Palestinian artist showing physics-inspired exhibition in Dubai

Kamal Boullata is a prominent Palestinian painter whose work is known all over the world. He is showing an exhibition in Dubai titled Bilqis, which draws its name and inspiration from the Queen of Sheba and which explores the many mysteries that physics affords.
The Palestinian artist Kamal Boulatta. Courtesy Joanna Masel
The Palestinian artist Kamal Boulatta. Courtesy Joanna Masel

Physics tells us that a ray of light, upon meeting a smooth surface, will be reflected at the precise angle of the incident ray.

But missing from this dry and formulaic language is the subtle mystery of human perception. When viewing a reflective surface, the mind’s eye takes in more than what exists in tangible reality. It is captivating in a way that is very difficult to reproduce in a piece of art.

However, it is within these intangible folds of consciousness that Kamal Boullata’s latest body of paintings takes flight.

Showing in Meem Gallery, Dubai, for the summer, Bilqis is a series of five triptychs conceived and realised in 2012-2013 during a residency at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, where the Palestinian artist currently lives.

Bilqis, in the Arabic tradition, was the legendary monarch of the ancient Kingdom of Sheba, widely assumed to be in the southern Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. She was a wealthy and powerful woman who caught the attention of King Solomon, who summoned her to his kingdom. After much reluctance, the pagan queen became intrigued and acquiesced. Solomon’s palace was made of crystal and its floor was paved with slabs of transparent glass. Upon entering, Bilqis is said to have mistaken the glass for water and lifted her skirts to avoid getting wet. When Solomon pointed out her mistake, she was amazed at how her own eyes had betrayed her. She announced her submission to his monotheistic faith and fell in love with him.

Enchanted by this story and how it sparked a whole new aesthetic language, Boullata entered a period of intensive research.

His intrigue, which began with the story, took on new significance as he discovered, in the use of glass, water and ceramic in both Islamic and Byzantine art, visible traces of the very words he had read.

Then, searching for a way to give his research shape, he turned to the pioneers of abstract painting who emerged at the beginning of the 20th century.

“The Swiss artist Max Bill,” he writes in the accompanying essay for the Meem Gallery exhibition, “pointed to the horizon where his own aesthetic sensibility was formulated when he said [that] ‘it is possible to develop an art largely on the basis of mathematical thinking’.”

So, with that in mind, Boullata chose the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical series that was first discovered in India in the 6th century, to form what he ­describes as the skeleton for his masterful series.

The horizontal lines that dissect his triptychs have been meticulously drawn according to this sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two numbers before it.

Although Boullata doesn’t make ­reference to this in his essay or in the long conversation I had with him after visiting the exhibition, the Fibonacci sequence, and the golden ratio, which is derived from it, is another visual mystery. It is scientifically proven that most of the images that the human eye finds beautiful fit this ratio and many aspects of nature, including flower petals, shell spirals and even the human body also follow the ratio exactly.

What is even more fascinating to me is that the same dimensions are found in the patterns on the ceilings of the Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem, where Boullata vividly remembers spending many hours as a child.

In his pre-teen years, Boullata would visit the Noble Sanctuary in his native Jerusalem with a notebook of graph paper and attempt to copy the intricate patterns of arabesques with coloured ­pencils.

Later, when he went to Rome to study painting and to Washington to the Corcoran College of Art and Design during the rise of the Minimalist art movement, those childhood memories returned.

“I started going back to them to explore and see what I could find,” he says. “But another 30 years passed before I really was able to touch base with my childhood and create an abstract art that led to this Bilqis series.”

Perhaps, then, it can be said that Boullata has been rotating around this idea for most of his life, following, without realising it, the same pattern as the Fibonacci sequence does within the spirals of a seashell.

After immersing myself in this story, pondering upon the paintings in the voluminous Meem Gallery becomes a wonderful experience, and when I leave the show I can’t help but recall the words of Albert Einstein: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the most mysterious.”

Bilqis runs at Meem Gallery, Al Quoz, Dubai until August 2. Visit

Published: July 29, 2014 04:00 AM


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