shape was due to the roads or other elements surrounding it. The combination of natural organic shapes with geometric ones lies at the heart of traditional Islamic art. It is the five-sided pentagonal design itself that is most evocative of Islamic art and that interestingly underscores a shared cultural heritage: the science of (both empirical and Neo-Platonic) geometry inherited from the ancient Greeks and transmitted to the Islamic world via the artisan guilds and texts such as the 11th century treatise of the Ikhwan al-Safa. In short, the quintessential architectural symbol of American military might can be given and does offer up an Islam-inflected and even transcultural reading. The Pentagon’s geometry served as the foundational feature and inspiration for the larger tessellating pattern design in which it has simultaneously become an integral part and a competing feature.

The Pentagon because it houses the American Department of Defense is intimately related to aggression, recalling not only the many wars waged by America but also violent acts carried out by Muslims that have only served to propagate Islamophobic discourse in mainstream Western media. As artist and Muslim, my responsibility in this project is to articulate in clear visual terms a redefinition of Islam and of East-West relations that, while harmonious, recognizes difference. The implied reference to infinity effected by the endlessness of tessellating pattern also recontextualizes these relations in terms of reference that transcend the geopolitical and suggest that tension and unity are able to co-exist. Moreover, pattern is transcultural and non-denominational in nature. As such this project will, akin to all of my work, use the language of pure visuality and visual beauty to operate and convey its message.


    Arwa Abouon, The Pentagon-Shamsiya, 2017; wool; 48 x 72 in. (121.9 x 182.9 cm);  commissioned by the FOR-SITE Foundation; courtesy the artist.  photo: Robert Herrick


Arwa Abouon, The Pentagon-Shamsiya, 2017; wool; 48 x 72 in. (121.9 x 182.9 cm);

commissioned by the FOR-SITE Foundation; courtesy the artist.

photo: Robert Herrick