It all starts with the hand. A physical interaction – rubbing, touching, possibly kissing. An apotropaic exercise to make magic. It seemed Medieval Islam had a few eccentrics looking beyond their orthodox faith in search of some magic, and creating tools to invoke them. We think of wands as vehicles dispensing a magician’s powers. But what about stamps or seals?
There’s a rich history of talismans as instruments for protection, imbued with magical powers. These talismans are intimate objects; kept closely to the body or hung in or around a space, to offer nothing but blessings and good luck. Infused with enchantment and unforeseen power, these charmed objects are marked and inscribed with an array of motifs and symbols by transferring an imprint using a seal or stamp tool. It seems quite archaic that a stamp can make magic. But the imagination is efficacious – it’s how you use it that’s crucial. A labyrinth of imbrications to dazzle, bewilder and confuse; that’s how a stamp can invoke enchantment. It’s a direct interaction with the hand – to create and activate an image’s Baraka (blessing).
Who knows where this tradition of stamped amulets originally came from. One theory is possibly from Egypt (I’ve always felt my artistic sensibilities were from my mum’s side). But the traditions of talismans transcend time and place. I find myself applying such practises in many of my textile works in search of contemporary nodes of protection. Maybe it’s all just nonsense. But even nonsense is crucial to making magic…
A stamped cotton textile
on view at Jameel Library from 3.Aug.2022 - 14.Aug.2022
Patterns are a visual language nurtured by the hands of man. Patterns tell stories – of mankind, of the imagined, and of knowledge reimagined. Patterns can tell us a lot about our histories and connections to past civilisations and modern day societies. Centuries-old pattern books have traveled across oceans and borders, from Europe to the Holy Lands and beyond, their treasured motifs shared and reimagined.
Patterns also present a curiosity into the unknown. An epistemological study of the daily symbolic, and of intangible anomalies. Patterns are created first to contextualise the place they’ve arrived in, and later abstracted to transcend human rationale. This is when patterns become magical; as talismanic symbols and motifs, bringing blessings or preventing evil.
Repetition is key. Take a triangle, a geometric motif used as ornamentation across the globe. In the Islamic world, a triangle becomes an amulet, its sharp, pointed ends poking away evil. What happens when a triangle is repeated? Patterns begins to emerge, representing teeth, waves, serpents – all symbolic talismanic devices – it’s potency increased with repetition, abstraction and abundance. And what happens when patterns are further abstracted? New motifs begin to emerge – from eight-pointed stars that provide us with light and protection against darkness, to imperfections within patterns and shapes; to confuse, distract and ward off enviers. Imperfections are deliberate and important, because nothing is perfect, except the belief of something Divine.
A stamped cotton textile
on view at Jameel Library from 31.Aug.2022 - 12.Sep.2022
Magic travels. As do their objects of potency. I always arrive at Egypt, the ‘mother of magicians’. The ancient ones used medicines and magics to expel evil from humans. Such traditions have carried through in today’s practices of Zar. Healers use magic, sounds, scents, the word of the Divine and silver amulets during rituals to cleanse the possessed. It seems silver is important in the world of magic. And there’s plenty of it in a place like Egypt.
And just like magic, silver travels. Silver has journeyed our world as a resourceful metal, currency and as objects with talismanic qualities. Amulets that contain magical motifs, divine inscriptions and unknown secrets are worn as silver pendants and adornments to protect the wearer from malevolent forces. An assemblage of amulets encase magics representative of nature, abstraction and the textual – silver to encircle anyone within its boundaries from any harm that is (in)visible.
Magic is everywhere – present within the realms of the tangible and in the absence of the intangible. Potent magic is present at thresholds of transition. I’m reminded of warnings in my youth to stay indoors at sunrise and sunsets, moments of thresholds to carefully thread. To linger within such thresholds allow the risk of exposure to the other side. An invisible realm where things unknown lurk and are potentially disturbed. In my world, I search for magic outside the threshold of reality and technology.
A stamped cotton textile with attached bells
on view at Jameel Library from 4.Oct.2022 - 24.Oct.2022
Magic is intimate. We all have relationships with personal objects that make us feel safe or guarded. The Balinese believe textiles are potential homes for spirits, with magical properties to intervene and influence events in the visible and invisible worlds. There is a relationship with the power of sacred cloths and the human experience – tactile interactions of protecting the contained, and moments of creating or separating contact with others. These sacred cloths come alive with their combined symbolic colours and magical patterns and markings. A checkerboard of enchantment working in relationship with one another, manifesting some form of power.
Magic is art…maybe. If magic was never accepted as science nor religion, then maybe magical thinking falls within the realm of art. Going back to stamps and seals – not only were they symbols of power and authority of empires past, but also as tools for visual and graphic design that bear protective powers, especially with human contact. Patterns of repeating geometry, shapes and words can provide us with new and unfamiliar expressions to navigate our world.
Magic allows for alternative ways to find inspiration in a disenchanted world. It invokes the reimagining, when current modes of perception or creativity are not doing enough. And through magic, maybe we can inform change to a world that’s increasingly becoming despairing. Magic can be perceived as weird. But weirdness can inspire – new routes for exploration, contemplation and experience. It can sharpen one’s capacity for imagination, and through some inner hope and belief, magic can make you feel better. And the experience of our world can be quite enchanting.
A stamped cotton textile with attached bells
on view at Jameel Library from 21.Nov.2022 - 7.Dec.2022
Textiles are uncanny. They exist on the borders of the intimate and the imagined. When looking at a static textile, we participate in a magical process of projecting life into something that is lifeless. Using wordless narratives, one activates a textile with allegories and symbolism. We fill a void – [re]imagining in our minds what or who might inhabit these textiles. It is a process of conjuring dreams, thus entering the realm of the uncanny.
And yet, the uncanny can sometimes be unsettling. We are reminded that within the life and movement of textiles, there is also death, emptiness and mystery. We are ephemeral, yet textiles often outlive us. What once was a medium to enrobe and protect both body and spirit later becomes a sort of totem, reflecting a person’s interactions with the cultures in which they once lived. A talismanic object, conserving the spirit of what once was. It’s a mix of unease and wonder – ingredients for magic.
There is a mysticism that surrounds the practise of reimagining. Within the medium of textiles, established motifs and symbols are constantly reinterpreted in hopes of defining new perspectives. It is a process of assemblage – embedding fragments of the familiar with unfamiliar effect. A culturally [re]coded identity, laden with personal memories and meaning that carry a talismanic aura. Looking at the geometry and patterns of ‘Islamic’ art and design, there is a quest for answers within the ornament – abstraction and reinterpretation of ancient forms, for new potentials and future possibilities to flow. Mysticism is invoked to mirror, reflect and obscure reality. And to keep the chaos and banality of the everyday at bay.
A stamped cotton textile with attached bells and metallic foil
on view at Jameel Library from 1.Feb.2023 - 20.Feb.2023
Magic is language – conveyed through motifs and symbols. With textiles, magic communicates through colours, patterns and the positioning of charmed adornments across body and space. Textiles are essentially talismanic, functioning as a layer of protection from external hazardous possibilities. And when textiles are decorated with repetitive magical motifs and symbols, their powers are exemplified.
The language of magic is tactile, its vocabulary a collection of materials and symbols working together to sparkle, bewilder or tangle. An abundance of amulets in various shapes of silver purify. Embroideries and stitchings in red adorn thresholds, confronting evil forces with the symbolic power of the blood of life. Ubiquitous triangles terrify the evil eye for fear of being pierced, just like the fingers and rays of a hand and sun motif. The evil eye can also be confronted with it’s own reflection – eyes made from beads, shells, mirrors and the colour blue, distract, absorb and chase evil away. Tassels and bells serve the same purpose, their jingles and rustles an anathema to evil spirits. These are just some of the ways in which magic and textiles come together, exhausting an evil glance and creating a barrier of light over the protected.
We can argue that the language of magic is lost and forgotten, easily frowned upon and dismissed as decorative or just bizarre. Maybe the noise and construction of today’s big cities have driven away all we once feared, leaving us with nothing to be protected from. I believe the language of magic can live in the contemporary. We need magic today more than ever – to bring protection, good luck and most importantly, joy.
A stamped and embroidered cotton textile with attached bells and metallic foil and metallic fringe
on view at Jameel Library from 17.May.2023 - 29.May.2023