The Beginning of Thinking Is Geometric reimagines maths through contemporary art

In the new show up in Sharjah's Maraya Art Centre, Sara Raza takes the dense subjects of mathematics and art and presents them in a digestible format.

From the nature of its title – The Beginning of Thinking is Geometric – and the fact it opened in Sharjah one week into Ramadan, you might assume this exhibition would be formulated from traditional Islamic art, but nothing about Sara Raza’s curatorial approach is predictable.

She has taken what could easily be construed as a very large bite into the profound subject of the thinking sciences and offered us a healthy portion of contemporary art that inquires into the creative use of geometry.

“There is a philosophical underpinning here,” she says. “Geometry has been overused, especially in terms of Mena [Middle East and North African] culture, so the whole idea was to reject that and go back to the origin of it and the idea of truth.”

Whether it is from the vantage point of Jamal Taraya Baroudy’s vinyl-finished benches stamped with digital patterns made from a reimagined eight-point star or in Ebtisam Abdulaziz’s map of Africa, which is drawn through a graphic code based on letters and numbers and flattening out the oh-so-loaded world of global politics, the somewhat daunting subject of mathematical theory seems more approachable.

The soundtrack, too, is a long way from the stuffy preconceptions that geometric thinking might conjure up. Even before you enter the main gallery at Maraya Art Centre, where the show is taking place, the heavy bassline of Fatima Al Qadiri and Alex Gvojic’s Ghost Raid hints at the sensory experience to follow. This work in particular is an example of how far Raza’s curatorial reach can stretch. The two-and-a-half minute video, which features shape-shifting, triangular, machine-like objects in a gaming format set to hypnotic music, is based on Al Qadiri’s memories of living in Kuwait through the First Gulf War. It is described in the catalogue as an “imaginal technologically-driven syntax on war and memory”.

“It is also based on navigational mapping,” explains Raza. “When bombs are dropped, they are not done so at random, so it all goes back to geometry.”

During her guided tour, she sweeps through the exhibition with a fount of knowledge on each artist and an academic approach. I take a step back after Raza’s guided tour and contemplate the whole. Although vastly different, with such clear direction, each piece comes to light in the context of her words.

Ala Ebtekar’s site-specific wall drawing, one of only two figurative pieces in the show, is reminiscent of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, but on second look, the artist’s Iranian roots can be traced as well as a sprinkling of hip-hop culture.

“Geometry is also about the mapping of the body,” says Raza. “There was a Central Asian polymath from the 11th century called Al Biruni who did a lot of study between body and space and this work alludes to this as well as being based on the idea of using spheres to create personalities.”

At the other end of the hall is an ephemeral dome made from the seedpods of the senna plant. Mobius, a design collective of three young Emiratis from Dubai, completed the laborious process just hours before the opening and are an example of a different part of Raza’s remit.

“I am very much interested in the post-oil or the YouTube generation who have grown up with the internet and are so much involved in new technologies,” she says, explaining too, that she is writing a doctorate on post-Soviet Asia but is professionally focused on the Gulf, where there is a phenomenally young population.

“There are a lot of new names here, which is a good thing,” says Abdulaziz, who lives in Sharjah and is one of the UAE’s foremost practitioners. “Everyone thinks of geometry in a different way, which also makes what Sara has done really interesting.”

Nasir Nasrallah is another Sharjah artist in the show. His work often forays into cartoon-like narratives and here, his hand-drawn book, encased in a Plexiglas box with hand holes, is based on an elaborate story he has created about the Sun coming down to Earth and leaving fish with candles on their head in charge for the day.

“The Sun came down to play and combined objects with animals,” explains Nasrallah. “I made up a story to go alongside each one.”

Although completely bizarre and not at all systemised, Nasrallah’s highly comical piece fits into the show because it subverts the usually unshakeable rhythm of the Sun’s journey.

To finish off the show is a piece from the former Jameel Prize nominee Hayv Kahraman, borrowed from the Barjeel Art Foundation. Corporeal Mappings, from 2011, is a series of sliding panels in the form of a puzzle that depict women and their body parts, which Raza describes as “geometry in motion”.

“What is interesting here is that it is all about fluidity, but it is based on a puzzle. It is about brain, eye, hand coordination, so I wanted to include it into the show.”

ŸThe Beginning of Thinking is Geometric runs until September 30 at Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah

What lies within

Fayçal Baghriche: Elective Purification and Souvenir

This Algerian artist presents two works, the first of which takes the cover for the catalogue. The blue wash of stars may look random, but it is based on a grid system and the structure of the Arabic alphabet. Baghriche has taken all the flags from the Arab world and placed them in order. He then removed all the elements other than the stars to drain nationalism of any meaning. In front of this piece stands Souvenir, a globe spinning so fast that you can't distinguish any countries. This is "a spin cycle of globalisation", says Raza, "and quite disorienting."

Basmah Felemban: Sidana

Raza met Felemban, a 19-year-old Saudi artist, while curating the Edge of Arabia project Rhizoma at this year's Venice Biennale. Felemban is a highly talented artist who draws etchings with a marker onto Plexiglas. Attempting to map spaces of dissonance, Felemban has created a barrier between the viewer and the space that is not only visually appealing but conceptually effective, too.

Zeigam Azizov: The Origin of Geometry

An artist and philosopher from Azerbaijan, Azizov has analysed language and culture through his 26 geometric terms that are cut from vinyl and stuck to the floor at the entrance of the show.

He refers to the western alphabet, but also explores what happens when words are lost and replaced by geometric shapes such as dashes and dots. The title refers directly to Jacques Derrida's work with the artist posing the question of what happens when language becomes dislocated. "It is important in terms of theorising language and mathematics," says Raza.

* Anna Seaman