Spiritual journey through the ages

The ‘Hajj: The Journey Through The Ages’ exhibition is currently being held at the IAMM in KL until March 13 and showcases Reem Nazir’s series of oil paintings on haj journey

By AZALEA AZUAR / Pic By ARIF KARTONO

ONCE upon a time, the journey to complete the haj could be among the most challenging and daunting tasks.

There was also a time when people from our part of the world had to really scrimp and save, so that they could afford to get on one of those huge steam ships that would transport them halfway across the world, to fulfil one of the five pillars of Islam in Mecca.

The exhibition displays Reem’s oil paintings along with archival photographs that are part of the Barakah Trust and Royal Geographic Society’s collection

Since the haj season would be during a certain period of the year, would-be pilgrims had to start their sea voyage way in advance, only to return home months later after they completed their haj.

These days, modern sea land and air transportations have made haj — the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca — extremely accessible for pilgrims from around the world.

Pilgrims are now able to fly to the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with the comfort of air-conditioning and cosy seats.

Once they reach Mecca, pilgrims have various options in terms of food and accommodation.

Still, their journey of haj, no matter how tedious or difficult, is rewarding and fulfilling.

It might be a little difficult for some of us to imagine what it was like before the invention of steamships, trains and air travel, and that is what Saudi Arabian artist Reem Nazir trying to illustrate via her series of oil paintings that are part of “Hajj: The Journey Through The Ages” exhibition.

“Basically, I really wanted to show how, in the old days, people had to suffer to complete their journey of haj. My husband, Tarik Alireza, and I believe that it would be a nice idea to show people how the landscape had changed and how the whole process of haj had evolved,” the artist from Jeddah said.

The exhibition features 44 of Reem’s oil paintings and is currently being held at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) in Kuala Lumpur (KL) until March 13.

Photographic References
The exhibition displays Reem’s oil paintings along with archival photographs that are part of the Barakah Trust and Royal Geographic Society’s collection.

Reem is able to imagine certain views and situations in an alternative way which gives the series a life of its own

The photographs are also part of Reem’s references which had inspired her paintings.

“For every painting, I’d use one of those archives — the pictures and the references. My husband basically did the research, and I did the paintings to match,” said Reem.

In fact, the idea for the exhibition was sparked when Tarik asked Reem to paint his two favourite images from the historic photographs in the collection.

The paintings were greeted with positive reactions when they were displayed during an annual charity bazaar organised by Princess Adela Abdullah in support of her Home Care charity.

Tarik’s friend Tajammul Hussain, a British-Pakistani artist, was also inspired by a low-resolution image of one of Reem’s paintings, “Prayer in Haram of Makkah”, that was sent to him via email.

Tajammul convinced Reem to do a series of paintings regarding the old days of haj.

Sadly, Tajammul passed away before the first exhibition.

The actual photographs are in black and white, but through Reem’s eyes and painting skills and imagination, the images were transformed into colourful visions.

According to Mohamed Al-Edrisi, advisor to Barakah Trust and a friend of Reem and Tarik, the earliest photographs were taken in 1879.

He said the images are among the earliest known photographs of Mecca and Medina which are part of Barakah.

“Reem did the most, for sure, because she really laboured for such a long time on this. It was an effort that all of us have benefitted and profited from,” he said.

Al-Edrisi, Reem and Tarik are certainly vested in the project as they share the same interest in the history of their area.

“Reem’s husband is a postal historian, so he has a very keen interest in specific events and specific accounts that took place in the peninsula over time, and he’s got a very rich library.

“So when he was doing his research, he started compiling a lot of these from the books,” Al-Edrisi explained.

Through the Travellers’ Experience
Apart from the compiled archive photographs, Reem also uses evocative quotations of the first-hand witness from travellers, as well as verses of the Quran and quotes by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

She felt that the photographs alone were not enough to bring the paintings alive, so quotes from the travellers were incorporated to elevate the viewers’ experience.

The exhibition features 44 of Reem’s oil paintings that show how the landscape has changed and how the whole process of haj has evolved

With quotes from the pilgrims and travellers as her inspiration, Reem was able to imagine certain views and situations in an alternative way which gives the series a life of its own.

Tarik also ran into many evocative quotes that helped bring the paintings into another dimension.

The couple then decided that the exhibition would not just showcase Reem’s paintings, but also benefit from the three elements — the photographs, first-hand quotes and the paintings.

In the photographs, the journey of the travellers dates back to earlier than 900 years ago. There were then travellers who came from Europe and they wore clothes of the natives.

“The travellers mixed with the natives and they performed the haj. They wrote very detailed accounts…There were very interesting stories that we constantly talked about during dinner,” Al-Edrisi said.

Fulfilling a Spiritual Journey
Although haj is one of the five pillars of Islam, it is not an obligation for everybody.

“It’s always been said that haj is for the able ones on many levels, including financial, health-wise and ability-wise, because it’s very, very taxing,” said Al-Edrisi.

Although performing the haj can be very daunting, it is a very unique experience for each individual.

“It’s the largest gathering at one point in time for a group of people from diverse backgrounds — all pointing one way, doing the same thing for a few days. It’s just very, very unique that way,” he said.

Haj is not for the purpose of entertainment, but rather, for a purpose beyond oneself.

“To foreigners, it’s difficult. It’s actually a long procedure which is expensive and the destination is far for many people to get there. But when they can make it, they’re happy to be able to, of course!” Reem said.

She performed her haj in 2001 and even though the physical surroundings of hajj location have changed, the emotional and spiritual feelings still remain the same.

Working on the Paintings
It took Reem three years to complete the paintings for “Hajj: The Journey Through The Ages”.

She began working on the project in 2010 and finished the 43rd painting in 2013, a month before the opening of the Jeddah exhibition.

Not all her paintings were created equal. She was able to finish some quickly, while others took longer, especially the more architectural paintings.

Fortunately, Reem’s studio in Jeddah was big enough for her to work on three paintings at a time.

During the three-year period, her friends constantly complained that she didn’t spend much time with them.

In fact, after Reem was done, she was so exhausted that it took her months just to come back to the studio.

Each painting took an average of four weeks to complete.

First Time Here
“Hajj: The Journey Through The Ages” was first held at the Jeddah Municipality’s Grand Exhibition Hall six years ago.

It was later held at several locations, including Mecca and London. The KL do is the fourth location for the exhibition, which is also the first time in this part of the world. Al-Edrisi said the IAMM is a very unique facility.

“We hold this museum and this collection in a very high regard for many reasons…It’s a collection of Islamic art work.

The actual photographs are in black and white, but through Reem’s eyes and painting skills and imagination, the images are transformed into colourful visions

“The museums in the West acquired objects from the Muslim world and use them as a display, one way or another, to show other cultures and so forth, but there was no involvement with the nature of the locals and the people of the faith, so to speak,” he said.

There have been great collections in Muslim countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Iran, but each is only related to the home country’s culture.

Al-Edrisi said it is heartwarming to know that the IAMM holds various collections from different parts of the Muslim world.

“This is the first museum by a Muslim that actually assembles a collection and put it together for public display. With that in mind, it has a very different feel. There’s a serenity to this collection and institution,” he said.

Al-Edrisi said the IAMM is not just a museum, but rather, an educational institution.

“There’s always an effort here involving a community agenda in a genuine way…Not just in an artistic way like the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Louvre in Paris, each being a patrimony of a country,” he said.

To him, the museum represents a real feeling of the culture and faith, as well as the geographic aspects of the Islamic civilisation.

Life as an Artist
When Reem was a child, she enjoyed colouring, but at one point, she felt that she needed to do more than that.

“I took drawing lessons and from that, I started having little exhibitions in Jeddah before gradually becoming more serious in the arts,” she said.

Reem’s first exhibition was 30 years ago, back in her hometown in Jeddah.

“It was actually in a bazaar and it was for a charity. I put up two of my paintings there. My first paintings that I’ve done after, I took it seriously and they were sold.

“Then I said, that’s it. I need to take a more serious journey.”

She has already done solo exhibitions in various countries such as the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the Leighton House Museum in London; and a number of galleries in Jeddah.

Reem has been part of group exhibitions in Jeddah, Riyadh, London, Santa Fe and Agadir. The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture and Information has also exhibited her work in Russia.

Most of the time, she paints with oil, but occasionally she has done some acrylic paintings.