GLIMPSE: Raya Wolfsun giving a glimpse into her notebook. RIGHT: ARTISTICALLY SPEAKING: What interests her most about astrolabes is how art has been made out of these scientific instruments. Photos by Najeer Feroke
By Anand Holla
Raya Wolfsun talks and words flow into multi-directional thoughts with the fluidity of mercury on a table. You try to catch them so as to apportion them into comprehensible slots of the conventional. But they escape. Then, she smiles and asks, “You want to know how I brand myself, right?”
That fluidity also speaks for how Wolfsun treats her passions. She calls herself an artist and a scholar and reasons that those roles are quite interlinked. “I wish there was a word that could integrate both, because to me, they are heavily intertwined. In fact, all my life, it’s been strange for me to try to be one or the other,” she says.
An expert in Islamic astrolabes, Wolfsun has spent many a day marvelling at the impressive collection of astrolabes at the Museum of Islamic Art, and poring over several books at the MIA library on the subject. Even in her love for astrolabes, art becomes one with academics. The ancient astronomical gadget used by astronomers, astrologers and navigators to tell time and the position of the Sun and stars in the sky, has fascinated Wolfsun as much for its astuteness as for its beauty.
“If you look at the astrolabes at the Museum, you will notice how beautiful they are. But it’s not that they are beautiful accidentally. Islamic astrolabes are very deliberately and elaborately decorated. There are people who find old scientific objects fascinating mostly because they are old and kind of exotic. But what interests me most about astrolabes is how art has been made out of these scientific instruments,” she says.
Used to show how the sky looks at a specific place at a given time, the astrolabe can safely be called the World’s first popular computer. Its history can be traced back to more than 2,000 years.
While the initial astrolabes were made before 400 AD, its highly developed and intricately detailed versions emerged in the Islamic world by 800 AD and made it to Europe through Islamic Spain in the early 12th century. Apart from telling time or knowing when the sun will rise or set, it has hundreds of other uses. For instance, it was used in the Islamic world to locate the Qibla (the direction in which Muslims must face when praying) or find the time for Salah (prayers).
Wolfsun finds them to be layered, “like poems that play across star-lore, engineering, geography, spirituality, calligraphy, and visual design.” She also finds the range of various design choices staggering. “That was what got me started into researching astrolabes. I wanted to know what was going on in that decoration, why people chose to decorate their instruments, the symbolism, the meanings. And over five years of my research, I have found quite a lot,” she says.
Wolfsun’s enthusiasm for astrolabes took off with a course — Art, Science and Magic in the pre-modern Islamic world — she did at the University of Chicago as a Masters student.
“In order to make the astrolabe, you need to know the math, the geometry, trigonometry, metal working, a sense of visual design, engraving, and calligraphy. A lot of knowledge goes into making it,” she continues, “And a lot of people were doing this. In that time period, it couldn’t be seen as all that strange for someone to be learned in many different areas. And to know that, has been very inspiring to me.”
“People have always wanted me to choose one or the other. In fact, when I was finishing secondary school, I had to make a choice — art school or academic studies. I primarily chose academics. As far as I could see, that was the best thing for my art,” she recalls.
Born in the US and having lived more than a decade in the Gulf — mostly Saudi Arabia — the 20-something multi-talent decided to move to Doha not just because she could be home with her parents here, but also because it would support her continuing exploration of Middle Eastern art, history and culture.
On her neatly designed blog rayawolfsun.com, she articulates this scenario: “Coming from a multi-ethnic background, an international life and a multidisciplinary education, I find myself in the interstices between different cultures, genres, artistic media and academic disciplines.” Art has been a way of coping with that too, she feels. In fact, her birth name Rabeya Merenkov has largely taken a backseat to the name she has adopted to sign her artwork.
Her style of intricate ink drawings was borne out of the marginalia she has been drawing in her notebooks using black pens, with tip sizes of 0.4 mm and lower. Influenced by motifs from Indian and Islamic art, and of course the many designs of astrolabes, the drawings are typically small but packed with stunning detail. “That’s why I’d rather let people experience them in intimate settings, like on my blog or a book, than on gallery walls,” she says.
The MIA recently featured her two ink drawings in their ‘Inspired by Books’ series, and she even led a discussion on Rumi and Astrolabes at their book club gathering. Her digital paintings, which, too, are striking in their attention to detail and aesthetic, are inspired by techniques used in ebru (the Turkish art of paper marbling) and the idea of the mask-dance theatre work she used to do.
Every page of the notebook she carries brims over with endless symmetrical, multi-directional rows of text penned in tiny letters, and exotic designs. Drawing in ink, or digitally, is an immersive, contemplative, meditative experience she likes to indulge in.
As a visual artist, she borrows a lot of wisdom from “astrolabe art.” She explains, “As long as you had bits of the astrolabe pointing at stars and enough space left to see what’s behind it, you could configure it however you wanted and still have a functional instrument. As we can see, these astrolabe makers just ran with that concept.”
Referring to the Al-Farghani astrolabe treatise (a manuscript that gives guidelines on making an astrolabe), Wolfsun says, “I was rather amused that after spending some time talking about how thick the metal should be and the geometrical constructions to put the stars in the right place, he pretty much says that you must ensure that you leave enough room to see what’s behind it. He doesn’t tell you how to compose it.”
It’s from this thought that she learnt something about her own approach to art. “When I take up a creative project, I usually factor in my limitations, my requirements, what does the art have to achieve and what I am not allowed to do. Then I ask the person to clearly define those for me, so I could find my freedom within that,” she says.
“I find it difficult when someone says just run with it. The problem is that if you don’t tell me what your requirements are, I may run with it in a completely different direction than the one you want. I think guidelines help. The boundaries themselves help shape the work,” she says. Currently, Wolfsun continues with her academic work, while handling art and other assignments that come her way.
Other offshoots of the artist in her coax her into writing and dance. “I mostly write reflective, speculative fiction,” she says. Her curiosity about historical courtesans finds its way into a “sort-of-cyberpunk Mughal courtesan novel” that she is now writing. After learning Bharatnatyam for two years, she is now focussing on Mohiniattam, another Indian classical dance form. “My joke is what makes Bharatnatyam difficult is when it gets fast, and what makes Mohiniattam difficult is when it gets slow,” she says.
In the end, every form of expression at Wolfsun’s disposal can be sourced to one nagging thought. “The fundamental question, in my academic work, I return to is: what does art do? I am very interested in expression as an idea in the translation of an experience something outside of yourself,” says the graduate in anthropology, “It’s sort of a fundamental human problem, you know — how do you get someone else to understand who you are and what you are going through?”
If you are as talented as Wolfsun, you can probably consider that problem solved.