Mohammed Ali is an artist who combines urban graffiti and Islamic calligraphy. He is based in Birmingham but his work takes him all over the world. The Revival's Irfan Jalil spoke to him about his source of inspiration and the place of art in Islam.
How would you describe the work that you do?
It's about the fusion of graffiti art with Islamic art. Fusing these two elements together to create an urban spiritual art form.
How did you start out as an urban artist?
There's no doubt graffiti is what I was inspired by from a very early age. It was when graffiti art first came about and came over to the UK. It was an American form of street art that was born on the streets of New York. It came over to the UK when I was about eight years old. I got involved with graffiti art and I'm still involved with it to this day. I'm heavily inspired by the urban graffiti art form. But obviously it's evolved from how I was practising it back in the day. Today I have this new-found passion that's influenced by Islamic art and Islamic calligraphy. So the work that I do has evolved but it's still in the same style that I was practising many years ago.
What caused you to change from just urban graffiti to Islamic calligraphy?
I haven't changed really. It's a fusion. So it takes the best of both worlds. I haven't abandoned the urban street art form – it's a big part of what my work is now. But it's now melding these two different styles together. But what made me want to merge these two – what seems like extreme opposites – was being inspired by street art and my new-found passion in Islam when I was in my early twenties. That was when I started to think about life a bit more seriously and started to ask questions that I felt were unanswered. I wanted those answers. It was probably the rediscovery of my Muslim identity that has led to Islam being an influence on my work.
Have you ever had to seek guidance from Islamic scholars about your work?
Yeah, of course. I definitely do. I think it's important to do that. From the beginning I was very cautious of this because I'm using elements of the Deen. You can't just do something any which way you want to, so I check back with people of knowledge. I ask them if I'm on the right lines, am I going off on a tangent, am I straying. I do my best to stay connected with people of knowledge who can advise and give guidance. Especially if this involves the Deen and the Quran. Often I'm very hesitant of writing certain things. You have to be cautious because you don't know where the artwork is going to be hung and if it's in a public place like a wall somewhere somebody could come and deface it. These are some of the issues that need to be taken into consideration. If I was doing anything else I wouldn't face the same challenges, but because this is something related to Muslims and the Muslim faith it's important to check yourself regularly.
How often do you produce new work?
It's difficult to keep track. I'm always doing workshops and travelling around the country and abroad with projects, that keeps me quite busy. In the summer I do a lot of outdoor work and I enjoy that. During the winter months I'm able to spend more time in the studio and develop on canvas and work on new commissions. I would say every few months I'm brining out a couple of pieces of canvas, but it really depends on the time of year, I mostly like to get out and about. The work that I do is a balance between commissions, canvas in the studio and getting out and about and working with different communities.
What have you been working on lately?
I was due to go to Bangladesh but because of the cyclone that's been postponed. It's unfortunate but I really want to get out there. More so because I want to commemorate or mark the deaths of so many people who have died in this tragedy. I've also got a tour to Canada and the US in the pipeline. I was in the US earlier this year and there's a lot of demand there for me to go back and work on some more projects. When I was in America I worked on murals in New York, Boston and Chicago. At the same time I was speaking at universities, colleges and schools about art from an Islamic viewpoint.
It seems whenever you're on TV you're working in schools with children. How often do you do that kind of work?
A lot of my time is spent doing projects in schools up and down the country. But I don't just go into a school and say 'this is who I am, this is what I do'. I try to deliver a package that gets the children to have a go at doing their own works of urban graffiti art. I put a lot of time and effort into these workshops. I try to create some good and get the kids to express positive virtues. It also helps to break down barriers and stereotypes. Sometimes the kids ask me if they can paint their names but I tell them no because it’s not about your ego. It's about looking at the rest of the world and then expressing that.
When you started out were you ever discouraged from pursuing your art?
There is a problem, no doubt, in a lot of societies that art is not encouraged and is neglected. Sadly this is the case in many different cultures and countries and it's an ongoing problem. I was definitely discouraged from it.
What advice do you have for young Muslims who are told by their parents that being an artist is 'not a suitable career'?
Islamic civilisation has excelled in the art and creative field. We have been known for our creative expression in calligraphy, architecture and such. No-one can say that there's no room for art in Islam because there is evidence of that. And you can't say art is Haram either because you can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can't say art is useless, art is not good, art is Haram. It's just certain aspects, figuratively speaking in terms of depiction and human representation, that is an issue. But no-one can say art as a whole should be discouraged. As long as it's Halal and permissible then what's the issue. However, I would also advise that it's not an easy field to get into. If anyone thinks that art is easy and you can make money, make a living off it and make it a full time commitment then you have to really think about that. It's not so easy to make a living from art. I don't want to give a false impression that it's easy to get into.
What are the strains of being a full-time artist?
The financial strain more than anything really. The peaks and the troths of life as an artist. In the early stages it's very difficult. You have to sustain yourself and have a regular income. The downside is that it is a financial challenge. Making a living is definitely quite difficult. But that is probably the only downside.
To find out more about Muhammed Ali or check out his work please visit: www.aerosolarabic.com