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Friday July 3, 2009

Spiritual street art

A graffiti artist colours his life and the urban landscape with inspiration from his Islamic heritage.

A PICTURE may paint a thousand words, but have you met the man who can use a word to create a thousand pictures? That man is graffiti artist Mohammed Ali.

Mohammed’s graffiti art, however, is not just random scrawls of spray paint. Inspired by Islamic scripts and patterns, his art explores themes relating to multicultural, contemporary societies.

Life’s path: Mohammed turned to religion at age 20 when a friend died and he began questioning where his life was headed.

Having dabbled in graffiti since he was a teenager, his rediscovery of Islam led Mohammed to put both these passions together. Since then, Mohammed has made a name for himself and he has exhibited his canvas-art and public spiritual murals in the streets of New York, Chicago, Toronto, Melbourne and Dubai.

Combining graffiti with Islamic art, Mohammed draws fascinating parallels between a modern art form and the rich Islamic creative heritage, by highlighting how each focuses on the beautification of words.

“One may assume that there is no room in Islam for creativity, but this is far from the case. Muslims have been expressing themselves through creativity for centuries,” says Mohammed in an e-mail interview from England.

He further explains that he was “truly inspired” when he discovered that “the word” was the central focus of Islamic art. “As a graffiti artist, I was already obsessed with the beautification of words. Graffiti art is essentially the decoration of the word of man, while Islamic art is the decoration of the word of God.

“I was fascinated by this parallel, and how these two art forms that appear to be opposites of each other actually share such a central focus.”

Hailing from Birmingham, 30-year-old Mohammed is no stranger to questions of identity. While he was born and brought up in Britain, his parents were migrants who had moved there from Bangladesh in the early 1960s.

“Like any other kid growing up as an ethnic minority group, I’ve always been confused about my identity. Am I a Brit? Am I an outsider? Am I both? I spoke, dressed and behaved like any other kid in the UK, and yet I would come across these barriers. I realised that your identity is really a hybrid of many things,” explains Mohammed.

Beauty of the word: Mohammed was truly inspired when he discovered that ‘the word’ was the central focus of Islamic art.

One of the things that helped Mohammed carve out an identity for himself was the hip hop culture. “It was a way of fitting in. Hip hop was the language of the people; no matter what race we were, it belonged to us, it let us express ourselves. The various elements of hip hop culture, like rap music, break-dancing and of course, graffiti, was spreading like wildfire to kids across the city,” he says.

As a teenager, graffiti appealed to Mohammed because of its accessibility. He describes it as an art form that was for the people, one that allowed youth to express themselves. “It wasn’t high art that was confined inside posh art galleries,” says Mohammed. “This was art bursting outside of the conventional art spaces.

“Our grey environments were literally transformed into colourful works of art, and we were leaving our mark on the city, claiming it for ourselves.”

At around the age of 20, Mohammed went through an experience that changed him profoundly. A friend of his passed away, leaving Mohammed with many questions on where his life was going. “For most of my life, I wasn’t very mindful of religion. My life was pretty hedonistic, and I was up to what any young person was doing in those times. With the death of my friend, I started thinking about the purpose of life, and started to grow tired of the lifestyle I was leading,” he shares.

This led him to rediscovering the faith he belonged to, Islam. “It had been on my doorstep all my life, but I had been oblivious to it. So, I began making changes in my life.”

This was how his art, which Mohammed calls “urban spiritual art”, was born. “It is graffiti art with a deeper conscious message. This art isn’t about me, in fact, it’s the opposite. It says, don’t look at me, look at everything but me, look around you, look at the world. It says, ignore the artist, but read the message.”

He adds that while his art may be inspired by Islam, it carries a universal message that people of all faiths and backgrounds can appreciate.

As he became more involved in his art, Mohammed realised that he had found his calling. He gave up his career as a graphic designer in the computer games industry and became a full-time artist.

“God had given me an ability to communicate visually, and I felt I needed to use that skill to better society and make a change in the world,” says Mohammed. “I have been witness to how art can change the world, I have seen it bring out emotions in people and even heal wounds in society. Anyone who doubts that just needs to stand with me on a street corner when I’m painting and see how people come together through art.”

Mohammed will be making his debut in Malaysia in the Arts segment of the Knowledge & Arts Tour 2009, organised by the Young Muslims Project and supported by the British Council, Asia e University, Yayasan Rasma and the Muslim Professionals Form. He will be creating a public mural with local graffiti group Phobiaklik from July 5 to 8 at the Kompleks Rakan Muda Bukit Kiara in Kuala Lumpur.

When asked what he plans to create for Kuala Lumpur, he says he first tries to make connections with a place he is visiting. “When I travelled to Australia, for example, I was inspired by the patterns of the indigenous community. Similarly, for KL, I am learning about batik patterns and looking at various landmarks in the city,” he explains.

He also plans to soak up as much local culture as he can, in order to create a meaningful mural. “I want to start talking to people, and understand what the issues are in the city. I want to try and tackle those issues head on. I like to present something positive in the art, almost as a solution.

“Say, we have a major racial problem, then I’d like to present the values of unity and brotherhood within the art, as a solution to the problems of racism.”

For more information, visit www.youngmuslimsproject.org

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