Remona Aly
Saturday 01 September 2007 emel

Art & Worship: Ruh al Alam

Weaving my way through the chaotic London streets, I am bombarded with snatches of in-your-face posters and adverts declaring the latest hair products or action films plastered on the sides of buses and the faces of billboards. Visual consumerism is truly at its forte in Britain’s capital and is all but inescapable. I turn a corner to pass the eclectic Spitalfields area and finally find a quiet street where I am to visit one Ruh al Alam, an established young artist whose reputed work has brought me to his door.

Shrugging off the heat, dust, and adverts with a libation of lemonade, I take a seat in his compact studio-cum-flat. Here I am greeted with more visuals; but these impart a completely different vision, and provoke a completely different response. Seated humbly on a cushion at a low table, Ruh is practising calligraphic brush strokes. His utensil is a worn-down wooden cookery spoon that he dips in a pot of rich red ink. “It’s great for making large pen strokes,” he grins.

After breaking the ice with a comic tale that his first ‘real’ experience of art was abseiling down the cot at two years old and back-flipping to the nearest wall to start drawing, he eventually tells me that there is some truth in this animated story. “The walls in my parent’s house became a makeshift canvas for me when I was about six years old,” he recalls. “That’s when my dad first had an inkling that I might become an artist.”

While his sense of humour surfaces throughout the interview, Ruh is deeply serious. “I was heavily into fine arts and pursued it at Central St Martins College, one of the most prestigious art colleges in London. It was during this time that my perception of art developed.” This development was borne of disillusionment stemming from the very art that was now shaping his studies. “I was somewhat disillusioned with the notion of art in the western world when at college. It seemed to focus too often on controversy, rather than on communication or beauty. An artists’ ego was more important than the art itself. With Islamic art, you don’t get distracted by the artist – you concentrate on the art. That’s what I believed in.”

So after seeing “half-sawn horses and unmade beds” at art exhibitions, Ruh decided to rebel himself – against what he was being taught. “I was rebelling against crafting egos, but it was a rebellion that was already made 1400 years ago. The Islamic civilisation has produced possibly some of the greatest art the world has seen, and I wanted to follow this tradition. After university, I dedicated myself to art that constantly reminds you of Allah. To me, art is beauty, and Islamic art reflects the beauty of Islam, of Allah’s creation and of the Creator Himself. It’s a solution to a weakness that we all possess – the inclination to forget. That remembrance was of a visual nature, and I wanted to surround myself with this constant dhikr (remembrance).”

And so Visual Dhikr was born in 2003, a project that remained true to these ideals, and produced contemporary art within an Islamic ethos. Ruh’s work stretches across different styles and techniques, often marrying paint, graphic design and digital processing to produce a unique union of creative expression. I am about to ask Ruh about the illuminated Arabic calligraphy on one of the canvases lying by his side, when his mobile begins to ring. “Salam Ruh. Are you here or in Egypt?” I overhear the voice on the phone asking him – not an infrequent question when he answers the phone.

For the past few years, Ruh has been moving back and forth between Cairo and London, after deciding to seek an ijaaza (teaching license) in calligraphy. The two years he has spent there he describes as nothing less than an “amazing experience”. After some initial difficulty in tracking down a guild of calligraphers, Ruh found his calligraphic calling. “At the time of the Ottoman empire, there were madrasahs solely for teaching calligraphy, but now the institutional structure is dying. After I eventually found the Guild, I was referred to Ustadh Mus’ad Khudair Bursaidi, one of most renowned calligraphers in Egypt. He works in the heart of Khan el Khalili souk; you have to crawl your way through the winding narrow streets of downtown Islamic Cairo to get to his little studio, which is strewn with pieces of his work. He would give you one lesson in red ink, teach me one letter and say ‘Go and practice. If you can perfect this ‘Ha’ you can perfect the entire script.’ To this day, I am still practising that ‘Ha’.”

Ruh’s passion for learning calligraphy was somewhat effervescent, and the experienced Master had to harness his young apprentice’s zeal. “When I first started I was really passionate and wanted to learn all the scripts – thuluth, diwani, naskh, kufi…” Ruh relates animatedly, grabbing hold of my glass of lemonade, “but the Ustadh told me: ‘Take a cup. If you fill it up too much, it will spill over. Only fill it up to a point where it will not over-spill.’ It takes three to four years to learn one script. There are four or five variations of a letter, and then you learn the composition. I used to go to the Ustadh’s studio almost every day, journeying to the Khan el Khalili there in true Egyptian style by bus, and spending time in his studio. It was truly an unforgettable experience.”

Ruh had also received two very interesting commissions during his time in Cairo. The first was an unanticipated project funded by Sony Play Station for the launch of their hand-held device, and this project was entitled “The Beautiful Script”. Artists were given three words to produce a unique work with Arabic calligraphy: Desire, Freedom and Beauty. Ruh’s work was displayed in the Sony exhibition just off Brick Lane, a stone’s throw away from his current East London home. Soon afterwards, Ruh was contacted by Isam Bachiri, a band member of the Danish hip hop band Outlandish, who praised Ruh’s work and asked that he produce artwork for their next album “Closer than Veins”. “The commission from Outlandish came completely out of the blue,” he recalls. “Isam assured me their next album had a deep Islamic outlook, so I agreed and got sent the tracks while they were producing them, even while they were being developed. In fact I got to hear some great tracks didn’t actually make it to the final album.”

Along with receiving a commission from Outlandish, Ruh was clearly part of the ‘It’ crowd – he is friends with the international nasheed singer Sami Yusuf. “Sami and I shared a flat in Cairo at one point, and he was also collaborating with Outlandish, on his own album and on theirs. And I was living with Sami’s lyricist (from Awakening) too, so the three of us communicated and supported each other’s work. It all overlapped and there was a beautiful interaction that produced a great hybrid of work.” For “Closer than Veins”, Ruh produced hand written work which he scanned in, painting on textures and finished off with the final stage of digital composition. “Outlandish loved the work I produced. It was strange as during the time I worked for them, I never got to meet the band, but I finally met them at Islamic Relief concert backstage this year in April and it was great to chill out with them. Luckily it hasn’t ended there – by the grace of God, I am in fact working on some high profile international commissions right now.”

Art and Egypt also brought other unexpected fates, as Ruh was to meet his future wife through the Visual Dhikr project. “One of the initial aims of Visual Dhikr was to work with other artists – to seek and give advice. We first noticed each other backstage at one of Sami Yusuf’s concerts in Cairo, but only got to know each other through the subject of art, since she is an artist herself and later on, with the help of some friends, we became an item,” he beams. “I have learnt so much from her – especially about certain painting techniques; in fact she is a better artist than me and naturally, much better looking!”

While we joke that I should be interviewing his wife instead of him, I realise that here is a man who is firmly grounded and will never let his ego get in the way of his ultimate goal to produce God-conscious art. “If you as an artist get in the way of your work, you are overpowering the art, when it is the art that has to overpower you,” he asserts. “When you are writing the name of Allah in the art work, you become in a sense subservient to it. It is a mirror of faith, of the Creator not you. In Islamic art history, Muslim craftsmen would place a tile deliberately upside down within exquisite tile murals. They would deliberately put a mistake into work to make it imperfect – that is the essence of humility. Only Allah is perfect and can create perfection.”

Like his paintbrush or indeed his wooden spoon, Ruh sees himself as a tool to convey the beautiful message of Islam. This message is finding its expression with the emerging British Muslim art scene, which has received a sudden confident boost in recent years. “This art scene is the cornerstone of what British Muslim identity is all about,” states Ruh. “Muslims want to reflect their identity which is both British and Islamic in a contemporary nature. In Britain, the art scene has seen a growth spurt in the past few years. When I graduated there were only a few of us – like myself and Mohammed Ali of Aerosol Arabic, but then it exploded and now there are loads of British Muslim artists from fashion to ceramics, painting to photography, and there is a message of identity in all their work. It’s even gone global – Muslims all over the world are contributing and it will continue to grow in coming years.”

I do however detect a note of reservation in his voice, which he goes on to articulate: “The British Muslim art scene is very young; it has yet to go through a far greater learning process that requires a proper acknowledgement of Islamic art and also the modern art scene. There are lots of young, enthusiastic artists, some of them trained and many un-trained. All this is great but the quality of work has to rise dramatically for Muslims to even come close to the high art that the Muslim world has produced in the past and has come to be recognised by. It is all too common to find artists attempting classical styles of calligraphy without any training or formal teaching. If artists wish to incorporate traditional styles into their work, they must try to learn some of the traditional art practices, be that calligraphy, arabesque (zakhrafa) or hand crafts. Having said that, all budding artists should not be held back by this, but should endeavour to master the medium of any work they pursue.”

Bold words from an artist who clearly practices and paints what he preaches. His commitment to developing and improving his art is evident with each work he produces. Floral bursts of colour compliment layered textures on each canvas, all of which are permeated with Arabic words emanating with light reading ‘Patience’, ‘Purity’, ‘Muhammad’ or ‘Lord of the Dawn’. As someone who never wanted to limit himself to one art form, from his painting, calligraphy, photography and even motion graphics, all of his output truly does impart visual dhikr. “Art is a way of life for many, some lose themselves in it, others live by it, many express themselves through it – but ultimately art has a serious role and manifests itself in dynamic ways. You could say that art is a way of life for me, as an artist I make a living out of it, but also it is through art that I find respite, reflection and an output of thoughts and expression of faith. My artwork acts as a mirror, not of me specifically, but of my belief and the message of Allah.”

As to the future, Ruh confesses he has thumb in many creative pies. Along with the production of canvases and posters, Ruh wants to pursue the commercial avenue by bringing a clothing range for the urban Muslim. “I am producing t-shirts and urban wear designed with what I would normally print on a canvas. Eventually, I want this to branch out into lifestyle arts such as interiors and furniture, as I feel there is a real niche market out there.”

It seems Ruh al Alam’s creative drive really is in sixth gear, as he relates his next intriguing project. ““My next concept is to do with time lapse photography and calligraphy set in certain locations across the UK,” but here he breaks off. “I don’t want to give away too much right now, but I do have a special exhibition at the end of the year, so watch this space!”

After a calming and enlightening afternoon, I sip a final drop of lemonade and take my leave to brave the London chaos and consumerism that engulfs the city each day. While it may prove difficult to find my way remaining oblivious to the barrage, I reflect for a moment as I step onto the bus, thinking that I may well buy a piece of Ruh’s work, just for the sensation of losing myself in visual dhikr.

This article originally appeared in emel magazine in September 2007.