Contemporary Muslim artists continue to adapt Islamic patterns to challenge notions of established cultures

What is culture? In today’s globalized world, we are used to seeing various cultural objects and ornaments outside of their original location or context.

If culture is not fixed and tied to a specific place, how does culture move and change?

Ornament in Islamic art – patterned decorations or embellishments seen on objects or in architecture – is a great example of one such cultural movement that can be found around the world today.

Over the centuries, Islamic geometric patterns and arabesque (Islimi) designs – also known as biomorphic floral patterns – have migrated from East to West.

These patterns have been built upon and adapted, and as such may not even be recognized as being shaped or influenced by Islamic societies.

Islamic Art Influence on Western Design

What may appear to some to be a thoroughly British design in certain contexts, such as the pattern in William Morris’ Holland Park rug, is actually inspired by Islamic arabeseque (Islimi) ornamentation.
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rawpixel)

For example, the 19th-century English designer William Morris—known for patterns that became prominent in the fabrics, furniture, and other decorative arts of the Arts and Crafts movement—was inspired by the biomorphic floral patterns of Islamic arabesques (Islimi)- Ornaments inspire.

A current exhibition Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernityin the Musée des Arts decoratifs in Paris shows the influence of Islamic art on the designs of the French jewelry designer Maison Cartier.

What is fascinating about this exhibition is the pairing of jewels and precious objects with artefacts from Islamic countries such as a 14th-15th century Iranian mosaic tile. Century, which were the original source of inspiration for Cartier. This exhibition is moving to the Dallas Museum of Art in May 2022.

“Cultural Translation”

One reason for this cultural movement is the mobility of people and the portability of ornaments.

The term “cultural translation” coined by the cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha describes the act of translation, which is neither one nor the other cultural tradition, but rather the emergence of other positions. The root of the English word translation comes from Latin translate means “transfer” or “bring over”.

Movements resulting from migration lead to people’s acts of cultural translation. Translation is the negotiation that arises from the encounter of two social groups with different cultural traditions.

Cultural differences are never a finished thing for Bhabha. Migrant experiences exist at the borders or margins of different cultures and are in flux. Consequently, human translation of language or visual signs and symbols is an act of constant negotiation between cultures.

In this process, the migrant’s struggle operates in a process of transformation in the space between cultures, which is referred to as the third space. The third space is a hybrid space of negotiating cultural interactions.

Muslim Artists in the Diaspora

A good example of this kind of cultural negotiation occurs in the works of contemporary artists from culturally diverse backgrounds living in Western (diaspora) societies.

For Muslim artists in the diaspora, traditional Islamic art forms contextualize their connections to their cultural background into broader social, political and cultural concerns – concerns such as migration, cultural identity and diversity.

The Pakistani-Canadian artist Tazeen Qayyum uses the language of traditional Islamic ornamentation such as e.g A waiting pattern (2013) to examine what it means to live between two cultures.

At first glance, the viewer perceives an aesthetically pleasing geometric design reminiscent of arabesque tile work in Islamic architecture. However, a closer look reveals that the ornamental pattern is a repetition of the silhouettes of cockroaches.

In a recent article for Black Lightning Magazine, Qayyum explains this work:

“I also intricately painted a series of airport lounge chairs that are representative of the border area of ​​an airport, where migrants and refugees are neither here nor there, but instead await clearance upon arrival at Pearson Airport. The title “Holding Pattern” reinforces this thinking, as it denotes an aircraft waiting for clearance to land. It is a state of waiting that references my own shifted identity of living between two cultures, always in transit and never really at home.”


Contemporary cultural theorists such as Sara Ahmed and Bhabha have argued that such artists enter a mode of cultural translation.

A pattern etched goose is examined by a viewer wearing a hijab, seen from behind.
What do you see in this gold link pattern etched over geese and mallards?
(Soheila Esfahani), author provided

Artists destabilize the idea of ​​a monolithic culture and instead construct works influenced by culture sites that reflect an “intermediate space”: a site of dialogue that reflects these interconnected influences.

Recently, I have created artworks in which I examine cultural translation and question the displacement, dissemination, and reintroduction of culture by recontextualizing culture-specific ornaments. This work is for a three-person exhibition, The Art of Living: On Community, Immigration, and the Migration of Symbols, Jude Abu Zeineh, Soheila Esfahani, Xiaojing Yancurated by Catherine Bédard, at the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris (opening May 12, 2022).

At my work Mallard Reedsa vintage wood sign depicting a flock of Canada geese and mallards flying over a swamp at sunset has been laser engraved with an arabesque pattern.

By placing the arabesque pattern on the Canada Geese and Mallard Woodcut – a vintage “Canadiana” object – I want to question the origin of the culture and the role of ornamentation. I purchased this item from a local business where I live in the Waterloo, Ontario area that salvages and recovers wood materials. The sign apparently once hung on a restaurant.

This pattern is recreated from sections of the mosaic design of the inner dome of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.

Highly detailed embellishments in tones of gold, tan, teal and brown are arranged in circular patterns and are seen on a cobalt blue ceiling.
Detail of the inner dome of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, Iran.
(Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons)CC BY-SA

Also known as the Royal Mosque, this mosque is part of a complex of buildings in a city square that has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Experiences, cultures inform readings

As art historian Oleg Grabar notes in his book The mediation of the ornament: “…ornament is the ultimate mediator, paradoxically questioning the value of meanings by transforming them into pleasure. Or can one argue instead that by providing pleasure, ornament also gives the viewer the right and freedom to choose meaning?”

My work aims to become a mediator allowing the viewer to enter the third space and is based on an act of negotiation. Viewers’ unique experiences and cultures influence their reading of the work. This allows them to enter the “third space” by engaging in cultural translation: viewers transfer their culture over and onto the artwork and vice versa.

I am interested in the notion of third space not only in contemporary art/culture, but also as a means to open a space of dialogue across disciplines to mobilize multiple perspectives.

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