Artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos transforms IS propaganda into geometric paintings as she deconstructs the complex relationship between Islam and the West
In Unfolded and Infinity, Laura U Marks' 2010 study into the influence of Islamic art on contemporary digital culture, she writes that "in both Islamic art and new media art, a point can unfold to reveal an entire universe." In traditional Islamic art, everything is connected underneath an invisible, geometric web. When things appear in reality, they unfold on the surface of that web, and that surface acts as a window into an infinite universe. A similar thing can be said about the internet.
Drawing on the parallels between the algorithmic nature of the digital world, and traditional aniconism of Islamic art proposed by Marks, British artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos explores the complex relationship between Islam and the West. Deconstructing this subject through painting, she seeks to carve out a new visual language, one that moves beyond overly reproduced and divisive images in the media, to reflect deeper histories and more meaningful connections.
In her current exhibition Command: Print, held at Nome Gallery in Berlin, she presents a new series of works, Remaining and Expanding, which takes her research into Islamic art and digital aesthetics further into the current moment, re-imagining the online IS propaganda magazine Dabiq as a series of 36 geometric panel paintings. Designed in double-page spreads, Dabiq follows the visual rules of print magazines, but it has no physical form. It exists solely as a PDF that has never been officially printed and will only ever be read vertically.
The paintings reflect the graphic design compositions of pages taken from 6th Dabiq issue, and are displayed within the gallery space in an abstract imagining of what the magazine's headquarters might have looked like just before publication. Geometric shapes painted on rectangular wooden panels rest on shelves like editorial mock-ups. Painted in gouache their colours are matte with visible brush strokes, distanced from the shine of the glossy magazine, or the digital precision of the pixelated screen. The panels are displayed in the order of the original magazine spread, and their titles are drawn from the articles that they represent, ranging from ‘The Top Ten Al Hayat Videos’ to ‘From Our Sisters: Slave or Prostitute.’
The paintings' titles are the only reference to their original content, their focus solely on the graphic design layout. With a palette made up of the printing colours CMYK and RGB, and a structure drawn from universal design templates, they become uncannily familiar. The works could be outlines for a business pamphlet, or prints pinned to the walls of a design studio in East London. "In a way there is a humanity there," Khan-Dossos tells me when we catch up on Skype after the opening of her show. "It is about trying to make a connection across this huge void to people on the other side. It is by no means an attempt to justify them but it is more about coming to terms with it and dealing with it."
Originally trained in art history at Cambridge and specialising in Ottoman art and architecture and Orientalism, Khan-Dossos went on to study Arabic in Kuwait in 2003 when the British had just invaded Iraq. "It was a formative time", Khan-Dossos tells me. "I was next door to the second Iraq invasion. I felt very representative of Englishness and empire and I felt a deep discomfort with it."
"It is about trying to make a connection across this huge void, to people on the other side. It is by no means an attempt to justify them but it is more about coming to terms with it."
After leaving Kuwait, Khan-Dossos came back to the UK to study Islamic art at Princes School of Traditional Art. "I developed a working knowledge of different forms of craft, entering into philosophies of art making that are non-European," she says. "This was not putting the ego at the centre of the work, but using painting as a form of contemplation. It gave me a completely different perspective on image making."
Her interest in making work specifically about IS sparked after the execution videos of James Foley were put online in 2014. She sought to find a way to represent the material without reusing the same screen-grabs and IS material that saturated the internet at the time. "I had been trying to figure out how to paint Islamic State, as a way to think about its presence at the edges of our consciousness," says Khan-Dossos. "Every time I look at The Guardian and see that red block come up, I think shit, what has happened now. But how do you paint that fear?"
When Khan-Dossos started her research into IS, it was much easier to have dialogues with those who had joined the organisation. After the Paris attacks in 2015, a lot of this potential was shut down. "It was an amazing moment of the internet, to see what the domestic realities were, or what political awakenings had lead to this point," she says. "But on the internet so much is lost. I’ve spoken to a lot of women who joined IS, whose blogs and Twitters have now disappeared."
That Dabiq folded just a few weeks before Khan- Dossos’ show at Nome brings the survival of a PDF magazine further into question. "Maybe over time all these PDFs will disappear, or the software we need to read them will become obsolete," says Khan Dossos. "I am imagining this future possibility, which is not necessarily very far away, where the magazine is just a corrupted file and the paintings become the remnants of a moment."
"Every time I look at The Guardian and see that red block come up, I think shit, what has happened now. But how do you paint that fear?"
To go alongside the exhibition, Khan-Dossos has created a PDF from the paintings, to feed back into a loop that the exhibition reproduces: from the physical space of a magazine, to the digital space of the PDF, to a painting, and then back to a PDF again. "We are moving through these different spaces," says Khan-Dossos. "That is why I like returning things to the physical, and the uniqueness of that moment. It doesn’t have to be monumentalised, but there is something about the painted surface that you look at differently."
Indeed, it is through painting that Khan-Dossos is able to provide the needed distance, from which to look at the material differently. By dismantling the structure of Dabiq, she demystifies the feared 'other'. As she tells me, it is "through deconstructing the material, that we are able to deconstruct our fear." In times where images mean everything, and when fear has given rise to extremism, paranoia, violence and hate, this is where we need art most.
Command: Print is on display at NOME until 10th February 2017. For more information on Navine G. Khan-Dossos visit her website.