Contemporary art News United Kingdom

British artist traces graffiti's Muslim roots

The history and impact of street art is explored at Islamic arts festival in East London

Mohammed Ali, a muralist from Birmingham who goes by the name of Aerosol Arabic, presented a short, unconventional history of graffiti beginning with a 13th-century Muslim artist

A two-day festival and exhibition of art, music and poetry by Muslim artists or artists celebrating Islamic culture closed in East London on 31 October. Part of the World Islamic Economic Forum, which was held this year for the first time in a non-Muslim country, MOCAfest (Marketplace of Creative Arts) brought together 30 artists from around the world, including several graffiti artists. Qasim Arif Illm, a calligraphy artist from the Netherlands, exhibited canvases that fuse Arabic scripts with graffiti lettering, while Mohammed Ali, a muralist from Birmingham who goes by the name of Aerosol Arabic, showed paintings inspired equally by the Quran and the New York subway art movement of the early 1980s.

Ali also gave a talk on 31 October called “Utilising the power of street art”—a title he was quick to distance himself from in favour of presenting a short, and unconventional, history of graffiti beginning with a 13th-century Muslim artist, Abi Al-Hassan Al-Hawari. “He would write his name in chalk in public places; in this sense he is the first tagger that we know of,” Ali said. (Graffiti, however, dates much further back and has been found on ancient buildings in Pompeii, Rome and Egypt.)

The artist added that the lack of depictions of god in Islamic art meant that words became dominant art forms. “Graffiti then became an expression of the word of man rather than the word of god” he said. Rather than rejecting religion, however, Ali’s work embraces Islam. He has created a series of painted cubes inspired by the Kaaba at Mecca, which are installed in Oman and Sweden, as well as many murals that reference passages in the Quran. But the artist is also quick to promote the social and political power of art. “Art can change the world we live in,” he says.

Indeed, the recent surge in street art and graffiti in Arab Spring countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya reflects and, in some cases, triggers political change. But, as Ali points out, this is not such a new phenomenon. “The Western-centric view of the world has shifted in the past couple of decades and with that other histories of art have opened up, including that of graffiti art. If you look at calligraphy and Arabic script, there’s a long history of graffiti in the Muslim world,” he says.

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