Babak Kazemi

Pop Goes the East

Eric Parnes on pop culture, being Iranian-American, and the 15th Islamic Arts Festival

Currently exhibiting in Sharjah is the 15th Edition of the long-running Islamic Arts Festival. Featuring over 1,700 works of art from a variety of mediums, including painting, installation, and video art, and showcasing pieces from 45 local and international exhibitions from 18 countries, the festival is among the most prominent of its kind in the Middle East.

Over the holidays, I chatted with the festival’s headlining artist, Eric Parnes, about the exhibition, his artistic journey, and the concept of ‘Islamic Art’, among other things. 


What themes and ideas were most prominent in the festival?

This was the first year I was actually approached by Sharjah’s Art Directorate of the Department of Culture and Information – the Islamic Arts Festival’s designated coordinators – and asked to participate through a solo show featuring my work, so I don’t have any previous experience with the Festival to accurately assess exactly how the 15th Edition differs from the previous ones. However, at this year’s private inauguration event (which took place on December 12), the Ruler of Sharjah – His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi – reiterated the ideals for the program to be a global pioneer in its comprehensive embrace of, and showcase of, authentic examples of Islamic Art from different periods and regions, wherever they happen to originate from.

The 15th Edition of the Islamic Arts Festival’s promoters also expressed that this year’s production aimed to offer a balanced presentation of ‘classic art’ based on traditional foundations, along with ‘contemporary-like’ [sic] art that will offer fresh concepts, but that are held to the standards of what they believe to be ‘Islamic Art’. I intentionally quoted the phrase ‘contemporary-like’ from the Festival’s official press release simply to demonstrate the underlying hesitations that permeate all modern-day considerations when Islamic Art is poised to be reintroduced in the languages of contemporary art.

Ultimately, if applied correctly, contemporary Islamic Art should be created in a thoughtful way that is truly meaningful to our present human condition. It shouldn’t just simply utilise ‘innovative modern techniques and mediums ruled by digital technology’ [sic].

I think this has probably been the primary challenge for the Festival this year, or for anyone working with new voices in Islamic Art being introduced anywhere today. At this Festival, there was even an official presentation of a special seminar entitled The Versatile Compositions of Islamic Arts, which brought together various scholars, who specifically discussed how contemporary art has surfaced in Islamic Art projects within the past twenty years, amongst other subjects that needed to be addressed when reassessing the question, what exactly is ‘Islamic Art’ now?

So, what exactly is Islamic Art?

Good question. Based on the simplicity of the term ‘Islamic Art’, it would seem quite simple to describe, but it is in fact quite complex. The technical definition of Islamic Art comprises a time period from the advent of Islam to modern times, roughly over a span of 1,400 years. I feel it’s best to say that the term can simply be used to describe artwork that was adapted, created, and refined within the geographical boundaries of the Middle East and the Islamic-influenced world.

Eric Parnes

From Eric Parnes’ Henna Hand series

As the headlining artist, you have a few works on display – can you tell us a bit about them?

Indeed! The one-man exhibition that I was invited to produce was the show selected to open this year’s Festival in its schedule of events. I was actually given very little advance notice and time to prepare, when the coordinators suddenly initiated the dialogue and requested my immediate participation.

I would much rather have preferred to have, say, close to maybe even a year of advance notice so I could have sufficient time for my own personal creative process – as well as time to figure out the technical needs to satisfactorily bring forth the concept in an aesthetically pleasing way – and then present a series of artworks that together explored one particular theme; and the theme of what is, or could be, Contemporary Islamic Art, is one that is very interesting and multilayered, and can give birth to quite a handful of different conceptual series.

With the little time that I was given, I gathered a selection of various pieces that all fall within the category of what I must insist on calling ‘trademarked’ Neo-Orientalism – if you know the art theory I work with, you know why – and that all still nonetheless explore what we know as ‘traditional’ Islamic arts in different ways. For instance, the exhibition’s canvases featuring portrayals of classic academic Orientalism, yet incorporating various high-end fashion designer symbols, or the large-format photographic prints of henna hands featuring brand name logos such as that of Gucci, for example, all address the challenges that contemporary Islam faces with the global advance of consumer culture.

Which works (aside from your own, of course!) do you find most interesting? Are there any artists in particular we should be keeping an eye on?

When I come across artworks that I find thoughtful and/or aesthetically refreshing, my mind immerses itself into experiencing the piece itself and, lost in that imaginative world, I unfortunately thus forget to memorize the name(s) of the artist(s) behind the work! It’s the produced work that catches my attention and keeps me fixed under its spell, not the fact it was made by someone famous, or, say, a person with an interesting face. But I’ll still try to answer this question as best as my memory serves me!

There’s been so much modernisation and commercialisation in [the Middle East], and it’s so visible everywhere how people are influenced by pop culture and corporate infiltration – it’s simply a part of everyday life. One might not even notice it. I do.

I am definitely compelled to mention Soody Sharifi, a US-based émigré artist of Iranian descent, who has been actively producing work for almost a third of a century. Her works are informed by her lives and experiences in both countries, and especially interesting is her fascination with 15th – 16th Century Persian miniatures, which she brings up-to-date by inserting contemporary characters through the technique of collage. She is a master of the art of miniatures, and pays genuine attention to detail.

Another artist of Iranian background, Babak Kazemi, focused primarily on a southern Iranian city heavily affected by the Iran-Iraq war, Ahvaz. Babak’s surreal visions of this city reportedly come from his childhood memories of the region, and also contain references to the power and influence of oil in Iran’s sociopolitical culture. References to Mickey Mouse and other Western symbols of Americana are also interestingly placed in his work, giving another dimension to the story underneath the surface of his artworks.

Soody Sharifi

Soody Sharifi – B Film Set (courtesy Galerie Kashya Hildebrand)

As well, Azerbaijan-born artist Rashid Alakbarov has a visually arresting technique he is developing, in which he uses a clever arrangement of wooden planks and other such objects that somehow project intangible works that come to life through a play of shadows and lights. Also, French designer and artist Jonathan Bréchignac’s revisiting of the traditional Muslim prayer rug – a life-size replica made of paper, painstakingly drawn to absolutely insane intricacy exclusively with black ballpoint pens – is a visual testament to human patience and dedication. It reportedly took him over a year to scribble every little intricate detail of the paper prayer rug I saw here at the festival.

I have to admit, I also took great interest in the festival’s nod to the past with its special exhibition of rare Egyptian calligraphy templates, tools that were used by ancestors of this generation to transfer Arabic writings to stone walls or objects. It was quite a marvel to see this archaic invention, a type of early stencil.

Aside from coming from Muslim nations, do you feel there are any other elements bringing all the artists in the festival together?

Actually, including myself, quite a few of the artists featured at this edition of the Festival do not reside in Muslim nations, such as Jonathan. There are also those from British, American, and Indian countries.

Returning to what we spoke about earlier, the Islamic Arts Festival makes a laudable attempt to explore both old and new appearances of ‘Islamic’ Art, which is a complicated label, as it heads into the murky area of prohibitions of certain graven images, and also is broad enough to include the arts related to Islamic traditions, such as calligraphy, ceremonial carpets and rugs, wardrobe fashions, jewelry, and other such domains.

The Festival boasts to have brought together over 1,700 works of art from eighteen counties. It’s quite an effort!

There’s recently been a surge of interest in the art world in works from Turkey and Azerbaijan. What can you say about the Turkish and Azerbaijani works being featured at the festival?

Indeed, there were a number of artists from those countries besides Rashad Alakbarov. I think, from an ‘art industry’ standpoint, in the immediate years to come, we’re going to see a lot more attention paid to the developing contemporary art markets of Turkey and Azerbaijan, as well as other formerly overlooked art worlds.

Rashad Alakbarov

Rashad Alakbarov – Shabaka

As opposed to the majority of artists who hail from Muslim countries, you were born and raised in the States, and are currently based there. How does it feel now to be headlining an Islamic arts festival in Sharjah, just a stone’s throw away (OK, maybe a bit further than that!) from Iran, your ancestral homeland?

Hah. Answering that question would probably unleash a never-ending cornucopia of self-analysis and the intangible concept of one’s identity. The recent surge of interest in my work, amongst them the personal invitation to this Islamic Arts Festival, in the countries and regions of my ancestors has definitely affected me as an artist as well as on a deeply personal level. It’s still being processed, because I do see the two worlds from both ends – from the East, and from the West. I can be found somewhere in there.

When I look at the modern-day countries of the Middle East, I also think back to of what was before – say, before Iran was even Iran, and when it was known as the centre of the Persian Empire; or, likewise, ancient Mesopotamia. There’s been so much modernisation and commercialisation in these lands, and it’s so visible everywhere how people are influenced by pop culture and corporate infiltration – it’s simply a part of everyday life. One might not even notice it. I do.

In addition to headlining the festival, you’ve also completed a residency in Doha – what other Middle Eastern escapades await, Eric?

Indeed, I’ve suddenly experienced a whirlwind of activity with my artworks in these regions, and more projects are actually in development as we speak. I don’t have any announcements to make as of yet, but there are quite a few to come, I believe. There are a lot of opportunities here, and I need to filter and prioritise them. There’s an old Persian expression: don’t pick up two watermelons with one hand. Hmm, maybe I can pick up two watermelons with one hand – I’ve never tried!

Eric’s works are currently on display at the Maraya Art Center, above the Barjeel Art Foundation. The Islamic Arts Festival runs through January 12, 2013.

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, Frieze, The Columbia Journal (whose Guest Editor he served as in 2016), The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, a novella (Coming Down Again), a collection of stories (With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes), and a volume of poetry (Lovers of Light).