A new series of sculptures, created specially for this installation, point to a particular moment in Islamic history, when the ban on figuration gave rise to aniconism. Geometric shapes and masterful calligraphy took the place of figurative representations of living beings or divine presence. The Destruction of the Idols of Ka’ba is the most widely known event of aniconism in which prophet Muhammad with an army marched on Mecca and smashed and demolished the pagan idols at the Kaaba. The destruction scene can be found in a number of illustrations that were painted and circulated the Middle East and North Africa around AH 970 (1550 CE). In one of them, a demon is seen escaping from a shattered sculpture. The fragmented bodies of the smashed sculptures, the demons and the verging point between abstract symbols and figuration are brought together by Monia Ben Hamouda into a striking scene. The remains of the former figurative ‘idols’ are sculpted by burned wood and ceramic, while the steel surfaces of laser-cut demonic figures, suspended from the ceiling, are coated in pigments that derive from natural spices. In the steel figures, reminiscent of skillful brushstrokes, wrestle figuration and abstract ornamentry: a hand, a paw, a head emerge and are swallowed back into the dance of lines.
The Destruction of the Idols of Ka’ba delves into the (im)possibility of representation through the history of Islamic artist resistant to the prohibition of figuration, and through the hybrid heritage of Monia Ben Hamouda herself.
Born into a Muslim community as the daughter of an Islamic calligrapher, the artist navigates and confronts her generational heritage through what she calls a shamanic process. By coating the surfaces of her sculptures and the space around them with fragrant spices, such as turmeric, chili pepper, cinnamon and cumin, or by burning wood pieces the artist evokes ritualistic and medicinal traditions of her cultural heritage, while at the same time emphasizing the almost possessive power of the ancestors. The aromatic scents, the light, scorched wood and calligraphic sculptures create a portal for the viewer to enter this terrain in which cultural history meets the turbulent present. The current waves of violence towards public monuments across the world – the smashing, the burning, the spitting – dismantle, even if symbolically, the long history of oppression. The fragmented wood sculptures in Monia’s installation are a hard evidence of the history of human drive for destruction. Only now it is the His-story itself that calls to be destroyed.
Photos by La Casa Encendida / Galerna, 2023