Navine G. Khan-Dossos uses painting to explore ‘the algorithmic nature of the interconnected world we live in’ by melding geometric abstraction with the traditional aniconism of Islamic art, and the patterns underpinning digital life. This is a reflection of the artist’s educational background: Khan-Dossos studied Ottoman art and architecture at the University of Cambridge, Arabic at the University of Kuwait, Islamic art at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art, and fine art at Chelsea College of Art and Design. Having fused these studies into her practice, Khan-Dossos approaches painting — from egg tempera on wood panel to wall works and murals — as an ‘informational’ act in which fields of knowledge are both abstracted and built from the conflicted and complex relationship of Islam to the West’. In recent years, this has led to a focus on the aesthetics and politics of Islamic State digital propaganda, which the artist sees as a means to ‘invest in finding a new language that reflects the patterns and connections that underpin these images and generate them in the digital world.
Stephanie Bailey: I wanted to begin with Command: Print, which presents 36 new panel paintings based on pages of the Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine Dabiq, which you turn into geometric paintings. The installation of these panels at the gallery mimics wall shelves on which entire magazine layouts are presented and worked out using page print-outs. As part of the exhibition, you also reconstituted these 36 painted panels into a magazine that is available online for download in PDF format on Ibraaz.
Could you talk about the loop the exhibition produces, from the original source material, to the reconstitution of your abstractions back into an online, distributable form?
Navine G. Khan-Dossos: The first thing I noticed when I started looking at Dabiq as a way of interacting with IS propaganda was the troubling pseudo-slickness of it. It has a particular style and a traceable lineage through other similar publications such as Al Oaeda’s Inspire magazine, and others further back. The format made me wonder what an issue would feel like in one’s hands and what the print-run would be. The fact that Dabiq, by its very nature, is an online publication that exists only in digital form allows for an extraordinary reach of distribution. This means that someone like me can read it and get a sense of the shape of this propaganda machine, albeit through certain channels such as clarionproject.org rather than by downloading or printing it.
While the downloadable PDF I created for Ibraaz mirrors the digital nature of Dabiq, maintaining the A4 fixed-layout-flat-document format despite the fact that it is unlikely to ever be printed out, in the exhibition space at NOME I am reflecting the physical space of the magazine’s production.
In the exhibition, I am imagining the room where the magazine layout and editorial meetings happen; how the pages are presented and in what order; the space where the files are formatted and sent out into the world. The only memory I have from doing teenage work experience on a magazine was the great long back wall of the open-plan office where narrow shelves supported foam-core mock-ups of each spread, so the editorial team could shuffle around the content and see what it looked like as a whole. In my mind, I tried to imagine this space existing somewhere in Raqqa, for instance — although it is more likely that it is not in Syria at all — and the team working out which report on the destruction of monuments should come first, or where to place the interview with John Cantlie in relation to the claims made for IS involvement in the Paris bombings…
SB: How does this influence the way you consider IS itself?
NGKD: The territory of IS is not just a geographic location; it exists as a cyber-caliphate. The intention is not to infantilize the process or condone the content, but to return some matter and solidity to the issue at hand, which I experience in large part through the digital realm. This physicality and solidity extends from the magazine mock-ups to the people who create them and those at the other end of this communication.
The layouts I create as geometric paintings work with the graphic design of each page using the grids, columns and compositions from real Dabiq pages. And while the original article titles often become the titles for my work, I see no need to reproduce either the original text or images contained within their pages. This can easily be found online by anyone curious enough to investigate it, but I see no value in reproducing this content in my work. For Ibraaz, the 36 paintings are reconstituted into a PDF, bringing the work full circle from its precarious origin as illegal material that may or may not be widely available in years to come, to a work that contains traces of the original documents, in a form that presents new terms of engagement and framing.
SB: Could you elaborate on what these new terms of framing or engagement might be, or how you formally engage with such terms through your work?
NGKD: I’m very interested in the roots of words connected to publishing, both online and in print, and how these interact with the politics of Dabiq. The English and Arabic words for ‘cartridge’, ‘calibrate’ and magazine’ have shared origins in military terminology. For instance, ‘calibration’ comes originally from the Arabic qalib, “a mould for casting”. The Arabic term was also used in the sense of “mould for casting bullets”, which is the oldest literal meaning in English. The meaning of the word as the “inside diameter of a gun barrel” begins in the late sixteenth century. ‘Magazine’ also has late-sixteenth century roots: a “place for storing goods, especially military ammunition”, coming from the Arabic makzin through to the Middle French magasin “warehouse, depot, store”. This original sense is now almost obsolete, but its reading as meaning a ‘periodical journal’ dates from the publication of the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1731, which was so-named after an earlier use of the word for a printed list of military stores and information or, in a figurative sense, for the publication as a ‘storehouse’ of information.
SB: Where did your research into IS and its iconographies begin?
NGKD: My first real research and work looking at IS came with the execution of James Foley in August 2014. I had just finished a series of works looking at the Innocence of Muslims 120124 a 14-minute film ‘trailer’ with a particular interest in the role of green screen in the creation of Orientalist landscapes in contemporary extremist representations of the Middle East. The video caused a great uproar, both on- and offline, in 2012, and there were several protests and attacks in many countries, including Egypt and Libya, in which protestors directed their anger regarding the blasphemous nature of this low-budget pseudo-film trailer towards the local American embassies. The impact of this badly made agitprop marked a turning point in my interest in homegrown and organizational propaganda that uses technological advances to suggest authenticity or quality.
With this in mind, I was amazed and fascinated by reports suggesting that the high production quality of this execution video had made some believe that it was in fact faked, using special effects and dubbing to produce the desired outcome. While this has been almost unanimously proved not to be the case, this new era of violence being filmed from multiple angles and edited into a timeframe that keeps the viewer engaged made me think differently not so much about the content but its packaging. Similarly, the knowing production of Dabiq interested me on a formal level. Much of IS’s material is produced in a very self-aware way, with the thought that it will be endlessly reproduced online, both within its own organization and by foreign media.
Working through the functional colors, compositions and graphic design layouts of IS is a way of interacting with the material reality of this phenomenon. It is a way of breaking down something that can often [eel insurmountable and unknowable, and therefore impossible to make work about. These reductions are not altogether abstractions so much as distillations; looking for the pre-image and the post-image when the actual image is too horrifying to look at. The void of content reminds us that we already know a lot of the images at work here, we have been exposed to them already in news feeds and headlines articles in red boxes. So the painting becomes a space of recall, or even contemplation of what we already know and how that effects our perception of the work and its subject.
SB: You have said that you purposefully use an ‘analogue’ methodology, suggesting a historical lineage from the Quattrocento, and explicitly circumnavigating oil paint altogether. Could you expand on that?
NGKD: I’ve never really been interested in working with oil paint. So much of its value — in its history and contemporary use — is about generating depth by building up layers over time. Firstly, I don’t have the patience for working that way, but also I enjoy the opacity and ‘matte-ness’ of gouache in particular. Although it does feature in Western art, gouache’s origins can be traced back to ninth-century Persian miniature painting, from where it spread westwards by the fourteenth century, so it has always had strong associations with Islamic manuscripts. In the industrial age gouache becomes a cheap and cheerful poster paint, often used in advertising as a way to generate images that would then be reproduced. There was no need for pigments to have lightfastness as the original poster image made by the designer would soon be discarded while the reproduction would live on in print. So these two distinct historical moments both draw down into the way I use the medium and its associations.
Much of my palette is derived from what I think of as a functional color: RGB, CMYK, grey scales and white balances. These often take the form of calibration targets from color cards painted into the works themselves, presenting not only the work but also the means of reproduction [or that work. I rarely use more than one layer of color in all my work, and this thinness is derived out of a fascination with, and desire to mirror, the liquid crystal display through which we interact with many aspects of the world on screens. So much information goes into the creation of images but what we are finally presented with are a series of pixels across a thin-film transistor. All we interact with is the skin. The paint is never trying to compete with the perfect reproduction qualities of a pixelated screen, quite the opposite. It is there to draw you into the work, to see the edges, the failures, the human hand making the mark.
SB: How do you relate with aniconism in your work and the question of representation?
NGKD: Aniconism is something I often use as a go-to word to describe the essence of what I’m trying to paint, or not paint, but it’s not really such an easy word to unpack. There are a lot of misunderstandings about figuration in Islamic art, and whether this produces an ‘abstract’ art in the absence of these forms. The Qur’an does not explicitly condemn the depiction of human figures, but like the Abrahamic tradition before it, it does condemn idolatry. This is particularly important in places of worship such as the mosque and the Ka’aba in Mecca, where the emphasis is on the spoken and written word rather than the illustrative image. The absence of icons in this religious environment — aniconism — therefore generates a space that is summed up well by a thinker I read a lot in my early twenties, Titus Burckhardt. He was a writer with a great knowledge of Islamic art and Sufi poetry and one of the founders of the ‘Traditionalist School’ of twentieth-century authors. In Mirror of the Intellect: Essays on Traditional Science and Sacred Art 11987), he says:
By excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within the religious realm, Islamic art aids man to be entirely himself. Instead of projecting his soul outside himself, he can remain in his ontological centre where he is both the viceregent (khalifal) and slave (‘abd) of God. Islamic art as a whole aims at creating an ambience which helps man to realize his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an ‘idol’, even in a relative and provisional manner.
This was very much the philosophy of the traditional training I followed [or a while. But I always found it difficult to get a proper footing in this approach given my work was not Islamic’ so much as working within the strictures of an aniconic practice. It also wasn’t allowing me to fully express the politics of my research and work. That is until I stumbled across the writing of Laura U. Marks, whose book Enfoldment and Infinity fundamentally shifted my relationship to Islamic art and its possible engagement with the digital.
SB: This relates to the contemporary, algorithmic digital world you conjure in your paintings.
NGKD: Marks’s basic premise is hinged upon the following:
Both new media art and Islamic art are, broadly speaking, aniconic. Art is aniconic when the image shows us that what we do not see is more significant than what we do. In both Islamic art and new media art, the most important activity takes place at a level prior to the perceptible image. The image that we perceive refers to its underlying cause — in ornament, geometry, pattern, text, and code-generated images. These are not artworks of the image but Li of enfolding and unfolding.
I read this book in 2011 as I was watching the many ‘Springs’ across the world take shape through my then-Blackberry handset. It was a difficult time of being a passive viewer to a changing and abortive world in pain and that yet remained hopeful. It was mesmerizing and profoundly disturbing. I could no longer make the work I had been making. As I watched and perpetually refreshed my smartphone there was still a noticeable moment between the calling up of an information search and its display; this often took the form of the grey and white checkerboard, a holding page from which the image or story finally emerged. This space between the requesting and receiving of an image seemed to speak directly of this enfolding and unfolding — of the geometric grid upon which we momentarily project what we hope or fear to see next.
And so all my paintings then became these checkerboards that [reed me from everything that had gone before, and allowed something simpler and more universal than Islamic geometry, the digit, and the pixel, to become the beginning of new forms that could be mine and not part of a grand narrative of cultural appropriation. The paintings remain aniconic but are now presenting the building blocks of the contemporary image rather than images themselves. Those forms vary from green and blue screen paint, Photoshop checkerboards, CMYK printer cartridges or RGB calibration targets. All suggest an image to come or that has passed by, but was never the thing itself. This became my form of aniconism.
An expanded version of this interview can be found at www.ibraaz.org/interviews/203 accompanying Navine Khan-Dossos’s Ibraaz 010 project commission, which forms the digital component of the artist’s exhibition at NOME, Command: Print.
Stephanie Bailey is senior editor of Ibraaz, contributing editor of ART PAPERS and LEAP, and editor-at-large at Ocula. com. A member of the Naked Punch Editorial Committee, she also writes regularly for Artforum and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, with a focus on the articulations of history and the relations of power coded into the production and exchange of culture.