The Art of Religion

Artist Saif Osmani shares his gospel with Momtaz Begum-Hossain

Posted: 22.09.12

When Saif led me to a carpeted office block to see his recent exhibition I was perplexed at how you can have an art gallery in such an inconspicuous place. Then again, The Mica Gallery in Sloane Square not being a conventional exhibition space, suits the fact that Saif isn’t your typical artist.
Born and raised in the East End, Brit Bengali Saif Osmani discovered the pleasures of watercolours aged 11, from a set he bought in Poundland and has since painted, drawn, collaged and sculpted his way through life, while training to be an architect.
His journey from the hip Central St Martins to Canary Wharf, via Chelsea School of Art, and a residency in Taiwan where he spent six months exploring bamboo, culminated in him showing at the The Mica, as part of their ‘My Place On The Isle’ exhibition, which encouraged contemporary artists to explore faith and identity. Saif’s contribution was the talking point.

The concept? He cut Jesus out of renowned paintings. An idea that surprisingly delighted his local Newham Christian priest, and crowned him the new face of modern Islamic art. He explains: ‘Originally I approached the National Gallery and asked them if I could get copies of some of the major works that featured Jesus, but they didn’t get what I was trying to do so I recreated them myself. I was never on a
mission to re-define religious artefacts  - it just got interpreted that way.’

Saif chose seven key pieces of fine art that depicted Jesus, painted replicas of them and then grabbed the scissors. All well and good. But how does that explore faith? Saif explains: ‘In Christianity images of Jesus are over saturated. Every one has an image of him. When I see African women in the street with their religious pamphlets depicting an image of an Aryan man with a halo on his head, I always wonder how they can believe that’s what he looked like? No one knows. Just like Muslims don’t know what Muhammed looked like.’

When I ask Saif if being a Muslim makes his controversial pieces a form of Islamic Art, he’s quick to explain that the ‘genre’ is too subjective to define. ‘When you think of Islamic art you imagine calligraphy, geographic shapes and minarets but who decided that is what Islamic Art is?’

Inspired by the relationship between religion and art and whether religion can be art, Saif is currently working on an illustrated Qu’ran - something he needed to do after realising he was spending too much time explaining his religion. He reveals: ‘Post 9/11 I was asked lots of questions about what it’s like to be a Muslim. In the end I bought an English translation of The Qu’ran for a colleague who said it was the best present he’d ever received. The thing about Islam is that it questions your values – sometimes it’s harder to express this in words and speech but you can do anything in art.’

A sentiment he shares when it comes to his other passion; buildings. ‘It’s always fascinated me how architects are the people responsible for deciding how we live our lives. They conceptualise entire cities and add people in –there’s some really interesting things happening in Delhi, Bangalore and Dubai especially. It’s also intriguing to see how different nations represent minarets…especially in Europe
where they are often banned.’

Trapped in a world of art, religion and architecture, the conversation naturally turns to identity and I ask Saif how he categorises himself, if at all. ‘People assume I’m Muslim when they see my work, but in truth I identify more with being a Bengali. Don’t be fooled by my Western attire - at home I lounge around in a lungi and string vest! Alot of my work is inspired by the Desh - its landscapes and politics. I was born here but you can’t escape the countries influence when you’re an East Londoner.’

Before we part, Saif opens up a plastic bag and asks me to pick something atrandom. I unravel a piece of paper with intricately painted script reading ‘Have a beautiful day.’ Saif woke up one morning and painted hundreds of the same quote until he ran out of ink. In between creating new work and his architecture job, he hands them out on street corners to random passer-bys.

As I left him to an afternoon of doing just that, it dawned on me that I hadn’t had such an in depth discussion about religion in a long time. I certainly never expected to have one with an artist – though I’m pleased I did. It beats a school RE lesson any day. 

Saif Osmani lastest exhibition Parallel Horizons is currently showing at The Stephen Lawrence Gallery in London.
January 21st - February 28th 2013.
A collaboration with over 20 artists, it explores bamboo houses and architecture throughout the world.


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