As Jamelie Hassan sees it, libraries are a hub where research, conversation and culture intersect to inspire human connection. And it’s precisely why the London-based artist selected two library spaces – on opposite ends of the world – to display one of her most personal works.
Earlier this month, the D.B. Weldon Library installed Nur, a piece of art donated to Western Libraries by Hassan’s son Tariq Hassan Gordon, in memory of his grandparents Ayshi and Alex Hassan. The work depicts what is known as the Verse of Light from the Qur’an. The donated artwork is the sister piece of an intricate work of calligraphy, forming a circle across four panels on the ceiling of the library at the Great Mosque of Xi’an in China.
“I had been working with this (Verse of Light) from the Qur’an; it was one of my mom’s particular favourites. There were certain aspects of it that I really liked, like this relationship (of light) being neither from the East nor the West,” Hassan said of the inspiration that went into the work she installed in China.
The stanza she refers to reads as follows:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp,
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star,
Lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree,
Neither of the east nor of the west,
Whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire.
Light upon light.
Allah guides to His light whom He wills.
And Allah presents examples for the people,
and Allah is Knowing of all things.
Hassan had been working with this verse in calligraphy, while simultaneously working with the notion of light in her work using different mediums, including colour and glass lamps from Egyptian mosques – which also depicted calligraphy of the Nur verse. She was invited to work on a piece of art in partnership with the museum in Xi’an. Once there, she reached out to a multigenerational Muslim community, deciding to work on and install a piece at the city’s mosque, a historic site that dates back to the Ming Dynasty, she explained.
“It is a really important location for the Muslim community in China and beyond; international visitors come to the mosque. I was given the opportunity to choose a location for the art on the mosque site; I could have picked the gallery, but I chose the library pavilion, for the students of the community who attend that mosque,” Hassan added.
With two hanging glass lamps that repeat the verse within her work, she installed Nur on the ceiling of the library. Once home in London, she decided to donate the panels on which she originally worked when creating Nur to Weldon, ultimately rendering a literal and geographic connection between the East and the West the Nur verse alludes to philosophically. It’s a gesture that creates a bridge for both displaced individuals and a world that is sometimes fractured by cultural or religious differences, she explained.
“It’s the inclusiveness of that particular line, in relationship to the lamp lit with oil from an olive tree. It creates this inclusive concept that I think is very much a part of the way many people who have a different background view their relationship to being here (as neither from the East nor the West). In my family, we have this home that is both here and in Lebanon. This is quite a personal take on a philosophical concept that is within a religious text,” Hassan explained.
Selecting Weldon as the site of installation for a Nur sister piece was just as personal, she added.
“I wanted that link that is the library as a space of knowledge. Nur is in a space of learning in China, in an important cultural centre, and it could be here in my hometown, and people could have that connection to a sister work. There is a side to this piece, that for me, because it’s located at Western in a secular space and meets with this other religious space, that it opens a philosophical conversation.”
The fact Western is a place of higher learning, one that has expressed a strong desire to be open to international students and international education also helped her select Western Libraries as the recipient of her artwork. And the library itself is significant, she added.
“I established myself and a studio in London after coming back from my studies in Rome and Beirut. What enabled me to do that was that I had a job at Lawson Library. A lot of artists worked in libraries, even if they weren’t librarians,” Hassan noted.
“A lot of galleries started inside libraries in Canada – it’s a tribute to the cultural space, the library as a meeting place. It’s more than a solitary place for research. It’s a place for people to connect and have dialogue, not only with books but with visual art.”
On July 27, Hassan will be participating in MEDIATIONS II, an artist talk series which brings artists on the forefront of media art and activism to the Forest City. The series is a partnership between the London Ontario Media Arts Association and McIntosh Gallery and Hassan will be speaking on art and activism with Rehab Nazzal, a Palestinian-born multidisciplinary artist and doctoral candidate at Western. This coincides with Nazzal’s exhibition, Choreographies of Resistance, currently on view at McIntosh Gallery.