Coded Messages: The Hidden Language of Navine G.Khan-Dossos’ Art

Coded Messages: The Hidden Language of Navine G.Khan-Dossos’ Art

There Is No Alternative, 2019, The Showroom, London Image credit Dan Weill / The Showroom, London

Plato famously said, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter in.” Navine G. Khan-Dossos’ geometric art comforts and provokes, drawing inspiration as much from the full sweep of Islamic traditions as well as from the digital realm. Working between London and Athens, her art treats geometry not as an abstraction but as something essentially informational, drawing cheeky references to the algorithmic nature of the interconnected world we live in. Her most recent composition, Ta Nea Xysta, is a series of 24 studies inspired by black and white geometric designs unique to the village of Pyrgi on the island of Chios. Social media icons and the dreaded coronavirus sit harmoniously beside emblematic motifs in a sort of Fibonacci sequence, forcing us to contemplate the divine and the mundane, as indeed this pandemic has.

UK-born, Athens-based Navine G. Khan-Dossos encodes her subjects in a coded visual language to create a complex lattice of repetitive patterns that indirectly tell a story. I first encountered her works and her ‘aniconistic’ style at the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art’s ‘Imagine a Palm Tree’ exhibition and I’ve been mesmerised since by the power of her simple geometric patterns that encapsulate so much heft.

Khan-Dossos draws on the nonfigurative traditions of Islamic art – which represents the unrepresentable through analogy with geometry ­­– to ask fundamental questions about the ways in which we see, understand, and, crucially, represent the world around us, forcing one to imagine alternatives. Her work suggests that contrary to the mediatic impulses of the present, we must not rely upon, nor constantly reproduce, the figurative language of television, online media, videos, and the endlessly circulating images which shape our shared imagination of reality.

Rather, she is invested in the discovery of a new language which better reflects the patterns and connections that underlie these images and their related experiences. From ‘How organisations in a surveillance society monitor the way we think in order to pre-empt and suppress dissent’ to ‘the conflicted and complex relationship of Islam to the West’ and ‘the aesthetics and politics of Islamic State digital propaganda’, Khan-Dossos provokes discussion on controversial issues.

Her works emphasize the contrast between the timeless and the ephemeral, whether in the painting over of temporary murals, her own effacement of underlying works in ongoing series where each iteration is applied over the last, or her choices of material, from traditional icon boards to cardboard and found wood, and the balancing of classical training and technique with a constant reappraisal and critique of the contemporary. In conversation with Sudha Nair-Iliades.

Your works reflect the mathematical elegance of repetitive patterns – inspired by Islamic design and Greek geometry. What is it about geometric art that you find so fascinating?

 I think it’s a very intuitive feeling about repetition and balance that draws me to these styles of design. They also have so much possibility beyond being understood simply as purely decorative motifs. Many forms of geometric pattern across the world have strong symbolic values, and represent complex systems of thought.

For instance, the Greek Key or Meander is more than just a symbol we see on archaeological objects, or indeed on tourist tat. It represents many things from the movement of water, the flow of life, to unity and infinity.

It also tells us a lot about the movement of shared cultural practice and knowledge, as it can be found on many objects much further to the East, in Asia Minor and even China. And in more recent times, what does it mean that the Golden Dawn party appropriated this symbol as their logo? How do we now relate to it in a local Greek context given this new layer of association? And all of this comes from a simple geometric form!

Would you say that geometry is a universal language that everyone can relate to instinctively?

Yes, I think so absolutely. My geometry teacher Professor Keith Critchlow always taught us about the importance of recognising how geometric shapes find echoes across many different cultures and often mean the same thing. For instance, something as simple as the circle is often associated with the heavens, the sky, and the realm of the gods. And the square is the earth-bound, man-made space. By bringing these two together in three dimensions, the sphere and the cube, we have the basis for a domed building, a space that is all about the bringing together of the heavens and earth. For me, that’s a very instinctive form of creating form, but also one that most people can on some level appreciate without the need for explanations.

Imagine A Palm Tree, 2016, The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, Athens Image credit Yiannis Hadjiaslanis / The Benaki Museum

From the dovecotes of Chios to Ottoman palaces – it is easy to see the mesmerizing beauty of a simple circle crisscrossing a pentagon. How do you bring your perspective to a style that has been perfected over centuries, give it your personal stamp?

I often take existing cultural references as a starting point and research these. For instance, recently I have been looking closely at the Xysta black and white paintings on the fronts of the houses in the village of Pyrgi on Chios. There are some fascinating crossovers of influence here, from Genoese and Ottoman textiles, to Greek Folk patterns. They amalgamate in a unique and powerful language that this village identifies with almost as it if were a dialect they spoke between them.

As an artist, it is not enough for me to just take this style and copy it. There has to be an act of transformation that comes with it. What does this Xysta style have that could be applied to our lives today? How might we adapt the symbols and motifs to reference a more digital, globally connected world? If we can see the Xysta as a repository for a moment of Greek history that saw Genoese and Ottoman influences in Chios, what might we add to this repository today?

I’ve been experimenting with adding all kinds of technological symbols to the patterns, such as the wifi symbol, the Apple symbol, logos from social networks and other simple ‘pictograms’ to see what contemporary Xysta could look like.

There Is No Alternative, 2019, The Showroom, London Image credit Dan Weill / The Showroom, London

 About Ta Nea Xysta:

Ta Nea Xysta are a series of 24 studies that are part of ongoing research into the Xysta (or ‘scratches’), which are black and white geometric designs unique to the village of Pyrgi on the island of Chios. This decorative style has mixed origins, bringing together influences from Ottoman, Italian, and traditional Greek folk patterns. It covers the front of many buildings in the village and is created by scratching away a layer of white paint to reveal a black surface below.

These studies are an attempt to take this traditional method and update it to include the signs and symbols of our current moment, which includes digital brands, allusions to travel, viruses, and government surveillance. They have been a way for me to explore the unique context we find ourselves in today, and have also helped me think about what comes after this period of isolation, envisioning new projects and approaches to bigger installations.

These works are made available as part of the Artist Support Pledge set up by Matthew Burrows in response to the spread of Covid-19 in 2020. As many artists, like other self-employed individuals, are struggling to make ends meet with shows and opportunities rescheduled or cancelled, we have to find ways to support each other and to keep reaching out to our networks. The Artist Support Pledge works on the simple premise of making works available for £200; with the sale of every £1000 of work, the artist pledges to buy the work of another artist for £200, spreading the support across the creative community. It’s a crucial time to keep precarious artists thinking, making and selling.

Every work is 30cmx 40cm, and is a unique watercolour study on paper.

Each work is £200.00. / €230.00. Shipping is £15 / €17.50 for within Europe, and £20 / €23 outside Europe. Works will be shipped after payment  All shipments will be sent ‘Signed For’. Please send your delivery address and phone number for the shipment in your correspondence.Website

Navine G.Khan-Dossos studied History of Art at Cambridge University, Arabic at Kuwait University, Islamic Art at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art in London, and holds an MA in Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art & Design, London. She has exhibited and worked with various institutions, including Showroom (London), Z33 (Hasselt), The 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, SALT (Istanbul), The Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven) Witte de With (Rotterdam), The Delfina Foundation (London), The Museum of Islamic Art (Doha), Leighton House Museum (London) and her art adorns the walls of The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art (Athens). Website

There Is No Alternative, 2019, The Showroom, London Image credit Dan Weill / The Showroom, London

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