by Sibongile Machika
Fordsburg is a living, breathing ode to Allah. Islam is the connecting force between the many nationalities and cultures found here. It is in the food, fashions and, literally, the writing on the walls.
Nestled between the homeless sleeping on Crown Road and the panel beaters on Commercial Road is a small, unassuming art gallery beneath a black-and-white sign that reads Orient Art Gallery. This cluttered but vibrant corner shop is known as the birthplace of Islamic art in Johannesburg.
The Orient Art Gallery is a family business that started as a framing store on the rooftop of the Oriental Plaza in 1990. It was founded by Farhad Limbada in 1989 when he was given an old run-down store to start his own business. At the time, the only business Farhad knew well was framing.
Farhad learnt his trade from his father Limson Limbada, who was a sign maker for the Johannesburg municipality. After being retrenched from his job, Limson opened a framing store on Johannesburg’s West Rand called Limson’s Picture Framers: Limbada and Sons. This was the beginning of the family business that would later become South Africa’s first Islamic art gallery.
According to the Khan Academy, the term Islamic art emerged after the 19th century. It was developed to describe a field of study that focused on visual artworks produced in Muslim-ruled nations after the 7th century. Islamic art is not limited to any medium, craft or religion. It includes architecture, wood and ivory carvings, calligraphy, ceramics and textiles from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Even works produced by Christian artists in such regions were considered Islamic art. Traditionally, Islamic art is defined by its craftsmanship.
Islamic art serves many purposes in the Islamic faith. It can be used for religious expression, temple decoration and as objects used during worship and other traditional ceremonies. As the Islamic faith grew, so did the spread of Islamic art. Today, Islamic art can be found in many countries where there is a Muslim population.
‘This is not the kind of business you can buy or just start. You have to be born into it. I literally grew up here. When other kids went home after school, I came here. When things were tough, I slept on these floors,’ Ridwaan says.
Leading up to the liberation of South Africa, so-called non-whites were allowed more freedom of association and movement than apartheid had previously allowed. Many bans on politicians, media publications and artists were also lifted. In 1994, “there was a shift in the art circles. People were hungry for something new,” says Ridwaan Limbada as he explains how his father’s business evolved.
Farhad saw this new-found freedom as an opportunity to grow his framing business. He started importing traditional Islamic art from Egypt, Turkey and Iran. This paved the way for Ridwaan to join the business they now run together.
Farhad never wanted any one of his three sons to take over the business. He always said “this business is too difficult and unpredictable,” says Ridwaan, the oldest son. But for him, joining the business was inevitable. From a young age, Ridwaan was his father’s right-hand man.
“This is not the kind of business you can buy or just start. You have to be born into it. I literally grew up here. When other kids went home after school, I came here. When things were tough, I slept on these floors,” Ridwaan says.
Ridwaan’s mother is also an artist and, with both parents trying to make it work in the fickle art industry, they often had to spend several nights working at the store. His mother used some of her art pieces to help him with his homework, learning and reciting the 99 names of Allah in Arabic.
Today, Ridwaan is an award-winning interior architect who has had a few of his own successful businesses. But he says his heart is in the family business. His formal education has allowed him to bring new ideas into the business.
It was at university where he learnt the history and theory of art and how to use different elements like colours, shapes and texture in artworks and furniture to create beautiful living spaces. Some customers have called on these skills to have their homes and offices redesigned incorporating Islamic art.
Ridwaan says it is their ability to innovate and give customers the best value for money that gives them the competitive edge over other stores.
“We are bringing products that weren’t used in art and art installations. We bank on new ideas,” he says.
The Orient Art Gallery now offers three different product categories: traditional and contemporary Islamic art, customised furniture, and framing. They have opened a store in Sandton City, called Frame Talk, and they are even exporting Islamic art to other Muslim regions on the African continent.
Although Frame Talk and the Orient Art Gallery sell similar products, the gallery is more of a studio space. At any given time one hears the buzzing sound of wood being cut at the back, where frames of all shapes and sizes are made. There is a workstation with paint brushes and murky-looking water next to some artwork still in progress.
‘Arabic calligraphy, however, is a specialised skill and an important aspect of Islamic art. Writer Umai Stambuli describes it as ‘the spiritual breath’ of Islamic art.’
Frame Talk, on the other hand, looks more like a showroom. Beautifully carved armchairs cushioned with soft, luxurious-looking fabrics like suede and velvet are the first thing one sees. The walls are decked with modern Islamic art and mirrors with detailed frames.
The clients at the two stores are also different. The people who shop at the Fordsburg store are usually looking for customised work whereas those who shop at the Sandton store are looking for ready-made art.
Many more Islamic art stores and galleries have opened since the Limbadas started. There is at least one Islamic art store between any two blocks in Fordsburg. Most of them sell traditional or generic Islamic art like framed Persian carpets or prayers from the Qur’an painted on canvases. For many people in this community, Islamic art is a form of religious expression.
Mahamoud Abdillah, a freelance artist from Pioneer Picture Framers, says: “People here don’t know the richness of this art. For them it’s just about what they believe.” He says he finds the Islamic art scene in Fordsburg “very” pretentious. He believes people buy Islamic art to keep up appearances of being a “good Muslim”.
Most of the artworks at Pioneer Picture Framers are canvas and ceramic pieces that have Arabic calligraphy on them. Abdillah explains that most of the texts are popular verses or prayers from the Qur’an, written in freestyle calligraphy. Freestyle calligraphy is not guided by any rules. The artist is free to manipulate the text to serve their creative purpose.
Arabic calligraphy, however, is a specialised skill and an important aspect of Islamic art. Writer Umai Stambuli describes it as “the spiritual breath” of Islamic art. To become a calligrapher for spiritual or artistic purposes, artists must not only learn how to write in Arabic but also gain a thorough understanding of the Islamic faith and Arabic history.
‘You can’t separate Islamic art from Arabic calligraphy, that is where the beauty and richness is.’
Unlike most Arab countries, South Africa does not have schools that provide formal training in Arabic calligraphy. Most artists here are self-taught through books, practice and short courses given by international artists who have held exhibitions and workshops here.
Abdillah comes from the Comoros Island, off the southeast coast of Africa, where he says “everybody can write Arabic. It doesn’t make you an artist.” Artists there write in all styles of Arabic calligraphy, including Turkish, Persian and Egyptian.
As ancient Arabs moved across Middle-Eastern regions building the Muslim Empire, their ways of writing merged with those of the nations they conquered. This resulted in slight differences in the calligraphy produced in those nations. Over time, rules were developed to regulate and standardise these various styles of calligraphy.
Abdillah’s face lights up when he says: “You can’t separate Islamic art from Arabic calligraphy, that is where the beauty and richness is.”
In slightly broken English he explains the differences in the various styles of Islamic calligraphy: Egyptian calligraphy runs across, reading from side to side much like Western calligraphy. It often consists of solid vertical lines with the curvier alphabets forming the lower part of the text running horizontally. Turkish calligraphy is more congested and centralised.
The strokes are curvier and form circular text which runs across horizontal and vertical plains. Persian calligraphy is a top to bottom type of text made of sharper strokes that form diagonal lines.
Ridwaan agrees that Islamic art has become more commercialised. He says with Islamic art, Arabic calligraphy has become like Japanese or Chinese calligraphy in that most people do not know what it means but it appeals to them on an aesthetic level. But, unlike Muhammed, he does not have a problem with this. He sees it as an opportunity to widen the Islamic art market.
It is with this in mind that the Orient Art Gallery is gradually moving from using specialised calligraphers to training factory workers to reproduce popular Arabic calligraphy by tracing it, digitally reproducing it and using pre-cut stencils for some of the larger pieces.
When competition in the industry increased, Farhad developed the job card system to differentiate himself from the others. Unless the client asks for original Arabic calligraphy, a job card is developed giving one of the factory workers step-by-step instructions on how to produce a particular piece of Islamic art. This is how he has managed to produce good quality artworks, faster and at a cheaper price, for his clients.
This work production process has become standard practice in South Africa. Some factory workers have become very good at it and have gone on to have successful careers producing Islamic art locally.
The generic Islamic artworks at Orient Art Gallery range between R5 000 and R25 000. Depending on the scale, medium and detail, these figures can go up to R95 000. Works produced by reproduction artists are 40% cheaper than those produced by specialised calligraphers.
By industrialising the art of Arabic calligraphy, fusing it with modern abstract and glass art to introducing interior design as one of their service offerings, Orient Art Gallery aims to remain relevant not only to the Muslim community but also to the ever-changing Johannesburg art scene.
It has been 26 years and three generations since the Limbadas first opened their doors for business. It is safe to say that they have found a healthy balance between good business practices and reverence for Islamic art.
But for Abdillah, who is an orthodox Muslim and very passionate about what he does, Islamic art must go deeper than just looking beautiful. He believes that to appreciate it one must understand its historical relevance or, at the very least, have a deep religious reverence for it. For him it is not about the money.
Like Abdillah, the Limbadas are also Muslim. They too respect the religious rules and connotations of Islam when it comes to art. None of their artworks depict faces or people. With the exception of when it is being packaged or transported, all religious art is kept off the ground. Their studio space is kept clean and neat because according to the faith it is not allowed to keep sacred things in dirty places.
Farhad still tries to protect the sacredness of Islamic art. He ensures all work stops during Friday prayer time. He also keeps some reference books on Islam and Islamic art on a shelf next to his desk and encourages his workers to constantly ask questions and learn about the faith.
But Ridwaan says: “Sometimes ideas are only great in value.” He believes there is no point in investing time or reverence into something when it does translate to financial gain.
“This is a business at the end of the day; it must feed us and clothe us.”