Alison West Martin’s interest in Islamic art and philosophy came to her gradually, via the Americas. “I spent three summers in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, while I was studying for my Masters in Fine Arts,” she tells me. “I found the remnants of Islamic architecture there, brought over from Spain. I have always been interested in sacred spaces, anyway. I grew up Catholic, but…” I smile. I grew up with church on Sundays, too. Now, we were in another country, another place, entering a spiritual world through spiralling arches and and soaring doorways – at an art gallery in Kingston, Jamaica.
“These are places of understanding, not exclusion,” says Alison West Martin. “You are invited in, but only if you have the right frame of mind. Stepping through portals, into the light.”
The English-born architect, artist and educator was talking to me on a warm afternoon in The Olympia Gallery – just opposite the University of Technology campus, where she teaches at the Caribbean School of Architecture. She is taking us on a personal tour of her joint exhibition with the Kenyan multi-disciplinary artist Mazola Wa Mwashighadi entitled Sacred Geometry, Portals to Beyond and Other Transcendental Spaces, which opened on June 1. The Gallery (which is actually an apartment building, built in the 1970s as a sort of artists’ colony and art space) is somewhat reminiscent of Islamic architecture, with its high domed roof. Paintings hang on the walls, in between the apartments’ doors, on two or three floors. Residents may find art lovers browsing at their front door. It’s a unique, open and multi-layered space.
We begin with some abstract, geometric works. They are in pen and ink, a medium which I personally love and used myself when I dabbled in art in my youth. “I spent a month in Istanbul, and toured many mosques,” Martin says, “I absorbed the meaning of geometry, the perfection. There is no human representation in Islamic art.” Martin is fascinated by what she calls the “molecular quality of the Universe.” In one series of works, ginger lily, heliconia, bamboo root reflect floating, spinning flower-shapes. While wandering the streets of Istanbul, Martin observed that “the exterior of a mosque is often hard and austere. As you step inside there is light – metaphysical – inside is beautiful.”
Although Mazola Wa Mwashighadi was unable to join us that day, I found that his sculptural and installation work complemented Alison’s in an extraordinary way. As red as bauxite earth, it is solid and earth-bound – but also opening doors and windows into light (a mirror or a reflection or a tiny opening). Windows and frames and chairs and cupboards and drawers. Martin points out the use of wooden fretwork carving – a detail of African origin. Mazola’s work invite you inwards, like Martin’s delicate portals in muted colors. I gently open a wooden shutter and find a bright mirror, screened by hanging rows of beads. I need to brush those aside to enter that shining world – but I see my own reflection, meanwhile. The form is very different, but the inspiration is the same.
“Mazola and I met under that big old guango tree on UTech campus about two years ago,” Martin observes, “and began talking about the possibility of doing an exhibition together.” It took them a long time to arrive at this collaboration, as they had known each other for quite a while. Both had adopted Jamaica as their home – Martin in 1976 and Mazola some twenty years later, after being awarded the Commonwealth Art and Craft Fellowship Award 1996/97 for the Africa region by the Commonwealth Foundation.
Martin did the bulk of her work for the exhibition in the summer of 2016, after further trips abroad – to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, and to Tangier in Morocco. “The last time I was in Tangier was on a school trip,” laughs Martin. “I was a rather rebellious schoolgirl, and I got lost in the casbah. They had to search for me.” The exquisite Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra, and the narrow winding streets and flights of steps (“to a higher plane”) in the mediaeval district of Albaicín in Granada (also called El Albayzín) inspired more of the works displayed in this exhibit. Water – a symbol of purity – pours from fountains and through channels. Martin admires the technical skill – “it’s all gravity fed down the hill” – as well as the aesthetics and the sound of water flowing and splashing.
As we look at the slender, pierced columns from Moorish Spain and the petal-like arches of Tangier, Martin tells me that she was always fascinated by the tiny details of nature. “Pineapples,” she smiles, “and pine cones. The symmetry!” A graduate of the iconic Hornsey College of Art in London (now rather prosaically called Middlesex University), she studied ceramics and has taught design and drawing in Jamaica: at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts from 1983 to 2006, and the Caribbean School of Architecture since 1989. Mazola is also a trained teacher – at Asumbi Teachers’ Training College from 1985-87. He taught from 1987 to 1990. From 1991 to 1994 Mazola attended the Creative Art Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, attaining a Diploma in Fine Art (drawing and painting) before his fellowship at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston.
Yes, there are influences, and connections and confluences in this rich exhibition, so filled with detail and meaning that one could spend a day there. However, it is much more than a romantic homage to a mediaeval culture that flowered and that lingers, but may have lost its relevance. The spiritual depth of these works shines through. They bring a sense of calm, beauty and above all (at least to me) a sense of optimism and warmth. There is no darkness in them.
“We both believe it’s important to put out positive imagery,” Martin concludes. “The Islamic aesthetic has incredible sensitivity – and scientific knowledge.” She agrees with me that, in these troubled times and without being in the least political, it is perhaps especially important to find the balance that Islamic art achieved. “We need to pull back,” says Martin. “Pull back, and breathe.”
She adds: “Water always finds its own level.”
I intend to go back and explore further. The exhibition is on until June 24 – so hurry up and go. But when you get there, do take your time with it. It will be worth your while.
You may find The Olympia Gallery at 202 Old Hope Road, Kingston 6. Tel: (876) 927-1608. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: http://www.theolympiagallery.com