Written by Zena Khan
The Cube is a 2014 painting by distinguished contemporary artist Husin Hourmain, who is garnering great acclaim for his progressive calligraphic works. Inspired by the Hajj pilgrimage which Muslims must undertake, the surface of the canvas is covered in Husin’s signature hyper-detailed calligraphic style with numerous tiny Arabic alphabets to denote ideas of form and space.
An Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a duty that must be carried out by every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their life. This act demonstrates the solidarity of the Muslims to each other and to their faith. For these Muslims, the most sacred site in Mecca is the Kabah, and much of the rites and devotion centers around this ancient cloth-covered brick building. The Kabah is considered the center of the Islamic world, and as such has been placed at the center of The Cube. Viewers will note the square representing the Kabah is not aligned with the canvas’ edges; instead it has been tilted. This is in accordance with the structure’s actual position from an aerial view, in relation to the geographical position of the mountains Safah and Marwah. While the two mounts are not physically shown in The Cube, they are thus acknowledged, recognizing their key role in Islamic history and in the rituals of Hajj.
Every year, millions of Muslims gather to perform this pilgrimage, constituting the largest gathering of Muslims in any one place. Husin denotes the devotees in the act of circling the Kabah, which is known as Tawaaf, with innumerable Arabic letters. Layered one over another, these letters weave together to form different names, signifying the endless stream of people who have been performing the Hajj annually for centuries. The use of calligraphy to represent a form through an idea is typically Husin, as can be seen in the works from his hugely successful solo Awal Hurouf Asal Hurouf, where he brought together several characters to form a larger character. This idea now progresses in The Cube to an aerial image of pilgrims encircling the Kabah, and to describe the resultant swirling movement. The use of calligraphy pays homage not only to Husin’s reputation as Malaysia’s most popular calligraphy painter, but also to the Surah Al-Bakrah, which acted as a trigger for the artist. On a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2013, Husin as a deeply devout Muslim, felt his connection to Allah was strongest at the historical and holy site. This spurred him on to study the Hajj both anthropologically as well as within its Islamic context. In Surah Al-Bakrah, he came across the command from Allah to Mohammed for the Muslims to turn the kiblat from its original point, Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, to the Kabah. This sparked the artist’s fascination with the Kabah itself, and the history and endless devotion it signifies.
The five pillars of Islam, of which the Hajj is one, are basic mandatory acts by which all Muslims are bound. The other four are Shahadhah, declaring the oneness of Allah and accepting Mohammed (S.A.W) as the last prophet; Salat, praying five times a day; Zakaat, giving charity and Sawm, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. No one of these pillars can be seen as more important than another, and together they form the basis of a good Muslim life. Husin acknowledges the equal weight Muslims need to ascribe to each of the pillars by adding a representation of each along the edges of The Cube in the form of colored squares and Arabic lettering.
Husin views his art as an extension of his consciousness, and thus the works he creates stem from issues close to his heart. Especially conscious of his religious obligations, it naturally follows that a large portion of his career has been devoted to understanding Islam and its teachings through his art. Ruminating on the act of Hajj, the artist unravels the rituals connecting all Muslims in their faith, despite differences in culture, race or language that might otherwise exist. In the moderate Islamic society of Malaysia, Husin’s lead in the field of contemporary calligraphy marks him out as a key artist, as is highlighted by the prodigious content and technique demonstrated in his painting.