An exhibition of paintings by Jeddah artist Reem Nazir, has gone on display at the Royal Geographical Society in London. The paintings in Hajj Journey Through the Ages are inspired by historical photographs and first-hand accounts of the Hajj and are the culmination of an intensive three-year project.
The seeds of the Hajj project go back to 2010 when Reem’s husband, Tarik Alireza asked her to paint two of his favourite images of Hajj, taking as her inspiration photographs from the archive of the Barakat Trust. “The photographs are all in black and white and I wanted to see those historical images imbued with colour,” explains Tarik. “I wanted to add that extra dimension.”
“The project took three very intensive years of work,” said Reem. “As always some paintings move quickly and others just take their time.”
All 43 paintings were inspired by photographs from The Barakat Trust’s collection. But the photographs alone were not enough and evocative historic quotes from Hajjees and travellers from around the globe were also used for inspiration. The photographs and quotes from first-hand accounts are set beside the paintings in the exhibition. “The words of those who had made the Hajj were inspirational to me; I began to imagine certain views and situations in an alternative way and the project took on a life of its own,” Reem explained to The Middle East Online.
Hajj Journey Through the Ages is being held under the patronage of HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom. He said: “I am delighted to have been able to bring this exhibition to the multicultural city of London, and hope it will contribute to the understanding of this remarkable annual Muslim gathering. I hope that it helps to represent the important message of dialogue in Islam, which ultimately aims to bring all nations and ethnic groups of the world together in justice and equality.”
Interview with Tarik Alireza and Reem Nazir, the husband and wife team behind the Hajj Journey Through the Ages exhibition
How many historic photographs are there in your collection?
Tarik: I don’t know the exact number, but it is certainly in the thousands. Collection includes original photographs, glass slides, postcards, engravings, maps, historical documents and books. The photographs now belong to the Barakat Trust.
What inspired you to make the collection and when did you start to collect?
Tarik:I remember collecting all my life. It all started c. 1955-1956 when I started to collect stamps. Probably when I stopped “collecting the world” in 1967 and decided to specialize in Arabian philately is when the serious collecting began. Being always very keen on postal history rather than simply traditional philately, the research required naturally led me to books and maps etc.
Are the photographs just related to Makkah, Madinah and Hajj or do they also represent everyday life in Saudi Arabia?
Tarik: The collection covers the Islamic world, with emphasis on Arabia. The subjects are all-encompassing and cover personalities, events, architecture, topography, commerce, costumes, religion etc. Naturally, images of the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah figure prominently.
What photographs do you particularly prize and why?
Tarik: I actually prize many. Obvious choices would be the earliest photographs of the holy cities and Hajj from 1880-1881 by the Egyptian Muhammad Sadik Bey. However, I also prize images by lesser known photographers (and even ones with the photographer unknown), especially if a new view or perspective not previously recorded is portrayed. Even the humble postcard can sometimes greatly surprise!
Have you a favorite painting in the exhibition or one that means something special to you? Which is it?
Tarik: Obviously, as someone who has spent a professional lifetime promoting the preservation of built and soft heritage, the panoramas of historic Makkah and Madinah strike a chord, as do other paintings showing the traditional architecture, such as Madina Suq. Growing up by the shores of the Red Sea, I also particularly like “Arrival of Pilgrims in Yanbu” and “Sanabeek Dhows Ferrying Pilgrims to Shore”.
What gave you the idea for the exhibition?
Tarik: The seeds of the project go back to when I asked Reem to paint two of my favorite images from amongst the historic photographs in the collection. As the subjects were Hajj related and having decided against a realist style, she chose the rough and imperfect canvas traditionally used for making the pilgrims’ tents.
As background, Reem has for twenty years been renting a space in the annual charity bazaar organized by HRH Princess Adela bint Abdullah in support of her Home Care charity. It has been done to support the charity and is also a chance to expose her new works in a large and well-attended event.
As the two paintings were finished before the annual Ramadan event, we decided to display them there, amongst other works. The very positive reaction to these paintings was quite something.
At the same time, I sent a low-resolution image of “Prayer in Haram of Makkah” to accompany my Ramadan email greetings to close friends. One recipient immediately replied to me asking for a higher resolution image. Tajammul Hussain, a British-Pakistani artist, called me the next day saying how moved and inspired he was by the image. He then stated we must convince Reem to do a series on the Hajj journey of olden times.
I was an immediate convert to the idea and started an outline of the project and selecting images. In time, the initial overly enthusiastic selection of well over a hundred images was eventually reduced to the existing selection. With support and encouragement from Tajammul and me, Reem came to embrace this project and decided to make a full commitment to it. Sadly, Tajammul passed away before he saw the fulfillment of his dream.
How long has it taken to put it together?
Tarik: Reem embarked on the project in the summer of 2010. She finished the 43rd painting about a month before the opening of the Jeddah exhibition in the Fall of 2013.
How did you go about resourcing the quotes? What inspired you to add this extra dimension?
Tarik: The addition of the quotes came a few weeks into the project. Working only from black and white photographs, often with less than clear detail, presented its own set of problems to the artist. Soon she was asking about the colour of various objects shown in the images. As almost all that one sees in the images of a century ago no longer exists, only observations or descriptions of early travelers could possibly offer a clue.
In searching for answers, I also ran into many evocative quotes that really added another dimension. These also helped inspire Reem as the atmosphere of the place in an otherwise static photographic image was suddenly brought to life. It was then that we decided that the exhibition would benefit from the three complementing elements: the photographs, first hand quotes and the paintings.
What are the future plans for the exhibition?
Tarik: As the painting progressed and the project began to take shape, Reem decided that the paintings needed to stay together, and that there was no question of the paintings being sold piecemeal. For the time being, she is keen that the exhibition is displayed in more national and international venues. It is hoped that, in time, there will a final resting place where the collection can remain intact.
How long has this project taken? How long did it take to produce each painting? Were some more difficult to paint than others? Why?
Reem: The project took three very intensive years of work. As always, some paintings move quickly and some just take their time. My studio in Jeddah is large enough, so I was able to work at up to three paintings at the same time. This allowed me to take a break from a painting by working on another one.
There is also the fact that, as I was painting in many layers of thick paint, I often had to let the paint dry before I continued working on a particular work. This work would have to be set aside and something else started. All told, each painting took upwards of four weeks on average. The paintings that were more architectural generally took more time and were more difficult for me.
You chose to work on the type of canvas from which pilgrim tents used to be made. Why? Was this more difficult to work on? How?
Reem: For this series, I liked the rough texture as it suited my work and gave the right effect I wanted while working with a palette knife.
Is there any particular painting that you are especially pleased with, particularly like? Explain which and why?
Reem: I have a particular fondness for the two panoramas of Makkah and Madinah for nostalgic reasons.
Are you surprised by the interest in these interpretive paintings? Do you think painting them has changed the way you think about or go about your painting?
Reem: I am very pleased but not surprised by people’s reactions. In truth, it is difficult to undertake such a large project knowing that it will be a few years before one gets feedback from the viewing public. Doubt could sometimes creep in but one must trust one’s own instincts as well as trusting the response of close persons who are witnessing the on-going work.
HRH Prince Khalid Al Faisal, Governor of Makkah and himself an artist, was kept apprised of the progress of the work during the three years. His favorable response to the project and the works was very encouraging. In fact, he graciously agreed to open the exhibition at its first showing in Jeddah in 2013.
Certainly, the whole process of working under constant pressure and finally creating something that was well received has boosted my confidence.
Have you been on Hajj? Did that experience inform your paintings practically and/or emotionally?
Reem: Yes, I went on Hajj in 2001. Although the physical surroundings of today’s Hajj little resemble that of old, I can imagine that the emotional and spiritual feelings are the same.
This has been a huge project. What are you going to do next/are doing now? Have you another project you are working on/plan to work on?
Reem: To be honest, working on this project was very intensive and all-consuming. In fact, all my friends constantly complained that I didn’t spend much time with them at all during this period. At the end of the project, I was quite exhausted and it was many months before I went back to my studio.
I have since started working on a series depicting the “Mihrab”, or prayer niche, from mosques in all corners of the Islamic world. Depicted will be the more intricate types in sculpted stone, marble and decorative faience, such as those from India, Egypt and Iran, as well as the simpler mud brick ones of Western Africa and Central Arabia. The theme will be unity through diversity.
I have also been commissioned by HRH Prince Faisal Ibn Salman Ibn Abdulaziz, Governor of Madinah, to paint classically traditional portraits of the last few living “Aghawat”, the eunuchs entrusted with the care of the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah. The paintings will be in oil on board and will be inspired by the series of photographic portraits of the “Aghawat” by Saudi photographer Adel Al Quraishi, first exhibited at the “Word and Illumination” exhibition held in Madinah to coincide with its status as Islamic Cultural Capital in 2013.