Walking On Water: Kamal Boullata’s Bilqis

It’s not every day that a male artist is able to depict a legendary woman’s journey with real sensitivity, much less in a series of abstract triptychs. Bilqis, Kamal Boullata’s latest series, was shown over the summer at Dubai’s Meem Gallery (which has a well-deserved reputation for one of the region’s strongest programs and publications), and is the artist’s interpretation of the Quran’s account of Bilqis’ physical and spiritual romance with both the powerful King Solomon and his religion of Islam.

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 1, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Meem.

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 1, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Meem.

According to the story (see An-Nami, Sura 27 in the Qur’an), King Solomon built a crystal palace and invited Bilqis (known in English as The Queen of Sheba) to visit him. When she arrived in the throne room she mistook the floor for water and lifted her skirts so they wouldn’t get wet. The King explained that she was walking on glass and her eyes had fooled her. From that time onwards, Bilqis fell deeply in love with the King and through knowing him and his God, came to believe in Allah rather than the divine power of sun, which she and her people had previously worshipped. Since that time, Islamic architecture has consistently included glass floors that simulate the experience of walking on water, an analogy to letting perfect faith in God overcome earthly realities.

An illustration depicting the meeting of Bilqis and Solomon

An illustration depicting the meeting of Bilqis and Solomon

As a boy growing up in Jerusalem, Boullata used to often visit the Dome of the Rock. The studies in Islamic geometry he discovered in the holy space’s tile work profoundly influenced his later definition of beauty. He accessed and relived those childhood memories over the past 40+ years he has spent as an exile of his homeland, and the outcome is this stirring series of abstract paintings.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Boullata, who I briefly interviewed at the Meem opening, said that beauty transcends politics. He is in possession of a gentle voice juxtaposed with a true writer’s knife-sharp gift for selecting and presenting just the right words. He is a Palestinian Christian and the fact that he so seamlessly finds inspiration in Islam deserves pause for a moment of dialogue across the Abrahamic faiths at a time of particular political upheaval in the region.

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 4, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Meem

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 4, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Meem

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 2, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Meem.

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 2, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Meem.

Bilqis was conceived during a residency at Wissenschaftkolleg in Berlin using a rigid initial process in which drawings were outlined first in pencil on graph paper, adhering to concise mathematical formulas (including the Fibonacci Sequence which has its origins in the Middle East) and a compulsion for perfectly straight lines, similar to the blue prints that the architect of Solomon’s palace may initially have drafted.

In contrast, the paintbrush strokes are spontaneous and emotional, and the many of the color combinations chosen including sunset pinks, iris blues, and bud greens, feel soft and feminine, to echo the figure and character of the queen. This coupling of strict patterns and freely blended colors echoes the remarkable union of man and woman, masculine and feminine energies, held in perfect balance artistically.

Installation shot courtesy of Meem

Installation shot courtesy of Meem

I snapped this photo at the opening, which was packed with some of the region's greatest collectors and thinkers, who all turned out to support Boullata's latest efforts.  Other than at an art fair, I've never seen such a powerful group of art people in one space.

I snapped this photo at the opening, which was packed with some of the region’s greatest collectors and thinkers, who all turned out to support Boullata’s latest efforts. Other than at an art fair, I’ve never seen such a powerful group of art people in one space.

The entrance to Meem Gallery in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai

The entrance to Meem Gallery in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai

The artist Kamal Boullata

The artist Kamal Boullata

Good Ideas: Meem Gallery shot a wonderful short video of Kamal Boullata speaking about Bilqis, which you can view on You Tube here.

The gallery is based in Dubai’s industrial district of Al Quoz and you can learn more about upcoming exhibitions and publications here.