Inspired by a line from a 7th-century Arabic poem (the Mu’allaqat), Have Poets Left a Patch to Sew? invited artists and writers to respond to significant textiles.
This resulted in a diverse exhibition featuring Wiradjuri, Egyptian, Peranakan, and Riverina representation, including digital animations, soundscapes, video art, graphic design, artists’ books, textile art, a replica drawn from a 1918 Girl Guides’ uniform, and an experimental performance inspired by the 1933 ‘Human Glove’ murder investigation on the Murrumbidgee River near Wagga Wagga.
Curated for Trinity Grammar, Kew (in Melbourne, Australia) with the support of John Waller (Head of Art), this exhibition was designed for Australian secondary school students (Years 7-10) studying art, design, society and religion.
My intention was to challenge their expectations of ‘Islamic’ art by presenting an entirely digital and primarily secular exhibition, featuring screen-based and projected artworks from around the world.
Echoes & Identity included hypothetical architecture, time-based and experimental calligraphy, sound installations, choreographed dance, swimwear design, and interviews with artists. The final artwork was an HSP (Halal Snack Pack), the edible epitome of Australian contemporary ‘Islamic art’.
Trinity Grammar School –Halal Snack Pack (2017) (The artwork was a real HSP on a plinth. That link will take you to an overview of the HSP as a cultural statement by Ed Smith for Overland, September 2016)
In a collaboration between Charles Sturt University and the Museum of the Riverina, I will present a series of five lectures on aspects of Islamic art and design from Australian perspectives. These are free and open to the public, and form part of the subject ART240: Introduction to Islamic Art & Design at CSU.
The lectures will be held in the Historic Council Chambers from 5:30-6:30pm from Monday 21 November 2016, followed on consecutive Mondays.
An overview of each lecture, and seat reservations can be made through this link:
I presented a slide of an Afghan cameleer’s mosque to a conference of art historians last year, noting that this was Australia’s most distinctive contribution to Islamic architecture. Some of them laughed.
It was, after all, little more than a corrugated iron shed, stained and dented, a humble outback structure that serves its purpose and makes no claims to magnificence. Our “Afghan” mosques – made by skilled cameleers and traders from Afghanistan and beyond – are unique to Australia and they are remarkable. But should these 19th and early 20th-century regional buildings define our concept of a typically Australian mosque today?
Australia tends to be overlooked in historic and contemporary surveys of Islamic architecture. Our mosques are not statements of empire, nor are they lavish monuments or national icons. They are manifestations of the local communities they serve. They are comparatively understated, cosmopolitan and suburban.
Because of these characteristics, we never hear arguments for a “Golden Age” in Australian mosque design. This is excellent, because “Golden Ages” are nostalgic reconstructions that encourage pastiche at best and fundamentalism at worst. Instead, Australian mosques can showcase the plurality that supports our open, multicultural, inclusive future.
Mosques are part of the Australian suburban landscape. They have crucial roles to play in overcoming fears about Islam and supporting progressive values within Islam. The situation of Islam in Australia has been regularly and critically reviewed and will continue to be the subject of public conversations.
Those who oppose the building of mosques – such as Pauline Hanson, most recently – don’t recognise their potential to support Australian ideals and represent our shared history.
Whenever we move through the history of architecture, we find distinctive local forms. Mosques are no exception. This is a response not only to communities’ needs, but the prevailing systems of construction and accessible material resources.
To define an Australian mosque, we start by making a choice. Should we look for case studies from the regional spectacular or the suburban vernacular to showcase our national heritage? This is essentially a qualitative/quantitative decision. The rare and surviving-against-the-odds mosques of the Cameleers support “bush” narratives of outback hardship, isolation, resilience, masculinity and bare-boned purposefulness.
Our much more popular suburban mosques, of which there are currently over 340 in Australia (including around 167 in NSW), were usually built after the late 1970s. They offer quite different narratives. Some provide striking additions to urban skylines, but most are modest buildings, which make no claim to architectural fame.
Another way to assess this decision is to ask which building is more likely to appear as commemorative history on Australian currency – the rustic Marree Mosque or the ornate Auburn Gallipoli mosque in suburban Sydney? Alternatively, which one makes you prouder to be Australian?
For the purpose of this discussion, Australian mosques take three forms: the Outback, the Suburban, and the Future. These might also be regarded as the mythic, the diasporic, and the utopian.
The first Muslim contact with Australia took place prior to 1720 through Macassan traders. They called the north-west coast “Marege”, and their influence can be seen through Indigenous art, language, and other objects. No Maccassan mosques are known to have been built in Australia. The adhan (call to prayer) also left no trace upon the soil, but as noted by historian Regina Ganter, some have argued the adhan echoes in Indigenous languages along places once visited by the Macassans.
The earliest known mosque in Australia was built in Marree, South Australia, likely in the 1860s. Descriptions of the very first mosque in Medina (Saudi Arabia) suggest it was quite similar to this improvised building. Both featured a thatched roof, palm tree trunks, earthen walls, orientation towards Mecca, a place to wash, and a small minbar (which could be called a pulpit). There was no dome, minaret, mihrab (acoustic niche oriented toward Mecca), or muqarnas (a support for domes), despite their ubiquity in later mosques.
What we see there today is a reconstruction from 2003. The last of the two original Marree mosques was dismantled by its custodian towards the end of his life, having seen no local successors to his role. Very few outback mosques are still in use today.
Australia’s oldest extant mosque, once described as “the Afghan Chapel”, was built in Adelaide in 1888-1889. It is an important contribution to the history of Adelaide, consisting of a bluestone structure once accompanied by a floral garden and caretaker’s cottage.
Four white minarets set it apart from its neighbours. It is used by a cosmopolitan congregation, and its presence has not led to a drop in house prices! When I last visited, a real estate poster claimed you could “own a piece of Australian history” by living on this attractive little street. This mosque has served as the basis for important studies in architectural hybridity and assimilation.
Jessica Harris’s study of the mosques of Queensland also demonstrates how these distinctive buildings reflect changing aspects of local Australian architecture. These included an 1880s bamboo Javanese mosque in the sugarcane fields near Mackay and the Queenslander-inspired Cloncurry Mosque. Her study focuses on Holland Park mosque – first built in 1908 and rebuilt in the 1960s – as well as the mosques of the Gold Coast, Darra, and Kuraby in South-East Queensland. It highlights architecture’s role in
negotiation between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Australia, showing how “an Australian-Islamic architectural identity” draws on diverse sources.
Australia does not have a National Mosque. However, many nations do. The Negara Masjid in Kuala Lumpur is a useful example. It’s a postmodern and self-consciously contemporary mosque with invented characteristics unique to Malaysia. The structure draws upon the shape of a traditional Malay umbrella, opened to form a blue angular dome and closed to form a minaret. The mosque’s white Heros’ Mausoleum evokes the historic practice of placing distinguished burial chambers within mosques, but in this case it’s adapted to Malaysian ideas about statehood. Prime Ministers are buried under the dome – whereas national heroes (scientists and humanitarians, male and female) are buried just outside it. It’s rather like an alternative form of National Portrait Gallery.
The opposite of a National Mosque is a reclaimed room. In Australia, the most low-key mosques are appropriated apartments or discrete spaces over shops, scarcely more than nondescript “prayer spaces”. The Cabramatta Mosque, for example, used to be a Vinnies. The Redfern Mosque mingles harmoniously with its neighbours. And several mosques around Australia used to be churches.
There is a long and complex history of churches in use as mosques, including the majestic Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. But recycled spaces can be indicative of marginalisation and minority disempowerment.
This was demonstrated by Christoph Büchel’s well-known installation at the 2015 Venice Biennale, in which he opened a fully functional mosque in a disused church. It was the only mosque ever to have opened on the island of Venice, and it was closed by the Italian police after just three days. For an artwork designed to highlight the challenges facing mosques in Europe, it served its purpose exceedingly well.
Australian suburban mosques have been supported by many migrating generations from around the world, resonating with migration (hijrah) as a formative narrative within Islam.
Mosques inspired by international architecture are manifestations of the inherited identities and denominations of first and second generation Muslim Australians. They are reminiscent of Denice Frohman’s 2013 poem Accents, in which she describes her mother’s accent as “a stubborn compass, always pointing her toward home.”
Examples of these might include the National Trust listed Auburn Gallipoli (reminiscent of the work of the celebrated Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan), Lakemba mosque (Sunni Lebanese), Arncliffe (Shi’ia Iranian), the Baitul Huda (Indian Ahmadiyya) and the Sunshine Mosque (Turkish-Cypriot), amongst many others. These buildings also reflect political support for multiculturalism in the wake of the White Australia policy.
Though once defined by a particular community or ethnicity, suburban mosques are increasingly shared by diverse Muslim Australians. The future of the Australian mosque looks beyond ethnicity and origin to present an inclusive alternative.
In his analysis of Muslim perceptions of Australia as a homeland, the theologian Salih Yucel noted the difference between watan al-asli (country of origin) and watan al-sukna (country of residence), alongside watan al-safari (country travelled through).
Two new Australian mosques are notably prominent in the Australian media, though the response to each has been very different. The development of a mosque in Bendigo has been contested and defended in a series of ongoing headlines. Discussion of the actual design of this mosque has been overshadowed by commentary around its right to simply exist.
Though it has been asked many times before, I still ask my design students how “Australian style” might be defined. They usually suggest “anything made by Glenn Murcutt”.
This is what makes his collaboration in the design of an Australian mosque especially intriguing. The coloured glass skylights are more reminiscent of the work of the Australian artist Leonard French – especially his spectacular ceiling in the NGV and vibrant windows in the National Library of Australia – than the famous stained glass windows of the Nasir al-Mulk mosque in Shiraz, Iran.
These high-profile buildings make spectacular statements. But an Australian mosque can be assessed by typicality, not exceptionalism. The Islamic Studies Centre of Charles Sturt University is an Australian mosque; both contemporary and vernacular, without claims for a past or future “Golden Age”. Designed by Marcie Webster-Mannison in 1995, it is a safe space that reflects the buildings nearby, subtly oriented towards Mecca, set in a beautiful, discrete location with a sublime view. Like most Australian architecture it does not punctuate the skyline. Like every other building on campus, it serves students and academics from Australia and around the world.
Mosques are a normal feature of our cities, though they are yet to be seen as typically Australian. This is odd given that references to Islamic architecture are actually quite common in the history of Australian design.
Given that the theme of this year’s international Historians of Islamic Art conference is Regionality, it’s time we noted Australia’s unique contributions to the past and future of Islamic architecture. Mosques form an important part of this conversation.
Sam Bowker will be online for an Author Q&A between 12 and 1pm on Friday, 23 September, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.
The ‘Ilm 2016 conference in Adelaide (Australia) presents an opportunity, at the national and international levels, to examine the concept of “knowledge” in the Islamic culture in order to explore and generate innovative perspectives on its role in science, religion, and the arts. It invites reflections on and discussions of the idea of ‘ilm and its role in pre-, early-, and post-modern Islamic culture, and, more importantly, how it is engaged and experienced by Muslim communities today. What are its practices, territories, and histories? How does it continue to shape Islam’s past, present, and future?
The conference will focus on three broad topics: ‘ilm as science, ‘ilm as religion, and ‘ilm as art. See this two-page document for more information: ILM-Conf2016
Researchers, artists, designers, and architects are invited to submit proposals for two types of contributions:
1. Paper: 300-word summary, outlining clearly the topic, main argument, and sources to be used. Please include email address and 50-word biography.
2. Poster: A4 mock-up (portrait) presenting visual commentary on a selected theme. The final poster size is A1 (portrait) with 500-800-word exposition. A 200-word summary of the exposition should be submitted with the mock-up.
Proposals: 15 December 2015 – 300 words / A4 posters
Selection: 15 January 2016
Papers/posters: 15 June 2016 – 2500 words / A1 posters
Conference 21-23 July 2016
Post-conference publications will be developed from selected papers.
Organisers & Contacts
Professor Samer Akkach, Founding Director, Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Architecture (CAMEA), the University of Adelaide, Australia (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Professor Sahar Amer, Chair, Department of Arabic Language and Cultures, The University of Sydney, Australia (email@example.com)
Dr Samuel Bowker, School of Communication and Creative Industries, Charles Sturt University, Australia (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ART240: Introduction to Islamic Art & Design is Australia’s only online undergraduate subject dedicated to the diverse visual cultures of the Middle East, North Africa, Central and South-East Asia, drawn entirely from contemporary perspectives.
This unique subject is available as an elective to any degree program in Charles Sturt University. You can tailor it to your interests through focus areas that include textiles, architecture, gender, and design implications. No prerequisites required.
Even if you are studying at another university, you can enroll in ART240 via CSU to add a valuable point of difference to your CV and demonstrate global cultural awareness. It is taught over 10 weeks between November 2015 and February 2016. Assessment consists of collaborative and continual Forum Participation, one Online Presentation for your peers, and one Essay.
Just 24 hours after my CIADA presentation in Singapore, I will present a public lecture on behalf of ISRA (Islamic Sciences Research Academy), hosted by my colleagues from Charles Sturt University’s CISAC (Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilization). Please click on the image for more information, and feel free to distribute this flyer.
Reservations are required and can be made via email@example.com or (02) 9649 9040.
This public lecture is an expansion of my presentation for CIADA. It contains additional references to case studies and assessment items from ART240 and specifically Australian tertiary contexts, as well as more background regarding my own work in the field of Islamic art for Charles Sturt University.
At 3:30pm on Friday 9 October, I will be presenting a paper based on my experiences developing and teaching ART240: Introduction to Islamic Art & Design at the CIADA (Contemporary Islamic Art, Design and Architecture) conference in Singapore, hosted by Nanyang Technological University. I am pleased to announce that my paper follows a presentation by Eric Broug, author of Islamic Geometric Design. It is exciting to present my research in the company of such leaders in the field of Islamic visual culture.
Spectacular and Vernacular: Teaching Islamic Art & Design in Australia
Abstract: Islamic Art is almost invisible in Australian universities. This oversight has far-reaching implications for our broader awareness of Islamic material and visual culture, and restricts the potential for Australians to engage with or contribute to this dynamic field.
Teaching Islamic art and design with continual reference to contemporary context is an important means to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue. It also recognizes the global career pathways sought by Australian tertiary graduates. This informs contemporary Islamic art, design and architecture by opening access for new contributions.
I developed ART240: Introduction to Islamic Art & Design for Charles Sturt University as a flexible elective. Anyone may enroll for single-subject study. ART240 is taught online over 10 weeks from November to February. This subject balances the spectacular with the vernacular in order to contribute to the cosmopolitan cultural awareness of our graduates. It introduces principles of Islamic art and design in an engaging, approachable, collaborative, and contemporary manner.
This paper will present a survey of Australian tertiary approaches to ‘Islamic Art’ in order to establish how and why my new approach was designed, and what distinguishes ART240 from other attempts to engage with Islamic visual culture.
To open the exhibition Khayamiya: Khedival to Contemporary in Malaysia, I will be presenting a lecture at the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia at 10:30am on Saturday 3 October. Click on the image below for a larger version.
Synopsis: “Khayamiya is a spectacular Egyptian art form that deserves greater recognition. These great walls of colour are hand-sewn using methods that have remained unchanged for centuries, yet the considerable changes in their design have rarely been assessed. In this lecture, Sam Bowker will discuss the history of khayamiya through the Tentmaker’s ongoing adaptations to new conditions. From his first encounter with Henri Matisse’s ‘Interior with Egyptian Curtain’ (1948) to the Revolution of 2011, this illustrated lecture will share his journey to discover the origin of the Tentmakers of Cairo. This lecture will explain where khayamiya can be situated within Islamic art, and the challenges it faces to survive in the future.”
Here is the IAMM’s link: http://www.iamm.org.my/khayamiya-khedival-to-contemporary-the-tentmakers-of-cairo-2/