In Conversation with Adam Williamson

In Conversation with Adam Williamson - Islamic Art and Islamic Patterns

Last month, I met up with Adam Williamson, one of the founders of the Art of Islamic Pattern. I previously attended a few courses with Adam and his partner Richard Henry in London and abroad. They are both knowledgable and great at what they do. 

Adam and I chatted about everything Islamic patterns from the definition of Islamic Art to the use of digital technology. Our conversation was very insightful and I thought you might all benefit from it as well. 

Here is some of the conversation we had:

Esra: Can you please give me a little bit of a background about you?

Adam: My name is Adam Williamson. I am an artist. I have been studying Islamic patterns since I was about 16 and that lead me to travel the world looking for masters, like the wood carver I studied with in Malaysia. That also lead me to study with Keith Critchlow in the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, which is where I met Richard Henry. In 2008, after collaborating on some British Museum open program Islamic pattern workshops, we decided to start Art of Islamic Pattern. Since then we have been working on Saturday classes and intensive courses. For the last five years, we have been running study trips. Now we are up to running 5 to 6 study trips a year and multiple classes. It is fantastic. It’s funding and motivating our research into Islamic Arts and connecting a lot of artists through the trips.

Read about the study trips I did with Art of Islamic Pattern

Esra: You mentioned two words that I would like the definition of; Islamic art and Islamic biomorphic patterns. How would you define each one?

Adam: Islamic art for me is the patterns that are used to adorn religious buildings or artefacts. They become very distinct in their use of geometry, calligraphy and arabesque (biomorphic), because biomorphic art it is an umbrella term that we use for the floral or the vegetal aspect for Islamic pattern. Arabesque just means Arab style. Nabati is a term used in Cairo and the Middle East. You can also use the word Tezhip, which is the use of gold on paperwork. There are many different terms. The list goes on and on. There are many regional styles as well, which will also have names and terminology, but we will just use the word biomorphs as an umbrella term.

Esra: What are your thoughts on the people who prefer using the word Arabesque?

Adam: Biomorphs means patterns inspired by the natural world. You can say biomorphic in the context of Islamic pattern. I am happy to use any term. It’s practiced in Malaysia, Pakistan and India. Also practiced by Berbers. If you Google the word Arabesque, you are most likely to get ballerinas rather than Islamic patterns.  You will also get patterns on the ironwork of Venice.  Some people use Arabesque for geometry as well. The Jean-Marc Castera book is called Arabesque and it’s just geometric patterns. So, I wouldn’t say that this word narrows it down.

Esra: Speaking of the geometry, what do you think is the role of geometry in biomorphic patterns?

Adam: Within Islamic art, as you probably heard before, there are three fundamental aspects. You have the geometry, the biomorph/arabesque work and calligraphy. There is a hierarchy in that. Also in a practical sense, where you will find the geometry as the grid that helps the biomorphic patterns to repeat, so before most biographic patterns you have to do a series of geometric steps. It could be really simple such as drawing a square and you house the biomorphs within that. It could go as far as drawing spirals with a compass, drawing a very complex grids and then just working the biomorphs within that. There is always a combination, maybe apart from the Khatei style, which does not use as much geometry because it’s a free form. All other elements, the façade for example, will be an integration of both biomorphs and geometry in some from or another. I always use the geometry as a grid because there are shapes that repeat the pattern and sometimes to hide the underlying grid, the artists or designer will cross over the boundary lines and then you will need a geometric grid to make sure where the boundary lines are crossed and that will give you an accurate indication. If it’s not a perfect hexagon or in a correct section of the circle then it wouldn’t repeat correctly, so you have to have an element of geometry. There is even geometry in the drawings of the spirals and the motifs. I tend to do those freehand, but they can be drawn with a compass. I like people to have that in mind when they are creating a piece because it’s all based on the armature of a circle.

Esra:  Do you consider the digital use of technology in the production of islamic patterns to be appropriate and how did you reach that conclusion?

Adam: I think using computer-generated design is very difficult in biomorphs. With geometry you can draw the straight lines and replicate the patterns quickly, but with the biomorphs you have to draw the curves. It’s difficult to get that continuous flow even if you are using a live trace. I don’t have anything against using computers, I think they are a useful tool for replicating work. My personal opinion is that at some stage along the line, there should be some hand application so that whether you take computer generated work and applied pattern by hand then you really introduce the resonance and aliveness of the work. Or if you drew it by hand and that was that handwork replicated by a computer, it could still work. Nonetheless, if you take a pattern carved in stone when you have the background and it’s produced by machines mechanically, all the background will be in a uniformed depth. The repetition will be completely self-similar that the piece has no movement in it and you can see this from 100 yards. Anyone would agree with this. Where if it’s done by hand, it will be so delicate with almost invisible accuracies of changes of depth and the width of the motifs that the piece has movement. Apart from that you will have a more spiritual aspect. When you are producing a piece of work there is more of an intention and a resonance that is a life that you are giving to the work that people will see and witness for 100 of years, which you don’t get with a mechanical process. For sacred art, there is a deity as the work is being produced that lends itself well if you are carving that you can do remembrance of God (Ziker). There is a period of meditation before the work is produced that paces you in a spiritual state that you pass on to the work. That is something that resonates and hard to describe. I think it’s very tangible when you compare the hand-produced work.

If you wish to use any of this information, please reference Esra Alhamal and Adam Williamson with a link to this site. All copy rights are reserved to Esra Alhamal.   

Islamic Illumination Workshops with Esra in London: Kingston & Islington

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