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  • Writer's pictureNoha Al-Kadhi

Synthesis Essay

We were asked to discuss the ways in which our thinking about any artwork of choice has been altered and/or expanded by a particular methodological framework or theoretical proposition during the course of studying Theory and Method in Art History. I chose a work by Emirati Artist Juma Al-Haj titled "Tawaf & Saee".

Juma's path and mine were meant to cross, and in his words" It is through abstraction we find common ground" ...we form new friendships and create bonds in the most unexpected, yet fortunate ways.

Juma Al-Haj, Tawaf & Saee 2020, Acrylic on cloth 90x90 cm

Tawaf and Saee (2020) by Emirati artist Juma Al-Haj is named after a two-part ritual performed during pilgrimage to the Holy Kaaba at Mecca. The artwork is composed of a square of cloth, stretched like a canvas, painted in jet black acrylic paint, brushed at the edges into the cloth ground, which the artist has left exposed and neutral. A small square in the centre of the work is applied in gold leaf and haloed by seven concentric white, scrawled circles. Seven similarly scrawled parallel white lines anchor the base of the work. Al-Haj’s choice of black paint and gold leaf appears to reference the Kiswa (black cloth embroidered with gold thread covering of the Kaaba), with the exposed canvas invoking the simple white cloth attire worn by pilgrims. Al-Haj’s method of scrawling combines with the geometric forms familiar from Western Modernism to abstract the practice of the rituals that give the work its name, therefore bringing them within the frame of the work, which deconstructs the Western Gaze by subjecting it to the artist’s own intercultural experience of growing up in the Islamic culture of The United Arab Emirates and residing in the United States.

My analysis of the artwork is supported by theoretical writings on Modernism, critiquing its construction as Western, and highlighting the influence of artistic approaches from outside European art history. Timothy Mitchell’s "The Stage of Modernity" and Partha Mitter’s Decentring Modernism focus on the interaction of Western with non-Western art and the social currents that have shaped both cultures. Timon Screech’s characterization of the Western scientific gaze is used to identify the different modes of looking elicited by different artistic styles, supported by Anne D'Avella’s reading of semiotics and David Summers’ and David Joselit’s analysis of the identifiable features Modernism. Finally, Walter Benjamin’s canonical analysis of representation in ritual art and Western Modern and pre-Modern art is used to distinguish and delineate the artwork’s Modernist and ritual features.

Tawaf and Saee are the names of two Islamic ritual practices performed during the Hajj and Umra pilgrimages to Mecca and describe the spiritual journey undertaken in their execution. While Hajj is a time-bound pilgrimage, performed at a specific time in the lunar calendar and generally undertaken once in a lifetime, Umra (meaning ‘visit to a populated place’) can be performed in a few hours and at any time of year. Tawaf and Saee are ritual components of both. Pilgrims performing the Tawaf circumambulate the Kaaba seven times counterclockwise, appealing to Allah in recited supplications, personal prayers and Qur’anic verses, with particular confidence their prayers will be heard and granted. Saee, “effort” in Arabic, refers to the ritual of walking back and forth seven times between two small hills, Safa and Marwa adjacent to the Kaaba and now located within the Al-Masjid-al-Haram – Great Mosque complex– in Mecca.

The motifs used by the artist refer beyond the image to the spiritual journeys embodied in the rituals undertaken by pilgrims, compressing them into a two-dimensional figuration. The seven white scrawled circles enclosing the gold square at the centre of the work and the seven lines at its base form the focal centre and the ground of the artwork, respectively. They invoke the importance of the number seven in Islam (e.g. seven skies, seven earths, seven times the walking between the hills, and the creation of the world in seven days). The doubling of the motif of seven lines within the work illustrates the principle of repetition (e.g. in the recitation of prayers performed in the ritual) within the Islamic faith. Al-Haj’s technique of transcribing Tawaf and Saee in what appears to be indecipherable blurred or obscured script further abstracts the embodied experience of being present at these rituals and alludes to the meaning of Umra (“visit to a populated place”) where one hears many languages, words, prayers, and supplications from a multitude of worshippers. In this environment, speech registers as indistinct, rendering individual words impossible to make out and preventing verbal sense-making. The white lines and circles, therefore, have a double function within the work: as well as describing the movements of Tawaf and Saee, they express the boundaries imposed on expression by conventional language and – in their composition not of decipherable language but of something that has its appearance – gesture to that which exists beyond it.

Artist Juma Al-Haj at work in his studio

Al-Haj’s cultural affiliation between East and West is evident in Tawaf and Saee in his rendering of a geographically and culturally specific spiritual journey undertaken during pilgrimage into a visual interpretation coded for the Western gaze. Having lived between the UAE and the USA, Al-Haj has indicated that he often finds himself weaving between languages in his diary, retreating to the canvas when expression fails him (Art Residency, Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, Interview with Al-Haj, 2021). Although the white-scrawled element of Tawaf and Saee that describes the rituals bears a resemblance to the signature movement and curves of Arabic script, it is more accurately described as a marriage between Arabic calligraphy and Latin cursive script resulting in soft twists and arcs that express a mélange of private prayers, experiential states irreducible to language, and even the ineffable. The apparent indistinctiveness of the written lines incarnates as textual the lived experience of belonging to several cultures and languages simultaneously, rendering as text that which goes beyond and exists between the texts of language. The indistinct white script therefore stands simultaneously for the transcendence beyond language achieved through artistic expression and the transcendence achieved through ritual enactment of pilgrimage and the unification of those two experiences experienced through the embodied sensory experience of presence at those rituals, the cultural belonging of the author, and the meditative mode of contemplation of Muslims during pilgrimage.

The forms used by Al-Haj are legibly familiar to a Western gaze acquainted with canonical Modernist works of art. Screech observes that the “Western scientific gaze,” is a specific kind of looking at subjects with a rhetoric of precision applied from science to “social norms, personal relations, individual integrity, and morality” (3). The kind of looking is invited by the artist in his observable utilization of square forms, concentration on physical structure, geometric forms, recurrence, and lack of ornamentation (Joselit). The forms, figures, and angles are simple, and the absence of detail invites the viewer to apply the “anatomising stare” of the Western scientific gaze that “[demands] admission to the insides of things” (Screech 3) to determine the meaning of the elements of the composition. While Islamic culture is embodied in the title and spiritual symbolism of the work, the Western gaze is invited to “perform” the distinction between the modern and the non-modern, the West and the non-West” (Mitchell 26).

Notably, Al Haj’s rendering of the rituals in Tawaf and Saee invites comparisons with the Russian suprematism of Malevich’s Black Square (1915) and via the colour fields of Mark Rothko (especially the black paintings of 1964), flattening an embodied experience into the “objectlessness” of two-dimensional abstraction (Mitter 537). While Al-Haj’s quotation of the “zero of form” motifs of Malevich’s black square (Mitter 537), his diminished visible gestures and use of limited colours related to the characteristics of the painting in focus (Joselit) invite comparisons with Mark Rothko’s colour fields. The use of geometrical figures to capture spiritual experience further invites comparisons with other modernist artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, who use of geometrical figures, line drawing and colour to invoke spiritual ideas (Mitter 537-538). Thus, Al-Haj deploys fluency in both Western and Islamic cultures to envisage and stimulate a Western gaze but subverts it by inviting contemplation of non-Western culture and modes of representation.

The association of the artwork with Western culture and Modernism should be qualified by the inherent differences between the artist’s culture of origin and the culture of Western art historical narratives. While Modernist works were created to satisfy the observer visually, they often transmitted little or no meaning behind the visual realm (Summers 42). The symbolism deployed in Tawaf and Saee and signalled by its title clearly refer outside the work to specific geographically and culturally embedded ritual acts. The use of scrawl in the artwork can be read as a representation of the embodied experience of presence at Islamic rituals as well as the author's construction of his personal experience, with which the experience of those rituals are entwined. The association of Modernism with Eastern spiritual principles (Mitter) is reclaimed by Al-Haj in Tawaf and Saee, to depict pilgrimage (one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith) by combining Modernist visual codes with the innovation of a graphical element that is script-like to formally encode affective, spiritual and experiential states. In the act of scrawling, the work distinguishes itself from Islamic spirituality and associated use of calligraphy to frame Islamic traditions within European visual structures. At the same time, it separates itself from Western visual codes by using them to invoke Islamic religious experience.

Juma Al Haj, Loose Leaves (Series), 70x50 Mixed Media on Cloth

In producing Tawaf and Saee, Al Haj transcribes the embodied experience of ritual to capture the multi-layered experience of a particular place. The work therefore becomes the mystical embodiment of the ritual act as well as a figuration that describes its witnessing, invoking the visual language of Western Modernism in order to disrupt it with non-Western meaning. Whereas in Benjamin’s critique the Western work of art is parasitic of ritual art (Benjamin 24), in Al Haj’s work, it is the ritual act itself (and not the artwork) that is wrapped in the aura of uniqueness (Benjamin 24). The work of art figures not as a representation of the uniqueness of ritual but functions as testimony both to religious and intercultural experience. The conceptual liquidity that is a property of contemporary art therefore operates as a medium of returning the “here and now” (Benajmin 21) of the rituals of pilgrimage to a global community held together and pulled apart by language and culture, as alluded in the graphic representation of language as indecipherable intercultural scrawl. In Tawaf and Saee, Al Haj succeeds in weaving the graphical elements of language, culture religion with distinctive languages of different art cultures. This aesthetic breakthrough registers as a mode of breaking down the hegemony of Western Modernist narratives (Foster 20).


Tawaf and Saee combines techniques of calligraphy, scrawling and painting to develop a unique symbolic language that infuses the traditions of Islam with the visual language of Western modernism and vice versa. The theoretical texts used assist in deconstructing the composition of the work to reveal its intercultural resonances. In creating the work, Al-Haj includes a variety of Islamic references both visual (calligraphy) and religio-cultural, invoking religious Holy sites, the tradition of pilgrimage, the specific rituals of Tawaf and Saee, the act of prayer as an embodied experience, and the numerological semantics of the number seven. The innovation of an indecipherable script that exists between cultures together with recognizably Modernist forms and Western emphasis on personal experience can be read as probing the historical hegemony of Western Modernism and signalling its debt to Eastern cultures embedded in spiritual experience (Mitter). At the same time the artist draws an invisible border between these cultural influences, transforming their elements into a single mechanism that expresses the intercultural mode of experience that renders Islamic experience legible through a Western art historical lens, thereby complicating and enriching it to accommodate other ways of seeing and experiencing.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. In Levin, Thomas Y., et al. Walter Benjamin - The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. (with Brigid Doherty & Michael W. Jennings) Cambridge, Mass. Harvard UP, 2008.

D’Alleva, Anne. “The Analysis of Form, Symbol, and Sign”. In Anne D’Alleva. Methods and Theories of Art History. Laurence King Publishing, 2012, pp. 16-44.

D’Alleva, Anne. “Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Theory”. In Anne D’Alleva. Methods and Theories of Art History. Laurence King Publishing, 2012, pp. 75-87.

Foster, Hal. “The ‘Primitive’ Unconscious of Modern Art.” October, vol. 34, The MIT Press, 1985, pp. 45–70.

Joselit, David. “Objects, General and Specific: Assemblage, Minimalism, Fluxus”. In David Joselit. American Art Since 1945. Thames & Hudson, 2003, 97-127.

Mitchel, Timothy. “The Stage of Modernity”. In Timothy Mitchell. Questions of Modernity. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Mitter, Partha. “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 90, no. 4, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., College Art Association], 2008.

Screech, Timon. The Lens Within the Heart: The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan. University of Hawai'i Press, 2002.

Summers, David. Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism. Phaidon, 2003, pp. 15-60.

Aby Dhabi Cultural Foundation, Juma Al-Haj Artsist residency interview YouTube, 2021

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