Market place for the Arts: Interview with Nadia Janjua

BismiLlah Al Rahman Al Rahim

In a previous entry, we have talked a little bit about the relation between Islam and Art (see post here), briefly underlining the importance of an artistic presence within the Muslim community, its contribution shapes it and presents it.

A couple months ago, a conference was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia that hosted the first Marketplace for the Arts, Nadia Janjua was among the artists present at the conference and a keynote speaker. Here is her summary of the event:

On May 18-19, 2010, the 6th World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) hosted its first Marketplace for the Creative Arts in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Artists came from countries such as Oman, South Africa, UK, Indonesia, and USA, showcasing visual art, media art, photography, music, dance, comedy, sculpture and films. Crowds poured in, consisting of college students, young professionals, businessmen and women, politicians, professors, and artists. The event drew in media attention from national and international outlets, engaged discussions between artists and audience members, and contributions from the Marketplace visitors quickly covered the Dome, a structure constructed out of primed canvas on which everyone was invited to leave their mark.

One of the aims of the Marketplace was to recognize a contemporary identity and strong presence of Muslim Artists around the world. There were 29 artists total at the Marketplace, mostly from different countries. In meeting each other we recognized that the Muslim world is exploding with talented artists and creative professionals, but there are no networks connecting us. There are no databases of professional Muslim artists that can be tapped into for resources, exposure, mentorship, consultation, etc.

Identifying platforms and partnerships to encourage young artists to pursue their creative expressions was also initiated at a panel discussion I moderated during the Marketplace event; it included a Theatre Director from Malaysia, a painter from New York City, a Graphic Designer from Netherlands, and a calligraffiti painter from Oman, all of whom were successful, full-time, practicing artists in their respective fields. We discussed how there are no “Fulbright” or “Rhodes” Scholarships and grants in place to encourage emerging Muslim artists and art students to further develop their skills, seek mentorship, and have an intercultural exchange.

In addition, we began a dialogue about the necessity to employ and encourage Muslim Artists to be at the forefront of redefining the Muslim identity. In this way, supporting the arts holds significant potential for investment on the part of organizations, businesses or corporations, and even on an individual level. I had quite a few people tell me how refreshing it was to have such an enriching exchange between themselves and the artists; it was not a mere business card swap or a meaningless one minute chat, but it was a thoughtful discussion about a painting, or watching a film being screened, or tuning into international music and dance being performed on stage. It was a different scale of exchange – one that encouraged us to try and understand ourselves better, and each other.

The event was a defining moment, not only for WIEF, but also for us artists. It reminded us that art has the potential to change the way we think about ourselves, and our impact on our environments. Art and artists are one of the most effective tools in reaching beyond oppression and repression, and giving hope to people. Art shapes culture, it shapes identity. It is challenging, it is dramatic, it can be the most peaceful form of communication in the midst of a self-serving, aggressive, political atmosphere. Art gives people a voice, and it can change policy.

The young WIEF staff have been visionaries in recognizing this powerful connection with art, and they have provided an international platform for artists to speak on and showcase their works. In the aftermath of the Marketplace, I have begun to make contacts for the database of professional Muslim artists, along with a fellow artist from the panel; we plan to make the database available and accessible on an open web network. WIEF has formed a chapter called “WIEF Young Leaders Network” to connect young, creative people through various scholarships and internships, and to facilitate a recreation of the Marketplace in their respective countries. Also, I am seeking partnerships with professionals in the arts industry, and grassroots or not-for-profit organizations to provide opportunities, funding and mentorship for emerging artists.

If we’re going to keep the momentum ablaze, we have to work together. Alone we can shine, but together we are illuminated from the inside, and that is a force unstoppable.

Please spread the word. Share this note. Share your thoughts. Send some spiritual support. Contact me at to find out more information about how you can contribute.

Peace & Love,
NJ (

Sadly, I did not attend the event but I had the chance to ask Nadia a few questions after reading this piece.

YMW: What is a Muslim identity from your point of view? Is someone considered Muslim by name or his attitude?

NJ: I think the Muslim identity, artist or not, is ever-changing, and responds to its context. It’s not always encouraged to do so, as it should be, but look around and you’ll see that’s what’s happening naturally. In terms of art, Islamic traditions of poetry and storytelling are being revived and expressed through hip hop today. Calligraphy has become “calligraffiti,” typography, or variants of traditional styles. Islamic dress has become a fusion of respective local trends, still aiming to emphasize modesty and composure, while being unique and stylish. Patterns of town and community planning still exist, but the form is different; our spiritual centers may not be Mosques in the traditional sense, but could be a space in the basement of a church, or a rented apartment. The essence of arabic calligraphyand geometric patterns on surfaces is mimicked by paintings or other forms of two-dimensional visual art which serve to evoke the remembrance of Allah and reflect the beauty of creation.

This is actually a really exciting time for Muslim artists because we constitute the creative body of pioneers who are shaping the contemporary Muslim artist identity, both in the Western and Eastern parts of the world. Our cultures, attitudes, approach, and spiritual ambience are influencing our identities, collectively and individually; we’re evolving, and our presence is gradually being recognized on a larger scale.

YMW: What makes us different from the rest of the artists? What would we bring for the world?

NJ: At the most basic and general level, Muslims consider spiritual needs as well as physical and worldly ones. Art is never for art’s sake; it is never purely utilitarian or luxurious. Art is life, life is art; it is not divorced from every day life and we are encouraged to seek wholesomeness and beauty in everything we do, whether it is in the way we speak, the way we dress, the intention we make before an act, in our greetings of peace to each other, or our creative expressions.

YMW: Should we be first considered Muslims then artists? Or vice-versa?

NJ: Pondering over whether you’re a Muslim first or an artist first is like asking “Did you have black hair first, or brown eyes?” Being Muslim is part of your existence; being an artist is part of your existence. Everyone has the capacity to use their senses to recognize, reflect and express. To quote Ananda Coomaraswamy, a great philosopher of Indian Art, “the artist was not a special kind of man but every man was a special kind of artist.”

YMW: Is Islam restricting art? Is it imposing a certain style?

NJ: Islam is a religion that strongly encourages art. Sadly, that’s been misconstrued tremendously over time, by both Islamic and non-Islamic communities. Islam encourages its followers to “do what is beautiful, for God loves beauty,” to “enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong,” to speak out against injustice, to be balanced and follow a middle way in doing so, and to be conscious of God. In this respect, the way we conduct our daily lives is an embodiment of art.

Also, art  became central to Islamic civilization with its structures, in every day objects, in literature, in oral tradition, etc. over time. It’s important to remember that there were no artistic traditions at the advent of Islam, as there were in the spread of Christianity or Buddhism, for example. Oral tradition and recitation soon became the first form of “art,” but there is no specific mention of art in the Quran, and thus a lot of room for interpretation and reflection in regards to its place in the religion. There is, of course, the warning in the Quran, and in the Prophetic tradition, of the punishment for making idols to worship in partnership with God that is often used to condemn the sculptural arts, but in essence that statement is not about art, it’s about theology.

Instead, the religion posits that one should act with intention and responsibility. Usually, when life is practiced and lived in such a way the outcome is more often than not, balanced and sound.


~ by youngmuslimworld on July 5, 2010.

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