Page 1


An Exploration of Sexuality in Islam


Preface Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter -extremism think tank, and Free Word, an international centre for literature, literacy and free expression, have partnered to present The unbreakable rope: an exploration of sexuality in Islam. The unbreakable rope brings together the works of ten international artists who examine issues surrounding the diversity of sexuality in Islam through themes of memory, identity and sensuality. Inspired by Love in Bloom, an eighth century classical, erotic Arabic poem by Abu Nuwas, The unbreakable Rope explores diverse sexual orientations within Islamic cultures, past, present and future. The exhibition illuminates sexual plurality as existing in conservative and progressive societies, incorporating historical reference points from all over the world to debunk the myth that non-heteronormative identity is a modern or Western construct. By employing a wide range of media, perspectives and voices from both East and West, the show encourages intercultural dialogue and an understanding of sexuality as a spectrum, through the self-critical platform of art. The unbreakable rope runs alongside theatrical and immersive events as part of Quilliam’s first creative programme, the Season of #Solidarity, concentrated from 27 April to 8 June 2016 at multiple venues in London. The show also aligns with Free Word’s Unravelling Europe, a series that puts artists at the centre of conversations about Europe’s changing identity, alongside thinkers and speakers from other disciplines.  Against a backdrop of increasing fragmentation fuelled by anxiety and fear, the conditions and values that underpin our open, democratic societies are under threat. Unravelling Europe will ask how we can better comprehend the complexities at play in order to ‹re-stitch›  the fabric essential to the flourishing of a truly democratic Europe.


Love in Bloom, an essay by Harry Seymour Prior to the advent of Islam, homosexual acts appear to have been commonplace in the Arabian Peninsula amongst the polytheistic nomadic peoples. The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 AD) effectively saw a prohibition on such acts that spread in less than a century from the Prophet’s journey to Medina (622 AD) throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Since its creation, the Qur’an has become the way of the word for Muslims, offering ethical, legal and social guidance for their public and private lives. For Muslims, the Qur’an represents the divine word – an irrefutable yet sacred governance. Several times does the Qur’an condemn homosexuality, arising from two distinct themes. The first is regarding the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – a narrative shared with the Judaeo-Christian Old Testament. The second concerns the scripture regulating the sex lives of the followers of Islam, which sets out what is permissible and what is prohibited with regards to sexual intercourse (zinā). In each case, homosexuality between men, and women (mentioned once in in Sura 33:30) is judged to be a base act (al-fahisha), which can be severely punished. This is confirmed by two often-recited passages; “If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, leave them alone, for God is Oft-returning, Most Merciful” (Sura 4:16), and “Of all the creatures in the world, will ye approach males / And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing (all limits)”

(Sura 26:165-66). Exegetes interpret these writings with varying degrees of force, often depending on the interpretation of the historical context in which they were written. One explanation for these discrepancies could be the changes between the shorter and more forceful Meccan verses, and the later Sura revealed to the Prophet at Medina, by which time Muhammad was already the leader of a fully-flourishing society. However, despite the Qur’an’s forbidding of homosexual acts, during certain periods it has played a significant role within Islamic cultures. There is evidence from correspondence, literature and art to suggest that a diverse spectrum of sexuality flourished at certain times and in certain pockets of the empire, including the Spanish Umayyads (756 – 1031), the Seljuks in Persia (1037 – 1194), the Malmuks in Egypt (1250 – 1517) and to a certain degree, the Ottomans in Turkey (1300 – 1923). Abū Nuwās (756 – 814) is regarded as one of the greatest Classical Arabic poets (756 – 1031), who flourished during what is seen as the Golden Age of Islam (dar al-Islam), which consisted of the Umayyad dynasty (661 – 750) in Damascus and the first period of the Abbasid dynasty (750 – 1258) based in Baghdad. This was a culturally lively and sophisticated period with opulent and cosmopolitan courts. Homosexuality was within this society, celebrated as a variant of eroticism, however roles (as often was the case in Antiquity) were defined by the passive and active participants. The older and socially superior male would normally

adopt the active role, and typically the passive role would be adopted by an adolescent boy, emphasising the social hierarchy of society. During certain periods of this Golden Age, many chose to shun the traditional Bedouin lifestyle of chastity, valour and courage in battle for a focus on wine, passionate love and revelry. Biographers of the life of Abū Nuwās recount his many relationships with both women and boys, full of the flavour of this libertine spirit. He lived a bohemian lifestyle, especially during the years in which al-Amīn was caliph (809 – 13) with who Abū Nuwās shared many experiences. His Dīwān, a collection of lyrical prose, provides evidence for his heady thirst for secular, carnal life, which he said to be comprised of four elements; “flowing water, gardens, wine and the beautiful face of the beloved”. The most well known and celebrated of his erotic works are the ghazal and the khamriyyāt, which exalt wine and revelry. In his work ghazal, Abū Nuwās celebrates his love boys and young men, including epehebes (ghulām amrtad) and fifteen year olds (khumāsi), although both younger and older boys are not to be discounted, even once they have began growing facial hair (muaddir). His work compares young males to fawns, gazelles and kid-goats and his descriptions of male youth-beauty conform to those of the day: being slender and supple with smooth skin, narrow hips and firm buttocks, a face with moon-like radiance, languid eyes, pink cheeks, plump glossy lips, hair slicked back with ambergris, a clear and pronounced voice and musky kisses. Passages from his work describe the seduction of young

Persian boys in taverns. Pages, prostitutes, slaves, Christians and Zoroastrians are all lured by presents and the clink of gold coins. His lyrics speak of burning carnal desires, which are sometimes accepted but often scorned, while his works range from euphoric and explicit to melancholic and ironic. Many other homoerotic Islamic authors existed during this Golden Age, in which homosexuality played a large part in culture, in part explained by the fact that Islam makes no distinction between spirit and the flesh unlike in Christianity, while also highly valuing sexual pleasure. The Persian Ibn Dāwūd (868 – 909), the Andalusian Ibn Quzmān (1080 – 1160) and the Arabic-Sicilian Ibn Hamdīs (1053 – 1133) all wrote skilled and beautiful prose flowered with homoeroticism. There are also extant practical lovemaking manuals, such as The Perfumed Garden (Ar-rawd al-atir fi nuzhatil khatir) written by the Tunisian sheikh Muhammad Ibn Umar al-Nafwāzi between 1410 and 1434, which instructs how to enjoy sex to the fullest, and The Book of the Respective Merits of Maids and Youths (Kitab mufaharat al-jawari wa-l-ghilman) written by Ūthmān al-Jāhiz (777 – 869), which discusses the pleasures of making love to women versus young boys. Many texts from this time discuss the desire of, and lovemaking to both heterosexual and homosexual partners, often in lively and humorous tones. During the classical age of Persian literature beginning in the thirteenth century, Sufism begins to gain popularity. Sufism, recalling the teachings of Plato, is a mystical movement that celebrates the love of absolute beauty. In these texts the loved one is celebrated as making

the pain of life worthwhile. Some of the most prominent Persian writers at this time were Omar Khayyām (mid-eleventh century – 1126) who writes about his hedonistic pursuits of sensuality, and Sa’dī of Shiraz (1184 – 1291), who discusses his love for young males in both spiritual and graphically sexual terms. This same approach is adopted by Hāfiz (1319 – 1390), interplaying mysticism with physical beauty to create a divine union. Much like Abū Nuwās, Hāfiz talks of being intoxicated with both wine and love. The most celebrated of al poets however, is Jalāl ad-Din Rūmī (1207 – 1273) who writes passionately about the wandering dervish Shams of Tarbiz. According to the American scholar Keith Hales the two were barely separated, deeply in love, and often would retreat for months at a time together in to sexual bliss. In Islamic art, references to homosexuality are exceptionally rare, especially as in Orthodox Islam depictions of humans are forbidden. Depictions of lesbian lovers are even rarer. Some periods of miniature painting saw homoerotic imagery appear, particularly in Persia under the Safavid dynasty (1502 – 1722) and in Turkey between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two painters from the court of Shah Abbas the Great (1588 – 1629) were Riza-I Abbas and Mohammed Qāsīm Mussavir who used explicit homosexual imagery, and in nineteenth century Turkey Nevi Zade Atai’s paintings contained highly explicit imagery of penetration. However on the whole homosexuality in Islamic art is historically limited to young males in salacious poses, bodies entwined and with longing gazes. An example of this is a ceramic commissioned by

Shah Abbas for his pleasure palace in Isfahan in 1590, depicting four males sat by a river in a garden gazing upon one another whilst drinking wine. A hint of sexual relations comes from the gentle touching of one of the characters neck by his counterpart. The four figures reflect the concept of paradise as lyricised by Abū Nuwās; “flowing water, gardens, wine and the face of the beloved”. With the spread of the bourgeois throughout eighteenth century Europe, a cultural shift happened in the Arab empire that saw an increase in artistic censorship (especially forbidding human representation). Women were obliged to wear veils and homosexuality was scorned. In the nineteenth century the hypocrisy of the British Victorian classes caused homophobia to spread throughout the Ottoman empire, and as social tensions climaxed, sexuality became a much less free affair. Stiffening religious institutions, high unemployment and illiteracy and ingrained ideas propagated the issue throughout the decades. Of course the situation differs historically state to state as Islam is a body composed of many member nations; despite being glued by religion, these states do not share a common political, economic or social structure. Cultural outlooks differ widely not only between countries, but also provinces, towns and down to individuals. However, homosexuality is officially outlawed in every country in the Islamic world and it remains a taboo that is either silenced or denied to exist. Sodomy is explicitly forbidden on all sides; by the Qur’an, the hadith, the sunna (the rules for correct behaviour), the fiqh (jurisprudence) and the sharī’a (the law). To the modern Arab mind,


sexuality is a perversion of man and union, and sexuality can only be understood through strict social and religious regulations that set out to control desire. Modern Islamic culture is also masculinist and hierarchical, with the two sexes living in different worlds that only combine in prescribed cases. All beings are classed as either “men”, or “subject to man”; including women, concubines, slaves and even infidels.

aristocrats on grand tours and inspired a Western tradition in the arts for romanticising the intoxicatingly diverse sexuality of the East. Yet this was a European invention and not the reality, sometimes constructed to enhance the allure of the East for one’s financial gains. In the twentieth century with the advent of photography, a global press and air travel, the vogue for Orientalism faded as stereotypes crumbled.

Yet, the strict control of homosexuality in modern Islamic cultures paradoxically causes it to take its own form. The degree of secrecy necessary can cause heightened body expression and language – fleeting glances and an intensified desire cause homosexuality to attain an underground cult status with its own visual clues and cues. Unlike the West’s brazen sexuality, it becomes a sophisticated mechanism of homoeroticism and a creative visual iconography is established. In art, film, music, literature and theatre, homoeroticism has developed its own techniques of suggestion.

In Europe and the USA, Muslims have in the last few decades found the freedom to love openly, yet have the struggle of creating a new figure - the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender faithful Muslim. The first support network GLAS (Gay and Lesbian Arab Society) was established in the USA in 1988 and the number of groups has steadily grown to fight discrimination both in Arab countries and the rest of the world. Understanding the history of these relationships within Arab cultures is a crucial stepping-stone to tolerance and acceptance and in letting current and future generations know they are not alone.

The oppression of non-heterosexual relationships in recent decades signals a shift in liberalist Islam. Apart from in Iraq, Egypt and Turkey, homosexuality is punishable with imprisonment and even death. As a result of this in the last century, non-heterosexuality has rarely been examined within Islamic cultures from the inside, but rather by Arabs in Europe, or Europeans. Since the eighteenth century publication of Thousand and One Nights by Antoine Galland, the West has had an erotic fascination with “Orientalism” (the predominantly Islamic cultures encompassing the Middle East and North Africa). Its foreign, magical and seductive charm drew European

In recent years, countries such as Egypt are claiming people who partake in non-heterosexual relationships as defaming both Egypt and Islam. The oppression of sexuality is a way of reinforcing power and control whilst perhaps also a tool to distract from other economic and social conflicts. Yet in the internet age it is increasingly hard to silence repressed voices, and with every new story of the persecution of people for their choices in love (such as within Islamic State controlled territory where suspected homosexuals are regularly tortured and killed) the uproar gains further momentum. Contemporary fundamentalism’s

denial of non-heterosexuality is becoming increasingly hard to swallow, and a chasm in the Islamic world seems to be widening between the sacred and profane, where in order for people to love freely they can not continue to practise their faith. The tensions between East and West will continue until a peaceful cohabitation of the two, albeit antipodean civilisations is realised. It remains to be seen if future generations will be drawn in to conflict on these issues, or if with a bit of luck and lots of work, the chasm will be dammed with the words of free love and bridged with the unbreakable rope. Harry Seymour


Farah Ossouli b. 1953, Iran As a child, Farah Ossouli realised her toy dolls couldn’t act out her make-believe stories as she wished, so she began to create her own characters out of paper and card that she then decorated specifically to manifest her own fairy tales. This process of crafting her own representations of her imagination through collage, pencil and paper spawned her passion for art – a place where she could express her inner dreams in the material world. She continued to make series of new actors with whom she could play, each time throwing the old ones away, all the while developing a deep interest in literature. Fascinated by this mixture of narration and image, Farah found that painting circumscribed both loves and offered her a way to practise both passions simultaneously. Her work is, as a result, a mix of storytelling made up of characters in symbolic landscapes, interlinking with her own understanding and interpretations of life. In 1971, Farah went to study for a Diploma in Painting at the Girl’s School of Fine Arts in Tehran, before completing a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran in 1977. Her bold use of colour and form inflected with symbolism in her oeuvre reflects her academic roots in graphics and painting. Farah’s work can be found in many important collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in the USA; the Devi Art Foundation in India; the Koran Museum in Iran; the Tropen Museum in the Netherlands; and the Ludwig Museum in Germany. She is a member of the Society of Iranian Painters and the female Iranian artists group, DENA. Farah was awarded a prize at “Ayeneh dar Ayeneh” in Tehran in 1997 and won the 2000 Renowned Iranian Women Award, the 2002 Iranian Women Artists Prize and the

2002 Prize at the second Biennial of Islamic Contemporary Painting in Tehran. She has sat on several boards and jury panels over the last two decades, including recently acting as head of the jury of the Visual Art Festival at Mellat Gallery in Tehran from 2010–12. Farah was a member of the jury and selection committee of the First International Fajr Festival of Visual Arts at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Iran in 2009, a curator of the Iranian Art Festival Qanat Al Qasba at Sharjah, UAE in 2008, chairperson of the exhibition Representation of Persian Painting in Iran-Imam Ali Arts Museum in 2007 and a member of the selection committee of the Sixth Biennial of Persian Painting in 2006. She regularly exhibits in both group and solo shows across the globe. For The unbreakable rope,  Farah is exhibiting  two works, both called Untitled,  from her  Hafiz  series, inspired by poetry of the Sufi mystic (circa 1325 to 1389) who wrote paeans to earthly pleasures and  disavowed religious hypocrisy. Depicting a pair of lovers embracing under a flock of birds, the first work Untitled comes from a Hafiz poem translating to ‘The day of travel and night of separation love ended.  I predicted this, the star passed, and everything came to an end.’ The second Untitled  shows a couple serenading each other. ‘I am dying with anticipation/ dying from eagerness, but there is no way out through the curtain.  Or if there is a way out,  the guard/keeper of the curtain will not show it to me.’ Rife with romantic pathos, the verses evoke love as a force transcending natural boundaries. Farah employs intricate textures and patterns highly reminiscent of Islamic art  traditions, through extremely delicate and controlled brushwork. The figures are tenderly set in a history of Persian iconography and heritage, alluding to a magical splendour begotten by love. 

Untitled Gouache on cardboard 75 x 60 cm 2003-2005

Untitled

Gouache on cardboard 75 x 55 cm 2003-2006


Faiza Butt b. 1973, Pakistan Born in Lahore, Pakistan, to a matriarchal family of five sisters, Faiza Butt received an early creative education in the arts. She graduated with honours from the National College of Art in Pakistan, receiving the Gold Medal award for outstanding work. In 1999, she was awarded the Unesco-Aschberg bursary for artists, completing a residency at the Bartle Arts Trust in Durban, South Africa. During her stay, she conducted talks and workshops in many art galleries and museums in the Natal region. Subsequently, Faiza travelled to London where she went on to complete postgraduate studies in painting at the Slade school of Art, gaining a Distinction for her work. From the beginning, Faiza’s practice has born a strong social relevance, and her paintings raise important issues surrounding gender politics. Created in London, Faiza’s work displays a hybridity of elements, unique to her as an artist in diaspora. It addresses issues that face us all, beyond boundaries and cultural parameters, exploring quandaries of the human condition. Specially commissioned for The unbreakable rope,  Love in Bloom  is a work inspired by the poetic works of Abu Nuwas. Faiza uses the ancient aesthetic of the ‘Kiswa’ (the Kaaba’s ornate cover) to create an original hybrid font. The English text is crafted into digital Kofic font and infused with shapes of contemporary gold jewellery. As both a spiritual and material substance, gold has always held a strong influence over Faiza’s work, calling to mind the sought-after element and currency in Middle Eastern and Asian, as well as Western, cultures. Faiza has also created the ornate metallic logo of The unbreakable rope. Abu Nuwas’s poem has been laid out like the pages of an open book (the Quran) with a heavily ornate border in a style reminiscent of

the illustrated and illuminated borders of sacred books. It is often quoted that the holy text of the Quran reads lyrically, almost like poetry. In an effort to draw a comparison between the carnal and the ethereal, Faiza paradoxically fuses the aesthetics of the sacred with the worldly longings of Abu Nuwas for his lover. In the Sufi tradition of poetry, the infinity of God is manifest in unbridled devotion and passion for the beloved. Faiza’s approach towards text is to use word as image. Her ongoing research into the origins of writing, the plurality of text and the visual import of written word has influenced her crafting of Love in Bloom. In its powerful visual repertoire of letter, word and font, Faiza’s work holds appeal even for those who cannot read the particular translation. The universality of symbols and codes is of great importance to Faiza, and the poem has been developed with this particular intention. “We live in this visual age, where familiarity and association heavily influence our day-to-day opinions. The contorting of Abu Nuwas’s translation creates a fusion that does not necessarily sit in a particular cultural box, and becomes a universal message of love and tolerance.” Faiza lives and works in London. Her works are in various private and public collections including the British Museum and the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi. Love In Bloom Digital print on Duratrans mounted on lightbox 150 x 78 cm 2015


Ibi Ibrahim b.1987, USA IBorn in the United States but raised throughout the the Middle East, between Yemen, Libya, Iraq and the Unites Arab Emirates, Ibi was always surrounded by Islamic culture. His photographic work reflects his multicultural sensibility and nomadic history, mixing traditional values with issues of sexual identity, seen as inherently taboo in the conservative societies in which he was raised. Ibi’s photographs are emotive yet poised, with erotically-charged imagery that speaks openly of love, body positivity, gender and sexual equality. His work throws light on a history of sexual freedom despite the recent trend of religious conservatism in the Middle East. Often working with a monochromatic palette, Ibi documents a tradition of passion within Islamic cultures, bringing it into the modern day using contemporary subjects in controlled if extremely sensual compositions. Ibi’s work illuminates liberalism within Middle Eastern cultures, by celebrating sexual relationships often eschewed by Eastern and Western societies. His photographs aim to facilitate free love and free speech, yet they are banned from being displayed in his familiar Yemen. In 2010, Ibi was awarded the GLAAD OUT Best Emerging Artist award, and in 2014, he became the first Yemeni artist to participate in the Cité Internationale des Arts residency program in Paris. After finishing a residency at GlogauAIR, Ibi currently lives and works in Berlin. For The unbreakable rope, Ibi is presenting two works. The first is a panel of nine black and white photographs of digital pigment printed on Hahnemühle photo rag fine art paper, showing a young man in a series of poses on an unmade bed. The title Sans Toi (Without You) suggests he is pining for his lover. The images are universally engaging and recog-

nisable to anyone who has mourned the loss of a loved one. They suggest the torturous passageways of any relationship, especially if strained by cultural boundaries. Ibi’s second work consists of three vertical panels, printed by the same process but in vibrant colour. It shows a couple who, through their cropped faces, become an anonymous representation of courtship in an Islamic culture. Their dress is traditional, and the setting appears to be a secluded terrace. Entitled Habibi Tala (Darling, Come!), the work touches on the restraints placed on relationships by mores of religious conservatism and the roles played by each gender within these limits. I feel that sexual exploration has become a taboo subject recently. I watch old Egyptian films quite often, and I can clearly see that sexuality was common in those films unlike today’s. So you can see that the idea of sexuality and exploring it has been quite common in the region at one point at least. Maybe what I am trying to do is to bring back that era of freedom of expression in art and cinema. Ibi’s work has been exhibited through out the United States, Europe and the Middle East. It belongs to a number of private collections as well Colorado College (USA) and Barjeel Art Foundation (UAE). Ibi would like to thank JAMM Art Gallery, Dubai for providing his works in The unbreakable rope.

Sans Toi (Without You) Digital pigment print on Hahnemühle photo rag fine art paper 30 x 45 cm (each panel) Edition of 5 + 1AP 2013

Habibi Tala (Darling, Come!) Digital pigment print on Hahnemühle photo rag fine art paper 40 x 60 cm (each panel) Edition of 5 + 1AP 2013


Alison Butler

Shane Winter

b. 1986, USA

b. 1981, USA

Alison Butler is a Los Angeles-based musicologist and composer. Her work explores allusion in formalist art works, with a particular interest in the threshold between meaningful referentiality and meaningless over-determination. Alison is a recipient of a University of Southern California Endowed Arnold Fellowship and has received academic distinction for her work on the twentieth-century serial composer Milton Babbitt, on whom she is currently completing her doctorate. Previously Alison lived in Chennai, India and worked alongside Bollywood composer, A.R. Rahman, transcribing, arranging and orchestrating songs for the Academy Award-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire.

Shane Winter is a composer, sound and graphics designer, and visual effects artist from Washington state. His work has appeared on television, Radio Lab, NPR and in multi-media projects in and around Los Angeles. Shane’s music plays on the dichotomy between the natural and technological world, putting ecologically- and biologically-inspired concepts in dialogue with synthesised sounds. ​For  The unbreakable rope, the two composers have collaborated to create  Moon, which reflects upon the moon as a symbol of femininity, an invitation to violence and a promulgator of dreams. The piece is based on an interlude called Future Feminism by transexual trans-disciplinary  artist Antony Hegarty, contemplating Allah as a woman and a paradigmatic shift toward matriarchal societies, led by the world’s major religions. Specially commissioned for The unbreakable rope, Moon reflects upon the moon as a symbol of femininity, as an invitation to violence and as a promulgator of dreams. The work metaphorically enacts the violence done to oppressed voices, first by stripping the work’s source sample of its text and reconstituting it so that a listener might perceive only the percussive echo of what was spoken,  then by compressing and filtering the work’s source material beyond recognition. Frequencies are eliminated so that the speaker’s message becomes fragmented and distorted. The voice, in one sense, is effectively silenced. And yet, despite the physical restrictions imposed on the sample, the voice builds upon itself, reverberating at the speaker’s suggestion to imagine. To imagine is to embark on the path to make real.

The formal devices that Moon  employs are indebted to the socially conscious tape works originating from San Francisco during the 1960s. Specifically, the work’s delays and phase shifting (in addition to symbolising the phases of the moon) pay homage to Steve Reich’s civil rights work Come Out (1966) and Pauline Oliveros’s feminist  Bye Bye But terfly  (1965).  Finally,  Moon  engag es the provocation in the work of the British artist Sarah Maple. The opening fragmentation and phasing of the word ‘moon’ elicits the sound of one’s voyeuristic gaze at the painting. Through the course of the composition, Maple’s symbolic assault is transformed through the music, which petitions one to listen and to imagine, in a meditative incantation.  

Moon Recorded and synthesized sound Duration 4’40” minutes 2016


Lisa Bretherick b. 1981, UK. After a career working in graphic design and brand marketing, Lisa Bretherick discovered her calling in documentary and portrait photography. Combining her two loves -- art and people -- she began training alongside professional photographers to refine her skills. Lisa’s resulting body of work focusses on capturing human emotion in a variety of states. “If I have an aim when I photograph, it is to tell stories that evoke emotion and reaction which would not otherwise be experienced. If those experiences change attitudes, emotions or actions, then the stories have been worth telling.” Lisa has exhibited work at the Science Museum and at The Hub Kings Cross. She has also worked with high-profile charities including Cancer Research, De Paul, Diabetes UK, British Heart Foundation, Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, the Big Issue and Age Concern, using her photographs as a medium to tell passionate stories of human lives involved with these causes. For The unbreakable rope, Lisa is presenting a series of images taken surrounding the tragic circumstances in which a romantic relationship was cut short. On 30th July 2014, Dr Nazim Mahmood ended his own life, two days after his religious family confronted him about his homosexuality. It was the first time they had heard about his thirteen-year relationship with his fiancé, Matt Ogston. In Naz’s memory, Matt set up the Naz and Matt Foundation to support and empower LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) individuals, their friends and family to help resolve challenges linked to gender and sexual identity, particularly where religion exerts a strong influence. The Naz and Matt Foundation hopes to open closed minds in families and in communities, so non-heteronormative individuals are loved for who they are and who they were born to be.

Spending time with Matt over the past year, I have seen and experienced some of his journey with him since his partner Naz passed away. I could never pretend to understand or feel the amount of pain he has been through, but over time he has given me a little window into some of his thoughts and fears, highs and lows, memories, regrets and unanswered questions. Photographing with Matt has become a medium for him to document his thoughts and memories in order to allow him the opportunity to let them go. It has become a means of sharing his journey in the hope that we can affect hearts and minds. Together we have been down memory lane - he has talked, we have sat in silence, we have walked and listened and taken in our surroundings. I have photographed when I feel the time is right and when there are feelings to capture. The images are intimate and raw. We are not trying to tell anyone anything, or shock people into seeing different things, just exposing human nature in its most raw and innocent form, in the hope that anyone, whatever religion, faith, background or age might be able to connect to Matt’s story. Through connection, we are some of the way to opening minds to new ways of thinking.

Lost in Memory Digital display Production by Lisa Bretherick with audio by Jessica Marlow and voiced by Matthew Naz Mahmood-Ogston 2016

The Celebration of Naz Prints on Fuji DPII Silver Halide mounted on MDF 40 x 30 cm (each panel) 2014


Tareq Sayed Rajab de Montfort b. 1989, Kuwait. Born in Kuwait, with British, Iraqi and Meccan ancestry, Tareq Sayed Rajab de Montfort was educated in Islamic art and philosophy at a prominent Islamic Museum. After fleeing Kuwait at the age of 17, he came to London to study Fine Art at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. As an artist, Tareq identifies as a Gesamtkunstwerk,  an all-encompassing work of art. His oeuvre includes photography, illuminated drawings, and historical and religious research. He is known especially for using his own body as a tool of self-expression and marker of his own socioeconomic and cultural background. Inspired by his childhood surrounded by Islamic art, Tareq has begun tattooing his body with the ninety-nine names of Allah, to form a Zikr (a remembrance of divinity) and personified ‘Object of Virtu’. Tareq acts  as a corporal vessel of dialogue, questioning and reinterpreting Islamic and Arabic epistemology. Tareq has had solo shows in London and Paris, where his work has been noted for its close and critical readings of sacred texts and exegesis. Drawing on classical and romantic iconographies, he creates an Islamic avant-garde.  Tareq aligns himself with 19th-century ‘Cults of Beauty’, using self-expression, aesthetic theory and philosophy across cultures to shape his work.  He refers  to  beauty as a healing balm manifested through art and  sensuality.  As Tareq hails   from a country where homosexuality is banned, the systematic repression of sexual freedom is a theme featuring prominently in his work. Bigoted ideologies are challenged by his rediscovery and re-presentation of the  Arab region’s history of sensual art and literature, often alongside a celebration of ‘Ishq’, or divine love on earth.  Tareq’s  practice

redefines perceptions of Islamic values by shedding light on  lost knowledge.  In a  work commissioned for  The unbreakable rope, Tareq presents a series of ‘vignettes’  involving his own body,  voice and a theatrical set to convey discourses of Western literature and Islamic scripture, elucidating ideas of esoteric love throughout history. Through  spoken word, poetry and visual storytelling,  he re-evaluates   Arab-Islamic identity in a swiftly changing globalised world, where Eastern and Western  cultures more than ever require rapport.   ‹Just like so often with the Quran, words can be deceivingly interpreted (‘The devil can cite scripture for his purpose’ – William Shakespeare),  ambiguous sounding lines from Shakespeare even today in a certain context can sound violent or intimidate.’

XXXXXXXX xxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


Rachel Maggart, b. 1985, USA Rachel Maggart grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. She trained for twenty years as a classical pianist and received a degree in Music from New York University, before working as an art writer for a variety of print and digital publications. Rachel expanded into working as a consultant in public relations and development for non-profit organisations committed to experimental and emerging art forms. She went on to pursue a Masters in Art History at Hunter College in New York but midway through relocated to London to finish her degree at Birkbeck College, where she received a scholarship awarded to only two non-EU scholars at the School of Arts. Soon after arriving in London, Rachel began working as a dealer of modern art for a Mayfair gallery, which inspired her to cultivate her own longstanding fascination with artistic practice. She opened her first solo exhibition of ten paintings in Borough Market’s Roast Restaurant in 2015. As primitive digital collages transposed to canvas, the works use British pop and art historical iconography as a point of departure for examining contemporary modes of perception and pre-packaged visual narratives. Rachel has become increasingly attuned to issues of policing and scrutiny in the name of Islam, since marrying ex-Islamist and political prisoner turned advocate for liberal values and Islamic reform, Maajid Nawaz. Critics of her husband have stalked and maligned her family on public fora, and in April 2015, prior to Maajid’s Liberal Democrat Parliamentary campaign, circulated a Daily Mail article strategically publishing CCTV footage of his visit to a London strip club. Video footage was leaked to the newspaper via the club’s Muslim owner, who scorned Maajid for his indulgent behaviour during Ramadan. The coverage and its propagation in outlets such as the ‘Middle

East Eye’ incited death threats to Maajid and necessitated installing panic alarms around their flat and in Rachel’s studio. Double Exposure is the artist’s response to this exploitative and mortifying experience. Revisiting her method of appropriating and manipulating loaded imagery to expose underlying motives and hidden value systems, Rachel has recycled pieces of text and stereotyped representations of both the sacred and the profane to shine a light on the manufacture and dissemination of moralising viewpoints. Paying tribute to the fallen Charlie Hebdo Editor in Chief, Charb’s reflection on God as a super-surveillance camera, the painting mocks voyeurism masquerading as religious observance. Images of sensual Quranic fantasies and Western debauchery converge in a decapitated body, to complicate conventional notions of beauty and objects of desire. Equal parts naïf and baroque, the painting interrogates looking for the sake of looking. It forces the viewer to consider context before subject matter and glossy facades obscuring deeper interpretations of events. ‘Verily, as for those who like [to hear] foul slander spread against [any of] those who have attained to faith grievous suffering awaits them in this world and in the life to come: for God knows [the full truth], whereas you know [it] not.’ – 24:19, Muhammad Asad translation

Double Exposure Oil on canvas 70 x 100 cm 2016


Sarah Maple b. 1985, UK. Born in Sussex to an Iranian Muslim mother and Christian British father, Sarah Maple’s upbringing under a dual-religious household has impacted greatly on her work. Upon graduating from a degree in Fine Art from Kingston University, her reputation grew after winning after winning Channel 4 and Saatchi Gallery’s  4 New Sensations  award, which aimed to find “the most exciting and imaginative artistic talent in the UK”. In 2015 Sarah was awarded a £30,000 grant by Sky Arts Scholarship to continue her work promoting diversity issues. Sarah’s upbringing under a roof of mixed religious ethics is a prominent theme in her oeuvre. Blurring the lines between popular culture and religious devotion in an unapologetically mischievous manner, Sarah’s art challenges traditional concepts of identity, sexuality, religion, gender and concepts of identity, sexuality, religion, gender and roles of women in patriarchal societies. Her work fuses painting, photography, mixed media and performance. Sarah has exhibited at galleries including A.I.R Gallery in New York, AGO in Canada, the Southbank Centre in London, the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast and Kunisthoone in Estonia. Her work has been the subject of several documentaries including ARTE and VPRO, and she has been invited as a guest speaker to Amnesty International, as well as Universities of Warwick, Birmingham and Oxford. Sarah has collaborated with the artist and filmmaker Nick Knight on video projects, and her work has featured in publications by Phaidon, Gestalten and the Whitechapel Gallery. Sarah’s work has a strong sense of irony, often charged with allusions to contemporary celebrity culture, the objectification of women and Western society’s views towards Islam. Her

bold and confident images are pragmatic in their ethical questioning. Photos of a self-made ‘anti rape cloak’, naked self-portrait paintings with genitalia blocked by the words ‘using my intelligence’ and canvases stating ‘this is an investment’ all raise conversations on the nature of art in society, and its deeper place as an instrument for affecting a more inquisitive and tolerant collective consciousness. In my work I aim to make people question beliefs or ingrained attitudes/learned behaviour, almost without them realising it. For me art is about trying to create social change...I try to be an activist in my everyday life. I feel that small gestures can have a knock-on effect on the world around me. In a piece called ‘Inaction’ I used a lyric from a Faithless song ‘Inaction is a weapon of mass destruction’ because I believe we are all responsible for change in our own individual way. In the piece the words dominate, and the viewer is forced to look him or herself in the eye. For The unbreakable rope, Sarah is presenting two works: God Is A Feminist and Self-portrait with my Mother’s Headscarf and Breast of Kate Moss. This pair of paintings evokes the feminist controversy between Eastern and Western societies, concerning the traditional versus the contemporary visions of a female’s role within society, at the same time challenging received knowledge of gender in religious contexts. God is a Feminist Oil, acrylic and gloss on canvas 190 x 150 cm 2009

Self-Portrait with my Mother’s Headscarf and Breast of Kate Moss Oil on board 228.6 cm x 152.4 cm


Soody Sharifii b. 1955, Iran Soody Sharifi is an American/Iranian artist working in photography, painting and collage to untangle the paradoxes of the two cultures under which she has grown up. She challenges notions of Eastern and Western through her multi-disciplinary oeuvre exploring concepts of identity. Soody approaches her subjects from the view of both an outsider and an insider, investigating ideas of alienation and integration. Much of her work examines what it means to be a young Muslim in both Iran and the United States in the 21st century, and how modernity can be embraced and interwoven into a traditional society with strong religious ideals. Since the age of 17, Soody has lived and worked in Houston, Texas, where she studied for a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering at the University of Houston in 1982. In 2004 she re-enrolled to complete a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Photography. Her carefully staged works show an influence of meticulous planning and physical context. They feel engineered and practical in their structure and execution. In 2010 Soody completed a residency at Stiftung Kunstledorf Schoppingen, Germany, and she has been the subject of several solo exhibitions throughout the USA, Finland and Slovakia. Her works are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Portland, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Farjam Collection in the United Arab Emirates. As part of The unbreakable rope, Soody is presenting work from her Maxiature series. The works appear as large-scale Islamic illuminated manuscript illustrations, yet collaged with contemporary figures in the scenes. They are finely

detailed and saturated with colour, referencing the exquisite craft of the Islamic manuscript illuminators who were true masters of their art – an art that took many years to master both because of its painstaking technique and rich heritage. The contemporary figures address the ways in which young people interact with a society strongly underpinned by traditional values, at the same time situated in an age of unparalleled social and technological change. The works are highly alluring in their colour and labyrinthine compositional schemes, alluding to convoluted imaginings of history. Soody Sharifi uses the tradition of Persian miniature painting and photo-collage to present a dialogical critique of the entrenched positions separating the Western and Muslim worlds. The Maxiature  series intervenes in the tradition of Persian miniature painting, incorporating contemporary issues and art practices into the centuries-old form. The series ruptures the miniature tradition on two levels: the medium (the works use photography) and the kinds of narratives depicted, which lead to incongruous and at times humorous results. As highly sophisticated pieces of visual language, Persian miniatures often explore the tension between public and private spaces. In particular, they offer the viewer idealized vignettes of daily court life behind the palace walls. The Maxiature works open up the private spaces of domestic settings to provide the audience with a privileged insight in to Islamic culture behind closed doors. Whilst Islamic miniatures traditionally show courtly spectacles such as elegant receptions, sporting hunts and romantic

encounters (by characters who are depicted as generic types rather than specific individuals), the protagonists of Soody’s works are sourced from staged and documented photographs. By blurring the line between fiction and reality, they suggest a tension between Islamic culture and Western influences. Religious and secular attitudes collide in Soody’s works, revealing a miscegenation of visual narratives before rendered in black and white. 

A Courtly Love Archival inkjet print 89 x 114.3 cm Edition of 6 2007

Love is in the Air Archival inkjet print 94 x 114.3 cm Edition of 3 2007


Curators The unbreakable rope: an exploration of sexuality in Islam has been curated by Harry Seymour and Rachel Maggart in conjunction with Nazish Khan, artistic director at Quilliam, and Free Word. Harry Seymour is an art historian, curator and critic based in London who completed his postgraduate studies at The Courtauld Institute. He specialises in exploring and elucidating the historical dialogues and narratives between contemporary and classical art in both Eastern and Western traditions. Rachel is an artist, curator and writer, who holds an MA in History of Art from Birkbeck College and BA in Music from New York University. Her first solo show, New Britannia: Reinventing British Iconography is on display at Roast Restaurant in Borough Market until March 2016. Nazish Khan is artistic director for Quilliam’s Season of #Solidarity. Nazish has an LLB from Brunel University and an MA in Theatre from City University. She is co-founder of Angry Bairds Theatre, the writer of the five star play Pole Factor and co-writer of international, immersive theatre and dining experience EAT.


The curators and Quilliam would like to thank: All of the artists: Farah, Soody, Lisa, Ibi, Sarah, Faiza, Tareq, Alison and Shane for their distinctly fascinating works and willingness to participate in a show of highly divisive subject matter; galleries Rossi & Rossi, Leila Heller and Kashya Hildebrand; Anna Wallace for reaching out to Kashya Hildebrand and Nour Aslam for facilitating an introduction to Anna; Jacob Krynauw for his generous catalogue design; Matt Ogston for selflessly retelling his story for others’ good; Seemaa Butt and Tareq de Montfort for making themselves vulnerable to an audience; Nazish Khan for sharing her brainchild with us and providing guidance all along the way; Mandana Jalalian for her translations; Lulu Al-Sabah for bringing Ibi’s works to

London; Rose Fenton, Sophie Wardell, Lauren Mooney and Tim Fletcher for giving their time and space for multiple events, their skills and belief in our work; Arab British Centre for connecting us to Free Word; Elana Woodgate for her advice on contracts; our families and friends for their support; and all the inspiring people we have met over the course of this project.

Published on the occasion of The unbreakable rope: an exploration of sexuality in Islam, 10 March – 8 June 2016 at Free Word Centre, 60 Faringdon Road, Clerkenwell, London, EC1R 3GA © 2016 Copyright Quilliam Foundation and the contributors Text by Harry Seymour and Rachel Maggart No part of this publication may be copied or reproduced in any form without the permission from the copyright holder. www.unbreakablerope.com information@quilliamfoundation.org

The unbreakable rope  

Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank, and Free Word, an international centre for literature, literacy and fre...

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you