Humble by nature and reflective by nurture, Othman Khunji is a designer passionate about connection design and interactive products.We met at his studio in the Doha Fire Station, where his residency is taking place, and he showed me the work he’s creating for the Residency’s upcoming inaugural group exhibition on June 2, 2016.
We started with the Prayary, a work he had done while pursuing his MFA at VCUQatar. He credits the program for helping him find his passions.
“At the end of every year, we have to reflect on our works and seek out the pattern that links them and where it’s leading.”
For Othman, it led towards interactive design.
“I worked with two professors when I came up with the Prayary piece. The beauty about it was that someone like my professor, who is not Muslim or conservative and comes from an art background, approached the piece from the start and asked ‘Can I stand on it? Can I touch it?’ He could, of course. I didn’t place Quranic verses because I wanted people to interact with it. But it was clear that his interest was in the entire cycle of prayer.
“We later shot this piece in the Imam Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab Mosque, and I expected the worst when I saw the sheikh approaching. He came up to me and just said ‘Explain.’ When I did, he asked for two of these in smaller sizes as gifts for an upcoming festival! So this piece brought two people from the total ends of the spectrum together in a way I did not expect.”
What stood out to me is the way Khunji weaves social issues into his work, creating interactive experiences that tap into our psyche.
“All my projects are meant to trigger new thoughts of how to just better things.”
This reflective nature comes from a personal place: his Bahraini background.
“Both my mom and dad are from Muslim families. However, my mom’s side was more religious and even her father was known as a sheikh. My dad’s side was very liberal, and that turned into a struggle for me as a kid who grew up not understanding that these are two different practices for the same religion. This confused me but it also gave me a push, that perspectives can be different.
“So when I do my work and people come up and they say, ‘No, the religion!’ and they say these negative things, I say ‘No, religion has not changed but it is the way people read and understand it that has.’ People read and interpret the way they do.”
His interactive Prayary piece attempts to introduce a different way to teach the importance of prayer.
“I tried that with this piece, in that you pray, you move, and something’s happening. The idea is that, through the sensor, your devotion is being recorded by having something at the end that sort of says I prayed this much or that much. It shows you where your time and energy goes.”
The Prayary is part of his collection: The Five Pillars of Islam, which will soon be exhibited in The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.
Fitting the Fire Station, a recently refurbished Civil Defense building, his matured work delves deeper into rethought perspectives. I had a glimpse into two pieces that embody that: one on Ramadan and the other on Mecca.
“You could say that what I did was basically create a more interactive Ramadan experience. Usually what happens is that the second the prayer is called for and the canon fires, we sprint to the dining table or are already there with food in our hands.”
“I chose 11 glasses because a typical family is about 5 or 6 people, and I’ve added a few more for guests who are usually invited over for Ramadan. 11 is also a prime number, which Islam encourages and I try to implement in my work.”
Picking up a glass of water triggers a dua that Muslims are meant to recite before they break their fast. After two minutes, a verse from the Quran is recited as a friendly reminder of maghrib prayer, which is also meant to allow you time to curve your appetite upon return to the dining table. The experience ends about 20 minutes later, hypothetically the meal’s end, when Quran verses from Surat Al-Baqara remind you to renew your intention to fast for the day to come.
“It creates a cycle. To come, break your fast, and then intend to fast for the next day. Later, on the last ten days of Ramadan, it would remind you everyday during the meal about Zakat Al-Fitr (charity distributed at end of Ramadan) and the Last Ten Days of Ramadan.”
His work on Mecca focuses on the growth of narcissism in worshippers, the ways it is accelerated by capitalism and technology, and is juxtaposed with the selflessness of Allah’s land.
“I created a figurines made of clay, symbolizing how we were created, and based them on the concept of the word “Ana” or “I”. You are an Ana and I am an Ana. You wake up in the morning and think I want to have breakfast, I’m going to that class, this meeting. Ana Ana Ana. When does I become we? When do we give five minutes of our time for others?”
In a number of scenes, Khunji invites reflection on these questions and more through role reversals.
“This one is an extreme role reversal. On top, you get this amazing view of people worshipping in sijjud (prostration), all around and all towards the Kaaba. What I’ve done is replace the Kaaba with Ana. As if our religion is praying for us rather than the other way around. As if we think we are capable of that responsibility.
“It is interactive when taking in the concept of tawaf (circumambulation), moving around the Kaaba seven times and in a counterclockwise direction. Instead, here, the person is revolving around himself and starting from the opposite direction, literally going both against religion and backwards. The recited verses attempt to make him reconsider.”
The Artists in Residency Exhibition 2015/2016 will open June 2, 2016 at the Doha Fire Station building.
Munira M is an Art enthusiast and loves attending exhibitions, writing and reading lots of books. She will be giving you an insight to some of the Exhibitions in Qatar. You can find her at @Munira.Art
Written & Edited by:
Mohammed D. Fakhro is a Qatari writer interested in how we tell and experience stories, particularly of people and cultures. You can find him at @MoeFakhro_