Whenever I think of Islamic art work, my mind wanders off to exotic locations in Turkey and the Middle East. I envision bearded men wearing austere expressions, working on their craft in quiet corners of bustling cities. I also envision them working under the tutelage of a particular Master from their chosen art — guiding his students like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, my knowledge of Islamic art is elementary – and some may argue – fantastical at best. Though in reality, one of the rising stars in the world of contemporary Islamic art is a young, local Sydney artist who looks nothing like the aforementioned Middle Eastern-Wizard I had concocted in my mind.
Peter Gould, 29, had been building his profile as a photographer and graphic design artist for many years in Australia before making his mark on the international circuit. Peter’s passion for photography, modern designs and traditional Middle Eastern art has catapulted him to the forefront of an emerging movement looking to fuse artistic endeavours with the inspiration of faith.
I met up with Peter over a cup of caffeine in Sydney’s South West to discuss his art work, the much anticipated Islamic Museum of Australia project, his stint as an unlikely Indiana Jones and what it was like to rub shoulders with the likes of Yusuf Islam and Sami Yusuf:
Firstly — it’s obligatory for me to ask this question — tell us about your journey into Islam, what inspired your conversion?
I actually met someone who was Muslim – when I wasn’t – and I was pretty young at the time; it kind of spun me out into a path of asking questions about life – its purpose and meaning — and it led me to find more information about that particular person’s life, faith, and family. So over this period of one or two years, I was reading and learning and going to lectures and during that time, I was also trying things out like praying, fasting and checking out other beliefs. The abridged version is that I went through this whole process of discovery and eventually became Muslim because I felt it was right for me. I ended up marrying that particular person about a month after my conversion. And going on from that initial journey, it was the travelling and exploring of the Islamic world that also made me feel really enriched by it.
And was it all the travelling and exploring that led you to the world of Islamic art?
Yeah totally. I think travelling really opened up the heart, the eyes and the soul to the legacy and tradition that’s out there. And I fell in love with that. It was amazing to be in that part of the world like southern Spain and Morocco
So where in the world is your favourite destination or the most inspirational place to visit?
Alhamdulillah, we’ve been really blessed with the amount of travel we’ve been able to undertake. I guess I’ve been most inspired by traditional cities such as Fez in Morocco, Aleppo in Syria and of course Makkah and Madinah. I guess they’re all just enriching, illuminating and fascinating places to visit. I love the density and beauty in those cities: the mazes full of beautiful craftsmanship and detail in the tiling…the geometry and calligraphy in every corner. Over the centuries many of those beautiful aspects have rippled out in different ways to different places. And to top it all off, the people in those areas are also amazing.
What about a particular building that inspires you?
It would have to be the Alhambra. If there was one building that changed my life, it would have to be the Alhambra. I went there in 2003, not really knowing much about Islamic history and of all places to be in, that’s just profound. And whenever I go back, I always re-visit that experience.
Why do you think Islamic photography is still a niche in the art world?
I guess there are not many photographers who specialise in Islamic art. Someone who resonates with us here is Peter Sanders. He’s obviously a big inspiration and I love his whole life story. I love that he was a photographer taking pictures of Jimi Hendrix…
A rock ‘n’ roll photographer…
Yeah he was, and then he went on a spiritual journey, but he just captures his life experience through those photographs and I guess that’s what I’ve done in a way. Those photographs that I took were capturing my own spiritual journey – rather than going there to take photographs for an exhibition. It was just literally the path that I happened to be on that led me to those places.
Do people label you “the young” Peter Sanders?
[laughs] yeah Haji Noor [Master Calligrapher] calls me ‘Peter Saghir’ [small]. And he called Peter Sanders ‘Peter Kabir’[big]. Big and Small. I’m small Peter and Peter Sanders is big Peter.
Are you surprised by your rapid trajectory into the art world?
Yes. Alhamdulillah, there’s been a lot of barakah and many doors have opened up and I guess I remind myself not to forget that I’m just a regular dude from Sydney…
So how does a regular dude from Sydney end up at all the major Islamic conventions around the world?
I guess I never set out to do anything in particular, I just followed my heart – I know it’s such a Hollywood thing to say, but I would just come back from these journeys from overseas and create artwork and I would just start experimenting when I didn’t even know there was an audience for it. I just wanted to put something on my wall but I didn’t want the usual black and gold stuff from my local Islamic bookstore. I wanted something that represented me and that’s kind of how it all began. Over time, people liked that approach and they wanted it for their projects and it sort of snowballed from there.
Take us through your creative process…
I start with coffee [laughs]. It varies because I’ve been involved in quite a few projects and events and some are more commercial in nature – so someone will approach us with a brief and say “hey we need to organise an event” then we need to define the look and feel for it, so we develop a concept, put together some drafts and it evolves. For my own work, I have ideas in my head that I jot them down onto a sketch pad and sometimes they take months or years to turn into a piece. Right now I have about four really good ideas that I haven’t had a chance to work on yet.
I’ve seen photographs of you with Yusuf Islam and Sami Yusuf and other big names…
It’s all photo shopped [laughs]
What’s been the most amazing encounter so far?
I was on a real buzz when I was with Sami Yusuf at his house. He was playing demo tracks to me on his piano one evening. I felt like such a fanboy [laughs]. That was pretty amazing…
You did his album artwork, right?
Yeah, and we’re just working on his new stuff at the moment right now. Yusuf Islam was amazing because of his story and because he’s inspired many generations of people; it was great because I got to take my parents to see him live and my dad got to meet him backstage…and that was one of those moments where time and space kind of disappeared for me, so that was pretty cool.
What was it like working at Ta’leef Collective? It must have been interesting with Usama Canon and Mustafa Davis there…
Yeah, I had an office next to Shaykh Yahya Rhodus with Usama Canon on the other side…
What an interesting, motley crew…
Yeah but it’s an amazing mix of people and cultures. Ta’leef is the model that will take us forward as a Muslim community; that’s the missing link that’s not there. Usama talks about this missing link as being the “third space” i.e. a neutral place. It was incredible, after that experience it really helped to define my understanding of cultural relevancy and what being Muslim in Australia could be like. They’re Californians and they’re so into their deen but at the same time, they’re happy to be distinctly Californian. They’re encouraging and exciting and I think our community is picking up on that now.
Well there’s not really a vibrant Islamic arts community in Sydney as much as there is in say Melbourne or the Bay Area…
I knew this would come up [laughs]
So what would you say is the problem in Sydney?
That’s a good question. I don’t think there’s an issue with the artistic community because there are some really talented people here in Sydney doing really cool things — whether it’s fashion or music. The Bay Area is very different because that area has had a decade or more of religious scholarship and just culturally grounded content. Melbourne had a bit of a head start because there seems to be the right mix of young energy there. And Melbourne is just naturally more conducive towards a creative, fostering environment. I’m still waiting for this magical teleport between Sydney and Melbourne [laughs]. I feel like there’s too much Sydney versus Melbourne banter when it’s the same circles of people doing the same interesting kind of things such as seeing the same scholars etcetera. So I think we will see unity between Sydney and Melbourne in the coming years.
Do you think Sydney just needs a “third space”?
Yeah, we need a “third space” that has substantial Islamic content but also maintains its primary objective to foster a creative community — a community that will eventually lead to unity and our own cultural identity. I really want to see a more, thriving creative scene inSydney. We just need to create more events and allow these events to facilitate this type of thinking…
I’ve seen a lot of your artwork – one of which is on my sister’s wall…
That’s a world famous gallery [laughs]
My sister’s wall of modern art! [laughs] Your black and white photography has been wildly popular, are you now looking to head into a different direction?
I travelled a lot for about 5 years and then had kids and so the photos for me represent that journey – that period in my life – but now I’m creatively trying new things. I also love the emergence of all these cool Islamic inspired products that are coming out. I’m doing a board game right now and I did a fashion range as well — some shirts for adults and kids, and some other new things. I also did a children’s book that I’m excited about. I’ve got some ideas for new artwork I want to do.
I’ve seen your name attached to an event called Creativity and the Spiritual Path, what is the purpose of the event?
It’s basically fostering networks of creative Muslims – people who are interested in creativity, whether they’re artists, film makers, designers, and fashion…whatever it might be. So we’ve had five events held in Canada, the US and Australia. Our next one will be in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. We try and get the leaders and pioneers who are involved in creative Muslim work. We also try and get grassroots artists — that most people wouldn’t have heard of — and sometimes their work is the most amazing stories you’ll see or hear on the day. We try to feature about 20 people at each event, consisting of short presentations from the artists and all in all, we’ve had good results. We’re just picking up on the trend of many Muslims reimagining what it’s like to be inspired by their faith at a creative level and we feel this marriage of art and faith will help the community to progress in future.
You’re also a part of the Islamic Museum of Australia project…
Yeah, that’s definitely something special to look out for
How did you get involved with that?
I’m mutual friends with the founders. And we gradually became friends before I knew much about the museum. As I learnt more about their intentions, I thought it was a great thing to do…a very great, timely project. I’m just being a creative reference – because they’re obviously looking for creative people to advise them on things. And then we did this trip around the country which was just mind-blowing, amazing. I never thought we had so much Islamic history. It was wonderful.
Did you feel like Indiana Jones while you were on the road?
Yeah, there were some very off-road moments. We’re making a film out of it and there were some things that happened that you couldn’t have scripted better. That film will be a cool thing to look out for, it’s called Boundless Plains: an Australian Muslim history. It’s basically a precursor to the Museum’s opening in 2013 insha’Allah.
What surprised you the most?
The history in Northern Australia…the interactions with the Macassans, Indonesians and the Malaysians in that area had predated Captain Cook by about a couple of hundred years or more. I just did not know we had that history, I’ve sort of heard this and that, but to actually go and see the cave/rock art drawings and to see the artefacts that were left over from that time was just fabulous and that would make a big difference to the impact to this exhibition. There’s more to Australian history than people know. And the whole Afghan experience with the camels was special as well.
What has been the best moment in your career to date?
I think it was just the night I took the shahada (proclamation of faith), it all kind of began with that. That’s really how this whole journey unfolded for me and you can’t top that as an experience. There have been many wonderful things along the way, but I’m still new to this so I guess you should just watch this space…
Quick Fire with Peter Gould:
If you could be the leader of the free world for a day, what would you do?
Ask everyone to meditate for half an hour every day.
That’s an Interesting answer. What’s something about you that people don’t know?
[laughs] I don’t know what they don’t know about me. I like to play with the Xbox. Do they know that? [laughs] I think everyone knows that…
Maybe your friends do. If you could have dinner with anyone — past or present — who would it be?
Well, apart from obvious Islamic related answers. Probably someone like Dali or just someone out of the box.
What is your favourite quote?
I just use Lakum dinukum waliyadin – To you live your faith/way of way, and to me mine.
I’m really good at — apart from the obvious!
Taking up everyone’s time.
I’m really hopeless at…
The profession I’d like to attempt is…
Interesting. I’m sad when…
When I’m away from the things I love
I’m happy when…
When I see my daughter when I come home.
I love it when people are…
Open to new things.
I take comfort in…
Familiar friends and family
People tell me I look like…
That more impressive, photo shopped version of me online [laughs]
My ideal destination is…
I want to live in a Moroccan riad, where I have a light-filled studio upstairs and a little shop downstairs.
When I feel sorry for myself I…
It’s sounds boring, but yeah just chocolate
My philosophy in life is…
It’s too short for many of the things we fuss about.
Learn more about Peter and his amazing works at http://www.peter-gould.