I have an obsession with Hajj
I haven't done the maths on this, partly because maths isn't my strong point, but if you browse through my work, I think you'd find some representation of the Ka'abah in at least two-thirds of my paintings. Sometimes it sits at the centre of a swirling galaxy, sometimes sat serenely on its own, like a light at the end of a long tunnel. There is a certainty when I'm looking at a blank canvas, wondering where to begin, that the idea of pilgrimage is somewhere in the back of my mind.
My dad has been for Hajj four times. I think I was around 20 years old when I first witnessed him going through the process of getting himself ready, returning from the trip with his shaved head and the new title of Haji. I've seen my sister, one of my brothers, more members of my extended family than I can count, return from Hajj changed in some intangible way. Maybe that's why the pilgrimage has taken on this mythical quality for me. It's been a constant in my life, but I've never done it myself.
I've started to wonder lately why I have this instinct to make work about pilgrimage. My children were told at madressa that going for Hajj was like completing your faith, like some kind of final level in a videogame. Maybe that's why it's such a part of my subconscious? Perhaps Hajj is a stand-in for some higher level of faith that I'm reaching for? Hopefully I know better than to think that anyone is ever finished on their journey of devotion. I do still think however that Hajj represents something fundamental about faith at its best. It requires you to be at your most vulnerable. It focuses you towards a centre, and asks all at once for a quiet, solitary introspection, and a loud, joyous connection to others.
As each year has gone by, and I've felt still unready to make the trip, I've instead tried to express in my work the anticipation for a journey I still hope to make. I've tried to capture the act of Tawaaf, such a simple yet profound form of devotion. Watching thousands of people orbit that humble black cube, I'm struck by the way that people from every race, every corner of the earth, every age and every level of wealth are brought together by a single purpose without there individual call to God ever being flattened. Every person there is following their own call while taking their place in this vast and diverse Ummah. You'll see this in the bright brushstrokes of my Diversity series, or the swirling gold of my Circumambulation paintings.
I left out a small detail when I said I'd never been myself. I've never been for Hajj, but I have seen the Ka'abah. A few years ago I was invited to Saudi Arabia to hold an exhibition for the Saudi National Creative Initiative. Before heading for the famous marble expanse below, I stood up on one of the higher levels of the haram, looking down and watching people circling the Ka'abah. By this time I had already started producing Tawaaf paintings, but I soon realised that seeng photos and watching on TV couldn't capture the real thing. I saw some people skipping their way around whilst others walked slowly. I saw Ehram tied in different ways depending on where in the world each pilgrim had come from. I saw young men deep in concentration, carrying their elderly parents on their backs. Listening to the chorus of Labbayk below, I could hear distinctly that although the crowd was united in their actions, every soul had been called there by some unique force. The sound was like a buzzing swarm of bees, each making some contribution to a collective whole. When I returned, I dove deep into my Tawaaf paintings, which now took on a new energy, inspired by the opportunity to absorb the energy in the haram.
That's something I can take comfort in. Whenever I make the pilgrimage for myself, I will never have anticipated Hajj through my work. No matter how many times I mark out that black square on my canvas, nothing will compare to experiencing it for myself.