Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Aniconism and Artwork for the new Whitechapel Station.

This is about some of the artwork being commissioned for Crossrail - now officially known as the new Elizabeth Line - from Reading and Heathrow through central tunnels across London  to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. (map)

I read a BBC News article this morning about How art and design can transform the daily commute.

Subsequently I learned a new word - aniconism - which was not in the article but is the word which represents what I'd found out several years ago while sketching small muslim children in a mountain village in Bali.

Chantal Joffe in her studio
The article described how Chantal Joffe is designing 20 images of people in a bold cut-out style for Whitechapel Station.

This is intended to be a sort of modern-day Matisse expression of the people on the streets above the station at Whitechapel.

I know the area very well - it's just down the road from where I live.

There is a very active street market outside the station, directly opposite the Royal London Hospital. Almost all the stalls are run by local men of Bengali heritage - within the context of an area which in the past was traditionally Jewish for decades (and Joffe has a Jewish heritage) but is now completely dominated by
  • the community and multi-cultural visitors to the very large teaching hospital; and 
  • past migration from Bangladesh to the area. 
  • the enormous East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre a little further down the road - which reflects the numbers attending.
I guess it's one of the areas which President Trump might not want to visit if he ever succeeds in visiting London in an official capacity. He certainly seems to indulge in periodically being rude about it. The local Council voted to ban him from visiting Tower Hamlets last week!

The thing which puzzled me greatly was the notion of representing the people of the area.

That's because back in the early 90s a young boy stopped me from sketching his younger brother.  I hadn't set out to sketch him - I was just surrounded by children in a market in Bedugal in Bali as I tried to sketch the market and the people around and about.

He explained to me that he was a muslim and his religion meant that I could not draw him or his family.  He was very nice about it - and I erased the drawing of his brother.

I'm guessing you've probably guessed by now why I decided to write this blog post.
Subsequently I read items online about the artwork for Crossrail:
The Crossrail Art Programme commissions will include Chantal Joffe’s (b. 1969, UK) A Sunday Afternoon in Whitechapel (2017). Inspired by Henri Matisse, it features a series of hand painted cut-outs of people photographed around the station at Whitechapel.
Plus I explored the role of art within Crossrail and what approach they had adopted:
It appears the approach is much more about informing people AFTER decisions have been made about art rather than consulting with them beforehand as to what's appropriate to the area.
Take a sneak peek at the new Elizabeth line stations with Crossrail’s Pop Up exhibition currently making it’s way around London.
Learn all about your new station design, public space improvements and public art installations.
The Pop Up is currently on display at Whitechapel Sainsbury's.

Is making images of local people an issue for the local population?

The issue as I saw it was that
  • these are not 'generic people' as such but more specifically people associated with Whitechapel 
  • meaning at least sone of those who were the basis for the development of the art must be Muslim.
I started googling this morning - partly because of my experience in Bali but also because I couldn't find any comment in the various articles about any consultation with local people about what they'd like to see as artwork at their local station (i.e. was there any investigation of or endorsement of what might just possibly be seen as a controversial approach)

I came to the conclusion that it was entirely possible nobody was aware of the possibility that there might just be an issue.

I guess my general position on matters such as this tends towards the "when in Rome...".

However at the same time I really do not see the point of creating something which might be anathema to the local population - especially if there are lots of alternative options available as to appropriate artworkIn other words why spend a lot of time and effort on the artwork if there was a chance it would be defaced - literally!

I wanted to clarify what the position of Islam is on the representation of people in art - which is when I came across my new word (to me) - aniconism.
Aniconism is the absence of material representations of the natural and supernatural world in various cultures, particularly in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. This ban may extend from only God and deities to saint characters, all living beings, and everything that exists. Wikipedia
Which explains why geometric patterns are so very dominant in traditional Islamic Art.

I also came across these references for a topic which has obviously been studied in depth:
From which I concluded that the depiction of images of Islamic people is/is not OK depending on who the people are and how they are depicted and where they are depicted.

Basically more than a bit of a minefield.

Let's just hope that it's not going to be an issue for the local communities living around Whitechapel!

Crossrail might want to reflect on its cultural awareness and consultation policies!

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