I was delighted to read in a newspaper recently that degree courses in the Creative Arts are the third most popular choice for 18-year-olds in the UK. In particular, boys seem to be drawn to these practical disciplines, though this may not necessarily be due to any particular creative passion or innate talent, but rather a misguided hope that by electing to study Fine Art, Fashion Design, Photography or Graphic Design, they will never again have to write another essay!
I confess that I entertained such wishful thinking when I entered university to Study Fine Art many moons ago. Oh, what a shock to the system it was to be told that all Art students had to study History of Art and one other academic subject in their first year. The first assignment we were given in Art History 101 was:
Read the First Edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Choose one of the said painters, sculptors or architects that you admire. Write a 3,000-word essay, summarising Vasari’s account and supplementing it with more recent research into your chosen subject.
As reward for hours of research in the library and the sleepless nights I spent crafting my essay, I got an F and a severe dressing down from my tutor in front of my peers! My failure was not due to ineptness in English academic writing or incompetence in my research approach, but rather that I had “not interrogated the question sufficiently”! I had mistakenly chosen as my artist of study the Venetian painter Titan (Tiziano Vecelli, 1488-1576) who is not mentioned in Vasari’s first edition of 1550, only in his second edition of 1568.
Georgio Vasari is widely considered the ‘Father of Art History’ and his Lives created the mold for future art historical biographies. Each of his more substantial life stories follows a similar structure – a brief overview of the subject’s origins followed by a summary of his career and demise, then moving on to a discussion of his training, major influences, favoured techniques, major works and his art historical legacy. The Lives are also often spiced with entertaining if somewhat dubious anecdotes.
By following such an outline, subsequent monographs on well-documented artists often sprawl over many hundreds of pages, providing us with insights into their motivations and, in many cases, useful tools for deciphering their works. But what of artists about whom hardly anything is known? With little or no knowledge of their biography, training or influences, are their surviving works therefore impenetrable to all interpretation?
The Omani artistic virtuoso of the early 16th century, Abdullah bin Qasim bin Mohammed Al-Humaimi, is one such artist about whom we know virtually nothing. All the information we have about him is derived from his surviving works, namely three complete and two partial carved gypsum prayer niches (pl. maharib, sing. mihrab) and the epigraphic inscriptions they contain. From these we all we know about his is that he was a native of Manah, in Al Dakhiliyah Governorate, and his artistic career included the years between 909 AH/1504 and 924 AH/1518-9 CE. We have no clue about his dates of birth or death, his artistic training or the extent of his oeuvre.
We know that he was not the first person to decorate a mihrab in Oman as a stunning though anonymous example is to be seen in the Great Mosque of Saal, Nizwa, dating from 650 AH/1262 CE. That he may have been the pioneer of the efflorescence in mihrab decoration in the early 16th century is a moot point. As his mihrab of 909 AH/1504 CE in a mosque in Manah is the earliest extant example of bacini in Oman, we may suppose that he was the first to use ceramics for architectural decoration. His outside his hometown is indicated by the fact that examples of his work survive in situ in Nizwa and Bahla. That he was influential is more certain, for there were several other artisans from Manah and elsewhere who carried on with the decorated mihrab tradition well into the 17th century.
So what we know about Abdullah bin Qasim bin Mohammed al Humaimi is only fragmentary, a few scattered pieces of a large jigsaw, pieces, hardly enough to fill a newspaper article let alone a biography. There is, though, just enough of his work still in existence to tell us something intriguing about this enigmatic figure from 500 years ago: Al Humaimi was a man driven by a desire to experiment. No two of his surviving maharib are alike, either in their proportions, their composition, their design schemes, their exuberance or the fluency of their execution. Al Humaimi was not a man satisfied with repeating himself.
And that, I believe, may be his enduring influence on art historical tradition. I see so many artists today churning out virtually the same painting, photograph or sculpture time and again. Having hit on a popular formula, they keep repeating it. Experimentation, on the other hand, is scary and by its very nature risks failure. From a strictly aesthetic perspective, it could be argued that Al Humaimi’s later surviving maharib are not as coherent as his earliest surviving works, but at least they depart significantly from them. A persistent willingness to try something new, to push the boundaries even when working within the constraints of a given form is, surely, a hallmark of creative genius.