Walk along one first-floor gallery at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art between now and Jan. 6, and you’ll be following a 30-foot trail of fancifully dancing musical notes, embellished with what appear to be swirls and squiggles but are actually Arabic characters and words.
The slightly more than 2-foot-by-3-foot panels, created in mostly pastel watercolors, are airy and cheerful and exuberant enough to induce a grin. And that’s fine with their Fort Wayne creator, Uzma Mirza.
Mirza, 40, a licensed architect and devout Muslim, sees her work, exhibited as Ode to My Architect: Harmony of an Islamic Art, as a form of joyful prayer – for her as she creates it and for viewers who experience it.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Nova Scotia, Mirza came to the Fort Wayne area after her late father, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Aijaz Mirza, took a job in Wabash. Her mother, Shahnaz Mirza, who has a degree in microbiology, was instrumental in founding an Islamic school in Fort Wayne that became the Universal Education Foundation at 2223 Goshen Road.
Uzma Mirza, who has a degree in architecture from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, has practiced with firms in Connecticut, Chicago, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. She now teaches sustainable building at IPFW.
The roots of her art, Mirza says, lie in the Arabic calligraphy used for centuries in creating copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and in the religion’s understanding of God.
Some of the pieces now on display are embellished calligraphy of verses from the Quran or prayers, while others are her unique representations of the names of God.
In Islamic theology, Mirza explains, there is one all-powerful and all-knowing God known as Allah. But Muslims often understand and invoke the deity through what they call the 99 Names of God, with each name describing one of God’s attributes – for example, The Compassionate or The Bringer of Justice.
As her art evolved, Mirza says, she saw the form of a musical note emerge in a piece representing The Lamb as Arabic writing.
Seeing a relationship between music and the Quran, she began to use notes as motif. When the Quran is recited, a skill prized in the Islamic world, Mirza says, the best practitioners use cadence and vocal tones, so that the word of God sounds much like a melody. It’s very lyrical, she says.
She says that her overarching goal is to try to convey the divine harmony of all of God’s attributes, something Muslims strive to experience and participate with during life.
Basically, my work represents the meaning of the Quran, but it’s not something I created, it’s based on history and scholarship, she says. An antique Quran and other holy books that are part of her personal collection are on display at the exhibit and reveal the relationship between traditional calligraphy and her art.
Mirza’s latest major creation is the 30-foot trail, which consists of musical notes with calligraphy interpreting each of God’s 99 attributes on an actual musical staff. If one sang or played the notes from right to left, as one reads Arabic writing, she says, one would hear the melody of Ode to Joy, the familiar conclusion of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
She sees the piece as a fusion of East and West that reflects both her actual life, her artistic aesthetic, her spirituality and her view of the world.
I am neither of the East nor of the West, she says, adding that she’s also been influenced by Western artists including Paul Klee and Alexander Calder.
We are really one (human) history, and I wish we could recognize it more, Mirza says. We are one world.
Mirza says it’s not by accident that no human figures inhabit her art.
Christian art may contain holy human figures, but when mosques are decorated, it’s with geometrical or floral motifs consistent with Islam’s more abstract conception of God.
The non-anthropomorphic aspect of God is very important. Iconography was always shunned, Mirza explains. It’s not that (Islamic artists) couldn’t do the icon, but God was greater, and they shuddered at doing that.
For the last several years, Mirza has been active in organizing annual Taste of Ramadan events, during which members of other faiths can experience with Muslims the breaking of the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. She also is the founder of a charitable organization, The Pen and Inkpot Foundation.
Her art seems also to be promoting interreligious understanding without her intending it to do, she says.
Indeed, in the contemporary art world, Islamic art has gained stature in the last few years. In 2011, New York’s Metropolitan Museum opened a gallery, and last year, the Louvre in Paris opened a major permanent exhibit.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art recently put a major Islamic collection on display. It’s a novel and unprecedented event to have museums in Indiana’s two largest cities to have Islamic art exhibits at the same time, Mirza says.
This is the first solo museum exhibit for Mirza and shows her work from 1995 on. Some of her pieces hang in the Fort Wayne Islamic Center on Lagro Drive, and she has sold work internationally on commission. She also produces note cards featuring some of her designs.
Charles A.Shepard III, Fort Wayne Museum of Art executive director, says the museum is happy to showcase Mirza’s work as part of its commitment to local diversity.
They’re beautiful – beautifully composed. And while it’s nice that they’re nice on the surface, there’s a lot of depth there, he says. We’re thrilled to have the show.