Written by: Alia Raffia Ullah 2012-03-13 14:31:37
The literal meaning of the misunderstood word of Jihad is struggle or effort. Muslims use the word Jihad to describe three different kinds of struggle – a believer’s internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible; the struggle to build a good Muslim society; and the struggle to defend Islam.
In Britain the current usage of the word has become irreverent and provocative, unfortunately bearing connotations of terrorism and showing little signs of declining any time soon. Artistic Jihad was founded on the premise of the literal meaning of the term. Through the internal struggles of aspiring Muslim artists, in terms of multiple identities and community prejudice, British Muslim students are urged to reclaim the notion of ‘jihad’ providing a reflection of its true definition through artistic practice.
Founded in 2011, Artistic Jihad was created by the UK-based Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) – a national umbrella organization established in 1963, it is aimed at supporting Islamic Societies in pedagogical institutions. FOSIS represents the interests and topical issues of over 100,000 Muslim students studying at universities and colleges throughout the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Artistic Jihad is a nationwide talent search for the best Muslim student artists. Artists submit their work over the course of several weeks to be judged by a panel of eminent individuals in the Muslim art world. The chosen finalists will be awarded with a place to have their piece displayed in a special exhibition at the MICA gallery – Europe’s first modern Islamic arts space – and have their artwork tour the country as part of the Artistic Jihad Roadshow.
The main aims of the competition are not only to dispel the myth of the propaganda notion of ‘jihad’, but to inspire creativity and cultivate the talent of Muslim students. Salman Waqar, the Director of Artistic Jihad said “we hope to dispel misconceptions of art in the Muslim community and impart positive narratives about Muslims through art into the mainstream.” However, debate has emerged surrounding the competition examining the extent to which the concept behind Artistic Jihad is social, political or religious.
Political Art versus Islamic Art
It is very difficult to define political art. Through political and social art, we can challenge many of society’s deepest assumptions. Built upon the power of artistic creation and expression, political and social art enables critical thinking by inspiring individuals. Art then becomes a political act; a conscious effort to facilitate and participate in social change. The concept behind Artistic Jihad requires that students make explicit sense of attempts to politicize and aestheticize Islam through various artistic mediums. Through the production of political conceptual Muslim art we are able to deconstruct and examine socio-political structures that sustain diasporas in Britain.
Despite the potential political art carries for social change, one is left to question whether it falls under the realms of Islamic art. One may consider questioning the development of politicised contemporary Islamic art by asking; is any art form practiced by a Muslim “Islamic”? Is Islamic art only art that seeks to glorify god? Does British Muslim art require artists to move beyond realms of tradition so that they are no longer trapped in ethno-religious categories and their work can be considered relevant by mainstream arts institutions?
Artistic Jihad provides a perspective on the ways in which Muslims are responding to and challenging the politics of representation in the UK. This is being carried out through activism in the arts, providing a platform to facilitate changing attitudes to the production of Muslim art in Britain. As a pre-requisite the competition requires, artwork entered to adhere to Islamic principles; and submissions that are not part of the ‘typical’ Islamic arts or themes are encouraged. The artworks submitted into the competition range from the traditional and conservative to the contemporary and confrontational, showing the diversity of artistic practice by British Muslims and the response of second and third generation British born Muslims to the derogatory use of the term ‘jihad’ in the UK.
Not only does the competition reflect a political struggle, it also embodies a spiritual struggle many British Muslims face when trying to balance their multiple identities. It could perhaps be suggested that the politics behind British Muslim art, is in fact a developing subculture of Islamic art as it fosters and develops a greater understanding of Islam in the UK.
Supporting British Muslim Artists
Over the last decade there has been a huge growth in the development of artistic practice by Muslims in Britain. Whereas, once arts were considered by Muslim migrant communities as merely a hobby and an inappropriate career path, second and third generation British Muslims are now contributing to a flourishing Islamic art scene in the UK. Organisations and community projects supporting Islamic art and British Muslim artists are also steadily emerging.
Speaking to “Islam Online” about the importance of supporting Islamic Art in the UK Salman Waqar said; “Arts and culture are a key component of any society. The Muslim civilisations of the past were prolific contributors to the arts: a shared language that transcends many barriers. This talent has weakened over the years and we now find ourselves consuming trends rather than defining them. Our deen has values and principles that are to be a witness to all mankind, yet we struggle to encapsulate that message in the right language. The arts are a dialect we have yet to master. And so we’re working on creating and cultivating a generation who can do this.”
The Growing Islamic Arts Industry
Through projects like Artistic Jihad, it is evident there is a need to support this emerging Muslim talent in the UK. However, the ways in which Islamic art is traditionally known is steadily becoming transformed. Through influences from modern and contemporary western art, British Muslim artists are responding fast, making their works accessible and relevant to mainstream art markets. This is changing the ways that we view and consume Islamic art in not only Britain but across the globe.
British Muslim art is not just aesthetic and spiritual; it is also political and shows promise for inspiring social change. It is evident that a new movement of British Muslim artists are emerging, creatively challenging our perceptions through their experiences and this will impact the ways in which we view Islamic art in the future.