Drawing from varied sources — from the Quran to Italian artist Caravaggio’s paintings and Jacques Derrida’s essays — British artist Idris Khan is known for his captivating and minimal compositions. Appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2017 for services to art, his work 21 Stones is a collection of 21 stamp paintings that is part of the permanent exhibition of Islamic art at the British Museum. Khan’s memorial dedicated to Emirati soldiers, Wahat Al Karama (Oasis of Dignity), is located between the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and General Headquarters of the UAE Armed Forces. The artist was in Delhi recently for the India Art Fair (IAF), where his works were being exhibited by Galerie Isa. Khan, 40, spoke about his recent commissions and growing interest in South Asian art.
Tell us about about 21 Stones. The work you showed at IAF also comes from there.
It comprises 21 different texts stamped in blue oil paint on paper, and is based on “Stoning of the Jamarat” ritual that takes place during the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. The pilgrims throw stones at a wall that represents the devil. In a way, I was imagining for these stones to turn into works. I liked the idea of people coming to the British Museum and be drawn to this work on the large wall. From a distance it looks like firecracker explosions but on looking closely you notice that it represents the Jamarat. I grew up as a Muslim and father too went for Haj when I was around 25.
Do you think your upbringing as a Muslim also influences your work? Does the melodic layering in your work come from the practice of Islam?
My father was from Lucknow but I was born in Birmingham and grew up in Walsall, where I was a white kid in the mosque. My mother was a nurse from Wales. If you are raised in that environment, there are cross cultures and influences. It was a massive part of my life and I was a practicing Muslim till the age of 15. There’s a rhythm when you pray five times a day. You are always repeating words. Maybe that’s inherent in what I do in the studio, the process of layering images, writings. I was also an athlete, and would run miles and miles. There was a certain endurance and determination about that, which also reflects in my art. When I make something, I see it as a journey to completion and it doesn’t matter how long it takes.
You recently completed your art studies at the Royal College of Art when Charles Saatchi bought some of your work. Do you think that helped gain immediate recognition?
It was a good moment and it helps when someone with that big a profile buys your work. In some ways, I also feel blessed because the galleries I was working with then, I am still working with them now.
A lot of your works in the last decade have words written by you — your thoughts at a particular moment. How did that engagement originate?
A few years ago, our (him and his wife Annie Morris) firstborn child was stillborn. That was the same year my mother also passed away at the age of 59. I would come into the studio and write down what I was feeling emotionally. It was my way of dealing with the grief. Then I turned my writings into rubber stamps and began making stamp paintings. There was something very beautiful about the movements, the stamping itself. It was chant-like. The text itself is the starting point, it’s personal to me, things that I feel, think, observe.
You also seek inspiration from other sources such as Beethoven’s musical scores to the Quran. Could you talk about reflecting on philosopher Jacques Derrida’s writings for your series, Overture (2015).
The words I use in the works are usually in response. In Overture, I wrote about my reflections on confronting images of conflict and hearing stories from people who are affected by displacement and migration. I can’t even imagine the feeling of being forced from my home, losing everything and feeling like I don’t belong anywhere. Overture consisted of seven panes of glass floating within an aluminium armature. I stamped and overlaid text onto each pane of glass. The writings were my own, but inspired by Derrida and his theory of deconstruction and critical self-reflection in order to avoid violence.
You are not really a political artist. But recently, in Absorbing Light (2017), you responded to the testimonies of survivors of Saydnaya Prison in Syria. What prompted that work?
It is not necessary to respond to everything, but at times you can’t ignore things. I had to respond to it as an artist. Sometimes stories, especially stories of conflicts, trigger an emotion. There was this man’s account of being kept, along with 15 others, in a cell no bigger than 2.5 by 1.5 metres, and in complete darkness for months. I had these paintings in dense black that compelled the viewers to look into darkness.
Please elaborate on designing Wahat Al Karama. It won the 2017 American Architecture Prize as well as the CODAworx design and art award.
To achieve something of that scale was quite overwhelming. I was selected through a competition process. The work is a memorial to the UAE’s martyred soldiers. I wanted people to respond to it, that would remind them of anyone they’d lost. The memorial comprises 31 aluminium standing tablets, each 23 metres in height. The tablets feature a series of Arabic poems and quotes.
Do you think art from Asia is now being recognised by institutions in the West?
There are different periods in art history. If art is good, it will do well, go to museums and you will work with great curators and have great shows.