A Gentle Subversion
Heleen Schröder

(text for artist book ZamZam, part of the solo exhibition ZamZam gallery Sanaa Utrecht September 2019)

Fatima Barznge’s recent series of drawings in acrylics and coloured pencil entitled Zamzam is a study of the square, the basic motif in Islamic art and an important shape in the pre-Islamic Babylonian civilization. Each drawing is square in format, some consisting entirely of a plane woven out of slanted, quivering lines, others subdivided diagonally in seemingly endless variations of triangular tessellations. The shift to work on paper signals a new trend for Barznge while maintaining a continuity with her earlier acrylic works on panels – dense, painstakingly built up fabrics of fine, overlapping lines, dashes or crosses. The work on paper sustains this visual language, but seems lighter, airier, and freer.

Despite their abstraction, the drawings are deeply personal, based on memories from Barznge’s youth until the age of seventeen in the northern Iraq town of Aghjalar, later destroyed by war. She notes that these types of patterns were everywhere: ‘in my mother’s dress, in the rug on the floor, on the outside of the mosque…’ Barznge, a contemporary artist educated in the Netherlands, roots this series in the geometric patterning of Islamic art, more so than in twentieth-century precedents of abstraction and minimalism that may spring to mind on first reading.

The title of the series, Zamzam, makes this cultural connection explicit; it refers to one of Islam’s founding legends: Hajar, the mother of Ismail, is exiled in the desert at Mecca, and rushes back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah in a frantic search for water for her thirsty baby. Miraculously, God provides a source, a well in the valley between the two hills; this well is called Zamzam. The Kaaba, the cubical building in the courtyard of the Great Mosque and the holiest site of Islam, was later built near the Zamzam well, and the well is an important station of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Barznge’s father, an Islamic theologian, returned from the hajj with holy water, attributed healing powers, in a beautiful glass vial. His collection of manuscripts and calligraphy is one of the inspirations for these works on paper.

Barznge summarizes the story of Hajar in a simple diagram depicting two slopes and the Zamzam well at the base where they meet. The well is thus at the lower corner of an inverted triangle formed in the space between the mountains. It is a widely recognized, albeit discrete and coded, symbol of the woman and of female sexuality – so well-known that in some contexts, modesty prohibits the use of the triangle.

The woman Hajar is identified as a founder of the city of Mecca – an alternative reading offered not as a replacement or negation of the established narrative of the faith and the entrenched iconography of the square, but rather as a commentary, an enriching supplement, and an opening of interpretive possibilities. If the square stands for the male principle, for stability, patriarchal authority, the geometric and eternal, then the triangle represents the female, dynamism, the questioning of authority, the organic and natural. But similar to the indirect, layering of symbolic meaning in Islamic art, Barznge presents her veiled critique in an abstract, oblique way, with a tact that is indispensable in opening up a discussion of taboo subjects. She offers her gentle subversion in a web of vibrating lines, enlivening and softening the strict principles of the base form.

Rotterdam, May 2019

  • News


    * Roots&routes . 10 years Galerie SANAA

    7 dec-1 feb 2020 group exhibition


    * Pictura Dordrecht Oktober 2020 with Maria Ikonomopoulou, Kathrin Wolkowicz and Fatima Barznge

    Past Exhibition:

    * Solo Exhibition
    ZamZam Galerie Sanaa Utrecht 2019

    * De vrouwelijke blik / The Female Gaze
    Museum De Buitenplaats 2019

    * At Home Everywhere
    Verhalenhuis Belvédère Rotterdam 2019


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