Sacred Geometry

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All images by Arub Saqib

I used to think platonic solids, Archimedean shapes and euclidean tiling were just exercises in aestheticism- but they are abstractions of the unifying forms found in everything around us, from the structure of glucose to the orbit of Venus around the earth- these ‘shapes’ (forms, processes, paths) are repeated everywhere, yet make so many different things … same, yet different. Existence, life- is flexible enough to allow for two supposedly opposite paradigms to exist all at once:

crystal lattice structure orbit of venus around the earth

Living In Babylon

Living In Babylon: The Politics That Govern Our Sense of Identity and Belonging

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It is usually me that rushes to ask the question, ‘so, where are you from?’ first when I meet people. I find it curious. And I’m always interested in knowing how far up the tree of their family history people are willing to pitch themselves. To me, it’s a symbol of a sort of resistance- a vocal stance of how willing someone is to redraw their own personal map of the world. Do they see the world as how they wish to see it, or how they’ve been taught to see it, or how they feel they should see it? Do they take boundaries to be as they are right now? Or do they see boundaries as something as loose as they are in the hands of those that defined them for the rest of the world? In other words, how sovereign are they willing to be in their identification of self?

After all, the exact reason why a lot of biracial people are considered so ‘in’ is because of this exact resistance, the willingness of the generation before them to redraw their own boundaries rather than leaving them as predetermined. Yet what of those of us that have biracial roots not just one generation ago, but several generations over, especially in colonised parts of the world (now countries) full of populations that have had to constantly migrate as a survival tactic? Those of us whose families have had to mingle and mix with other populations every twenty or so years because they’re running from economic restraints, depleting resources or annihilation given one social or political reason or another? Are we just as ready to probe and extend our sense of self beyond just one generation ?

It’s interesting to note that some of the most distinguished writers of the Indian subcontinent are known for carrying a case of the ‘travelling identity’. The unfixedness of their identities is not an ideology, but a tactic employed specifically as resistance to what in the 1800s was an onslaught of imperialism whose main purpose was to freeze identities, peoples, goods and trade roots in order to close in and control. This tactic, of always being mobile, of being undefinable, of occupying the third space of a hybrid and multilayered existence, is not a new concept. It’s been preached in poetry by some of our best poets, from Ghalib to Alama Iqbal. Iqbal himself regularly gave rallying calls to embrace a travelling self. Embrace it to the extent that the baggage you carry is light, in fact, the only thing you should attach to you, is travel itself. So carry nothing, let nothing define you, and keep moving. He played consistently with points of origin, reshuffling and repositioning his dialogue in a desperate attempt to outstrip the shadow of imperial conquest that was casting itself across his continent. His writing was a means for himself to reorientate his own identity against one singular point; the Hijaz, as apposed to Buckingham Palace, which was fast becoming the established mecca of the orientalist age. And where once the Muslim world was used to defining everything in relation to what happened in and around Makkah, everything was now becoming defined against how bleached it was (and still is).

So why do so many people have a fixation to pin themselves down to an identity that is only, in the case of my country, 60 years old? Why is it that when I lay claims to the Afghan tribes of my maternal heritage that descend from Germanic roots (whose surname is still one of the most common Danish surnames in Copenhagen at least, yup, I’ve travelled enough to check…) that statement is considered to be ‘begging it’? (For those not used to coloqualisms, begging it here refers to an attempt to render oneself cooler than they actually are, hence begging for attention).  And that’s not the only time I’ve been told to ‘Get real, you’re just a Paki!’ Really? What does that mean anyway, are we talking about the country Pakistan, are we referring to the migrants that came here in the 70s and 80s that were given that insult as a label by the racist skinheads in the Nottinghill riots especially, are we talking about that demographic in particular, or…?

Where does the need to tie down those that resist pinning themselves neatly against an identity that only stretches back by one generation, come from? Is it because of the fear of a sudden vastness of territory one can lay claim to? Or maybe, it’s the fact that such claims expose the meaninglessness of so many of the emblems we pin to ourselves in order to frantically fill the hole that comes from not belonging?

It’s to be noted that a feeling of “not belonging” is exaggerated dramatically in Western countries for migrants, because they suddenly find themselves existing in a culture that is constantly appropriating itself against everything that for them is ‘back home’. (Note: the time lag implied in the term BACK; and the accepted baggage that comes with it). The incessant fantasy of Western culture to be ‘THE enlightened’ and ‘pure’ entity it claims to be, can only really be propagated by an assumption that the West is eternally insulated from the historical exigencies and tragedies of the Wretched of the Earth. So, given the very nature of our skin, once we are flung out of the mainstream vacuum of Babylon, we find within ourselves an almost traumatic need to belong. Which is all fine, but why must we grab and cuddle only that part of our history that is the closest to us?

When those that do claim themselves to be British take claim to their ‘British’ roots for example, at least they choose to limit themselves to a culture that has a 500 year history, the last 300 of which they choose to remember fondly, and the last 100 of which they ram down the throat of the rest of the world and use as an excuse to enlighten and amass vast portions of things that belong to other people. But for the rest of us, especially those of us that come from countries that only exist BECAUSE of these last 100 years, when we label ourselves only by the identities of our immediate divided lands, and especially when we don’t do the detective work of asking our families and taking interest in where we actually come from, we’re limiting our own sense of belonging to histories that are only at best, 50 – 60 years old. And when that’s your history, the only thing you can lay claim to is corrupt politicians, famine, terrorism and a cricket team that since the loss of Imran Khan is always an embarrassment… what’s the common theme running through the aforementioned? They are all post colonial cultural constructs in conquered territories, used to construct a false notion of dependency in the minds of the (ex)colonised, forever reminding them that they can’t really exist without the culture (that once dominated) forever defining them.

There is good reason that a writer as deeply passionate and rooted to the current geopolitical struggles of her country as Arundhati Roy chooses to make a point of her Syrian Christian heritage, no matter how many years down the line THAT was. Because it still has an impact on who you are. Beyond the colour of your skin, and the curliness of your hair, and the green or brown tint in your eyes. And the rest of the world can see it; they make use of it to categorize you and constantly remind you what category according to their current way of looking at the world you fall in when you fill those awesome voluntary demographic forms at the end of each voluntary survey you do, whether it be a job application or a prison sentence; the categories are always the same.

Isn’t it about time you lay claim to your history beyond the portion that has been handed down to you? And take a good look at why we have been taught to divide ourselves, the way we do?

Winning the AJ Writer’s Award

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My article on Djenne’s main Mosque has been published in the Architect’s Journal this week and shortlisted for the Writer’s Awards

  • — A Primitive Art

    Primitive. When most of us think ‘African art’, this is the word that springs to mind. African architecture is a subject detached further still from our understanding. An unrecognized art, architecture in Africa is usually observed through flickering documentaries and fading books categorized under anthropology or archaeology; studied in fleeting glimpses under subheadings of politics, colonialism and oil – interests that make mention of buildings only as a backdrop for more pressing concerns circling the continent.

    Yet the architecture of Africa is perhaps richer for the fact that it has remained dormant in our eyes, slipping away from our conscience like a half-remembered dream. Different in every sense of the word, from the materials to the form and construction, this indigenous and localised architecture remains untainted; singularly expressive of the dreams and desires of the society that produces it.

    Islam is part of the established history of West Africa. Djenne (Mali), still a Muslim majority stronghold, is the oldest known city of sub-Saharan Africa. During the 13- 1400s, it was a thriving centre of mixed ethnic groups, bustling with cross-cultural commerce and scholarly learning rooted in the teachings of Islam. Although Timbuktu was the first Western ‘port’ in the Sahara, and is therefore better known in contemporary popular culture, it is Djenne, 400km upstream that was always teaming with life and activity. Its towering and majestic masajids (mosques) bare testament to this.

    The Great Mosque of Djenne is built entirely out of mud. When the first French colonies saw it, they were bemused and perplexed by the temporal nature of such a building, unable to fathom why this important structure would be constructed out of so fragile a material. Used to judging the worth of a structure based on its permanence, the French were not impressed with walls that would ware away when their backs brushed against them. Yet what they failed to recognise was that these structures were constructed of the earth they were built on.

    In any savannah environment mud is used almost exclusively as an indigenous building material, for small houses to large community centres. Primitive they may be from a singular point of view, but from another, an ingenious way of dealing with the environment and lifestyle of the people that live in these vast desert planes. The lack of patience afforded in understanding this difference is what has lead most Western critics to brand the architecture of sub-Saharan Africa as not architecture at all, but at most, building technology. Unable to look beyond the materials employed, these shelters have been seen only in terms of the techniques its builder commands, and not as conscious decisions that would inevitably lead to the aesthetic expression of the spirit of the people that live there.

    The Great Mosque itself is a monumental achievement, built on a massive scale, with pyramidal minarets that generate an extreme feeling of heaviness. Its minarets are built up solidly of mud; access to their roofs allows muazzins (the callers) to call the adhaan (call for prayer). The exterior surface of the mosque is pierced by projecting timber shafts that provide permanent scaffolding for the maintenance of the walls. The timber also transmits the stresses, which are set up when a mass of mud is subjected to rapid changes in humidity and temperature, concentrating the resultant cracking along prescribed lines.

    A handmade building in the literal sense, there are no imported yellow American Cat dirt diggers, or stones made-in-China to be found here. The entire city, from small child to old man, owns this mosque, and is intrinsically bound to its maintenance and survival, as adobe buildings require periodic replenishing with mud to ensure violent seasons of rain don’t melt the structures away. The re-plastering of the Great Mosque is a joyous event; an awesome, loud and fun festival that unites the congregation each Spring.

    The night before the plastering, moonlit streets echo with chants, flutes and drums, stirring crowds from sleep into action. People bear baskets on their heads, waiting for a whistle to blow three times. On queue at the fourth blow, the entire throng sets off on a mud-fetch. By dawn, the re-plastering is underway. Young and old alike dump the mud on the mosque’s terrace, caked with earth from head to toe, shouting and laughing. Against the facade of the mosque, men climb twelve-metre ladders wide enough for two to stand on a single rung, slapping and smoothing mud against ancient walls with their bare hands.

    The Great Mosque of Djenne is the breathing, living heart that serves its community. This is the reason for the congregation resisting every attempt to change the character of their extraordinary building. First, it was the French in the 30s that attempted to paint the entire mosque red, but one season of heavy rain brought back the mosque’s natural earthen colour. In the 80s, Saudi Arabia offered to re-build the mosque in concrete, and Libya wanted to tile its sand floor, but Djenne continued to decline. Its people have preserved their simplicity at the town’s humble muddy centre; a building that serves them wonderfully, just the way it is.

The Artist & The Alchemist

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A drawing is a supernatural process; the artist, a supernatural being. Their gift is otherworldly, their talent seemingly unattainable. Or is it? An obsessive alchemist forensically deconstructs evidences she gathers of her own drawings. Obsessed with her own masterpieces, she is in wonder at how she produces them, frustrated that there is no formula to replicate them. Each piece only seems to happen once.

She works at unearthing the code that can turn led into gold. Each time, without failure. She carries out a psychoanalysis of her own creativity, by metamodelling every possible output of the artist’s actions. She breaks down every gesture, every breathing cycle, every key movement, pupil dilation, skin tone change and porosity. She runs on the theory that if communication is only 5% of the words we actually speak, and the other 95% is encoded in our paralinguistic movements, then the same has to be the case for the artist and their work of art. What if only 5% of their creativity was expressed in the final masterpiece, and the other 95% of the process was buried behind the scenes of pen and ink?

“Can nothing be done to disinter this human soul? The whole neighbourhood would rush to save this woman if she were buried alive by the caving in of a pit, and labour with zeal until she were dug out. Now, if there were one who had as much patience as zeal to awaken her to herself … awaken her to a consciousness of her immortal nature. The chance is small indeed, but with a smaller chance they would have dug desperately for her in the pit.”

With this insight she looks for patterns, repetitions, rhythms, routine and order in the performance that can be standardized, formulated, relied upon. That can be built on, instrumentalised, reappropriated, reduced or refined. To this end she subjugates herself to a harrowing series of introspective investigations. The process becomes the piece of art. Of the same- if not more importance- than the masterpiece itself. For it demystifies. It is the code that gives a way into the practice of the artist 

Prototype of a Drawing Machine was the alchemist’s calculated attempt to cast a restraint on her own gestures. To initiate her scheme, she needed a mechanism that she could manipulate to extract the blueprints of the drawings behind a drawing. She looked left and right on her workbench, her gaze cast on an abandoned typewriter. She flung herself at it. Pulling it towards her, she jammed at the keys. She beat at them repeatedly for hours, until she found consistency. She found order. She found discipline. There was reassurance in the repetitive ringing of the keys. There was rhythm in the resonating bell at the end of each sentence. Yes. This had to be it. At least, for now. This was her way in. She would use this prototype to encode layers into her own movements. Layers like sound, and the same repeated action. To attach a different perspective to her own movements, another layer of meaning.  However arbitrary that meaning may be, for now. 

Prototype of a Drawing Machine

Prototype I

– All images and concept by Arub Saqib –

InRealLife

Written for the OOMK blog

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“But I thought the internet was a cloud?”What does a cloud buzzing with information fed into it from billions of people … look like? Where does it all go? How big is it? Can we… touch it?Nothing in real life is effortless. Yet the seamless ease of a status update could coax us into believing it is. So what does the back of house room for services as huge as facebook, twitter and google look like? How are these seemingly seamless services constructed and contained? Translating the flickering airy nothingness that appears on our screens into a physical mass may seem a perplexing task. The documentary InRealLife attempts to make this jump.

The film’s soundscape dramatically amplifies buzzing and tapping down endless lengths of cables, like a spy listening acutely for any remote signs of movement. Mirroring the mysterious haze the internet is lost to us in, this is the only hint we’re given of an ephemeral phenomenon scripting reality whilst all our eyes are seeing is a series of still endless wire. Strand by strand, the film builds an image of the internet as a pervasive, physical and real presence in our every day lives that is taking up our time, money and space. The camera shifts from the users at the receiving end of the our screens to eerie beeping alien warehouses quietly glowing in remote suburban locations. These static three dimensional walls mask the vastness that is the internet in a way intended to disengage. They are humanless, faceless and scaleless; a total anti-climax.

Yet our interface with technology hasn’t always been this disconnected. The visionary libraries of Thomas Carlyle were monolithic bastions to new ideas and modes of communication in the 1830s. Libraries normalised and championed emerging technologies of their time, disseminating knowledge and nurturing engagement with cutting edge information. Pioneering creatives took the products of the Printing Press on as a challenge to produce an entirely new rich and sophisticated language to house this new way of doing things. These buildings fostered the interactions required for the masses to familiarise themselves with new technology. A similar challenge is now beckoning designers to humanise archives of fibre optics, wires wires wires and wires that knit together intricately to sustain data churning power houses. In their eerie empty corridors, machines take hold of what we squeeze on line. For now, the occupiers are only present through their data, and the currency they offer up is information.

The speed and efficiency with which this data is allowed to travel is having phenomenal impacts on our real world. The cloud isn’t so ephemeral after all. With a new fibre optic cable costing $1b being laid directly under the now barely existent ice of the arctic between Tokyo and London, transactions are expected to allow £20b to flow on the line within the first week.

This explosion of possibilities is what has led to 90% of the worlds data being produced in the last 2 years. High streets and off line service providers are closing up and making room for futures forecast; and the cloud is being left to roam as it pleases.

Yet the physicality of this electrifying new world remains bleak for most of us. The internet’s real ingenuity is still limited to the cable work that allows for the seamless data flow of photons being fired at unprecedented speeds. For now, most of the designing is scripted, limited to the same language as everything else; data. Pretty drawings and marvellously complex layouts beautifully displayed on websites pass on line politely with silent, indisruptive and invisible ease. Perhaps designers are keeping a light touch for fear of overloading the delicate collective dream of clouds.

What’s produced in these hubs is architecture within within architecture. And if perchance you ever get to take a peek down the rabbit hole that is a fibre optic manhole you’ll be intrigued by the world that so much of our time and money and space is disappearing into.

The Internet is not a cloud. Maybe designers have confused the space the internet is actually taking up with the cloud of dust that rose around them whilst they stuffed their heads in the sand, overcome by the idea of actually using up space to store tweets and facebook updates by tweens on homemade youtube videos … perhaps critically engaging with the junk space that is the internet could leave too distressing an impression of ourselves as a civilisation?

Yet there is more potential to leverage than just that. InReal Life certainly leads us to believe so. I definitely left feeling this new technology is way too exciting for us to pass out on. Why should the internet be so clouded after all? Because what we’re putting into it certainly isn’t disappearing into thin air.

Giving AID

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I’ll be content editing on A.I.D in my spare time. These kinds of projects are what led me to spend a lot of time browsing through this website for inspiration, some beautiful ideas:

City in Sky

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Black bamboo community centre – utilizing the space over an open sewage

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The most inspiring thing about these projects is seeing the background stories of how they came about; the women of Indonesia for example that worked as community leaders to put together enough money to build their own centres.