Decolonizing Environmental Art

By Ariana Akbari 

ON ISLAMIC ART TRADITIONS & THE ENVIRONMENTAL ARTS MOVEMENT

When we, in the United States, think about environmental art or art as environmental activism, National Geographic-style photographs of ducks covered in oil or rustic collages screaming “Save Earth Now!” probably come to mind. However, as a contemporary art critic whose studies blend art and architecture and Islamic Studies, what immediately comes to my mind is the predisposition of Islamic art to both incorporate and speak to the state of nature and the natural world, a predisposition heretofore untapped for the environmental cause. It would be beneficial for those interested in climate change and the arts to explore different visual and cultural modes of thinking about arts as activism. 

Islamic art is famously aniconic, meaning that it lacks figural representation, unlike almost all other world artistic traditions. Instead, Islamic art traditionally utilizes alternative means of expression, namely calligraphy, geometry, and vegetal patterns. The lack of iconography in Islamic arts is traced to the beginning of Islam, when the Prophet Muhammad entered the Ka’bah, a holy sanctuary in Arabia that served as a place of worship for both pagans and monotheists, and destroyed the hundreds of idols there, proclaiming that “There is no God but God,” or that only Allah should be worshipped. Although there is nothing in the Qur’an that explicitly states that humans and animals cannot be portrayed in Islamic art, the hadith – supplementary scriptures detailing the practices of the Prophet Muhammad – do make this clear. (Because “Islamic art” covers a wide expanse of time and geography, there is variation in these aniconic practices; however, these themes – calligraphy, geometry, and vegetal patterns – are consistent.)

So, what does this mean for Islamic art and the environmental movement? 

Roundel with Central Asian-style “Candelabra Tree,” displaying vegetal themes. 7th-9th century Syria or Egypt. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

Islamic art can employ alternative and powerful means for displaying and conveying the environmental imperative. Calligraphy in Islamic art is special because it is often Qur’anic and the Qur’an is considered the Holy Word of God. Therefore words, when written in calligraphy in Islamic art, are endowed with a sort of endemic power and holiness that might be more compelling than a typical English-language call-to-arms. At the same time, the recurrence of geometric themes could be evocative of geometries or fractals in nature – in the stars, in biological cells, in various plants. And the incorporation of vegetal themes provides a new challenge to dominant western modes by providing a contrast to themes of destruction caused by industrial might.

18th-century tile displaying geometric pattern, attributed to what is now Multan, Pakistan. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.
Album leaf of Shekasteh-ye Nasta’liq, attributed to Mirza Kuchak, early 19th-century Iran, displaying calligraphic patterns, geometric borders, and vegetal designs. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

There is also a significant vein of contemporary Islamic art that blends Islamic traditions with more secular, westernized art traditions. Here is another potential point of intervention for environmental artists – calligraphy can be superimposed on contemporary photography, and  geometric themes can be combined with more conventional or cutting-edge environmental slogans or symbols.

Amir Mousavi, Untitled, #8, from the series Lost in Wonderland I, Edition 1 (2011). Courtesy of the LACMA archives.
El Seed, Frankfurt project calligraphy (2012). Courtesy of the artist’s website.

Environmental art or art as environmental activism can be and must be more inclusive. All religious and cultural traditions should be given special consideration artistically, and the one which I can personally vouch for – culturally and by training – is the Islamic art tradition. In this tradition, environmental art might be holy and practiced and beautiful, invoking the words of God or written actions of the Prophet through calligraphy as they speak to the protection of the Earth. Environmental art could turn the Islamic concept of vegetal scrolls on its head, showing them wilting, breaking, or otherwise consumed or destroyed. Environmental Islamic art could reflect the imperfection of humanity back to us, set against the divine order and geometry of the perfect world that we were given by God and have chosen to recklessly squander. 

(Top image: Shirin Neshat, Bonding (1995). Courtesy of Shirin Neshat/Gladstone Gallery, NY & Brussels, via the Wall Street Journal.) 

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Ariana Akbari is the founder of Climate Justice Texas, an environmental advocacy program based in Southeast Texas, the heart of the oil and gas economy. She studied the History of Art & Architecture and the Comparative Study of Religion at Harvard College, with side jaunts at the University of Houston Hines College of Architecture and the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about corporate transparency, effectively-built spaces and community programs, and regionally-rooted art & design. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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