Bin Qulander

Bin Qulander

is a younger member of contemporary generations of Islamic calligraphers who are in a moment of an expansive creativity. Vibrant and multi-layered, inspired and influenced by numerous sources including sacred texts (legible in the paintings and obviously highly skilled in presentation), various music, Sufi dance, nature and more all woven with local, regional and pan Islamic color, patterns and symbols, Bin Qulander’s calligraphy for me offers one of the more spectacular and accomplished examples of the renewal. This may be a renaissance equivalent to or about to exceed in dimension and quality an earlier creative period generated by the introduction of paper. The current era’s new materials and approaches imported and blended with local and wider Islamic cultural traditions is but one function powering this flourishing activity. Another cause is the sharing of works on global electronic social media networks and websites, where I first saw his and others’ works, accelerate this bloom and cross-fertilization, the roots of which reach back into the first few decades of the 20th Century.

The craft of paper making came into the Islamic cultural sphere in 751 CE at the battle of Talas when, in their victory against a Tang Empire attack along the Silk Road, papermakers were captured. Immediately, Samarkand became a papermaking center. Papermaking soon followed in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. Paper, coupled with a single language, Arabic, significantly strengthened and unified Islamic culture from Central Asia through West Asia, across North Africa into Moorish Spain and later south into Sub-Sahara Africa. Cultures and languages separated since the short unity created by Alexander were united again with others to create a great mixing of sources, approaches and materials. Unlike parchment or papyrus, ink was absorbed by paper and could not be erased. Paper, being less expensive than parchment and papyrus, promoted wider distribution of hand-copied books and contributed to further developments in calligraphy.

The Islamic call and demand for no depiction of any living form and the desire to render the Koran into the most beautiful form humanly possible raised the culture’s calligraphy to one of the great artistic and literary human accomplishments. Calligraphy is their queen of arts. Calligraphers and artists developed over the centuries a lush language of calligraphy styles fusing visual and spiritual symbolism with complex geometric and abstract decoration for books, architectural surfaces, rugs, and other objects with use of wider cultural symbols blended with the local. This approach continues among the contemporary Islamic calligraphers such as Qulander, who are extending their symbols and rendering forms from the larger global library of symbol presentation.

His work and those of others struck within me a deep cord as did many artists in the Southwest Native American tradition from mid 20th century to the present. However, it was his art that immediately and profoundly vibrated this cord leading to my desire to share some ruminations on what I see from my observations as a parallel process in the evolution of contemporary Islamic calligraphy and Native American spiritual art. The parallelism, briefly, is the blending of traditional art, spiritual symbols, religious symbols and cultural objects with modern art and it materials forming the expression of individual and group vision. Abstraction is native to both traditions predating European-centric abstraction by centuries in Islamic art and by millennia among Native American art and thus both groups’ abstraction appears, for me at least, natural and balanced rather than in many instances forced and chaotic. This cultural blending has been ongoing among Islamic calligraphers and Native American artists prior to mid 20th century.

Besides the calligraphy, which is central in each piece, his works contain or suggests cultural objects such as plates, prayers rugs, rugs, architecture, landscape, flora based patterns and abstraction, the sun, etc. The calligraphy, like the symbols and objects, contains layered meaning and significance. The calligraphy can be looked upon simultaneously as embracing the entire field, including the viewer, as well as an extension of That Which created the viewer and the field in which the viewer stands.

I digress for awhile to add more to the context of this discussion. First, it must be stated that trends beginning in the ‘modern’ art era and onward to the present in the dominant Euro-American culture essentially expunged traditional Western symbolic imagery from the visual and literary arts. Thus, a general, illiteracy of symbolic meaning with its multiple layering of meaning now occurs in the culture. As such, symbols, when present in art, especially spiritual art that is dependent upon it, are literally viewed; that is to say, they are not seen as part of a wider visual lexicon seamlessly part of the field of an artwork, but seen as purely decorative images afloat in the field as objects.

Viewing historical masterpieces of illuminated manuscripts, one sees a common thread among local, regional and wider cultural renderings of symbols that easily resonate with a member of the particular cultural group. In many cases, one can trace these symbols or signifiers with their layered meanings back through their transformations from portable objects, such as rugs, ceramics and religious implements, many of which have origins from rock art. This is certainly an aspect of Bin Qulander’s work; however, the genius of his art is that, while remaining true to his local roots, he jumps out of local, regional and cultural frames into the evolving multi-culture global art scene.

One can also trace the movement of illumination from one region to another where the first generation of students to be taught maintained a use of symbols imported by their teachers. Then, the following second and later generations would introduce their own local and regional symbols into the illumination. This progression is easily traced in the Carolingian illuminated manuscripts whose first calligraphers were instructed by monks from Keltic Ireland and Saxon Briton of the Hiberno-Saxon tradition with its zoomorphic interlacing knot work. The source of this interlacing art can be traced back to the kolam knots of the Saraswati Culture of South Asia and the Persian zoomorphic art that the Scythians literally wove together around 500 BCE creating the first zoomorphic interlacing knot work which then was transmitted to the Kelts as well as to Germans and Scandinavians.

Thus, when viewing and reading Bin Qulander’s works, note the root and branch inspired flourishes. He has indirectly, through abstraction instead of geometric pattern, tapped into an ancient art form alive today in South Asia. The geography of Pakistan was once part of the Saraswati Culture that ranged south of Bharat’s Mumbai and north into Afghanistan from about 3300 to 1800 BCE.

Yet to be fully outlined are the Islamic illuminated manuscripts found in the huge collections in Timbuktu, Mali. This collection is made up of imported and locally composed manuscripts, the latter of which contain Sub-Saharan African designs, patterns and symbols. The extent of the geographical and culture landscapes these patterns and symbols are derived from also remains to be understood.

In much the same manner, rock art patterns and symbols of Native Americans became integral parts of later developed portable objects as decoration and spiritual association. Most readily available for tracing such movements are the ceramics of the Southwest peoples and the artwork found on objects in the Northwest. The Native American generation of artists coming to adulthood in the early 1930’s, either self-taught or instructed, learned to create with the dominant culture’s materials and approaches, such as paint and canvas and the concepts of modern art. Out of this blending of their traditions with the new approaches and materials, came a new dynamic individual and group vision added to by following generations of artists. Examples of these individuals and groups can be found on-line on web sites listed below.

Bin Qulander has, at his fingertips, the historic and contemporary artistic expressions with which to compose on canvas multiple symbolic and lexical inspired visions that open not only our eyes wider but also our hearts, an important role of an artist. He accomplishes this; it seems, effortlessly. For example, and this is but one of several possibilities from my seeing and reading, the circle on the surface in “6 Kalmah,” a plate pattern of holy text symbolically rises as the dawn sun fronted by a text shaped like a tree. Taking the symbol another layer deeper in meaning, Islam, like Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism, is a ‘sun’ religion while Buddhism and Taoism are considered ‘moon’ religions. Among the mystics of the former, the color of the sun, gold, is a color symbolic of the Divine, the Unspoken; a full unblemished moon is a sign for enlightenment among the latter. The disk can be read, then, as a dawning of gnosis; the sun illuminates the Tree of Knowledge as well as being Knowledge Itself. Deeper yet, the mystic untangles him/herself from the branches and roots moving behind the tree to front of the sun in order to remove the text covering the Mystery. The mystic seeks only the blazing Love of the Beloved.

Further examples of his use of influences and symbols are the dance and music pulse of the texts influenced by Sufi dervish whirling and its and other music. Aside from the sun, other natural influences are roots and branches with all the symbolic implications and suggested natural beauty. Spiritual art aids the seeker’s journey to open the heart to find the Guest in residence. His art indeed expands, if not aids in opening, hearts to horizons beyond the material aspects we are surrounded by and too often bound by. This is art that not only sparks thought and heart felt emotion but also lends a helping hand to contemplation.

Karl Kempton
Oceano, California
November, 2013

(“Introduction,” Biography, Bin Qulander. Lahore, BQ Studio, 2013.)