I hope Allah waters the new
land that’s become your home.
Wallada bint al-Mustakfi
‘Description is revelation’, wrote Wallace Stevens, in a poem which considers the inevitable and necessary distance between the ‘thing described’ and its representation. The best of documentary photography is just such a revelation, a sense that the description in the photograph is revelatory because it is an intensification and an excessive multiplication of something we haven’t yet seen fully. Noel Bowler’s photograph of a deeply ordinary suburban house is exactly such a ‘description’, the quotidian which will reveal something behind the everyday. [image 1] Bowler’s Making Space is a revelation because it plays on a gap in perception. Making Space pictures the prayer-life of Muslims in Ireland while retaining and honouring the discretion of the spaces in which Islamic worship takes place. In reminding us, Muslim and non-Muslim, about the rhythm which marks out the Islamic day and Islamic existence, Making Space is an enrichment of our collective social and cultural space. In leaving the spaces in the photographs to be repopulated in the act of looking at them, Noel Bowler’s work gently persuades us to engage with these places and what happens, daily and weekly, in them.
Making Space records the interiors of mosques in Ireland – but it is more than documentary. The repetition in these images of the shape of ordinary interior architecture, whether that be modestly domestic or unpromisingly industrial, is a sign that Making Space thinks and feels photographically as well as socially. Everyday architecture imposes upon us in ways that are unconscious but present. The size and shape of rooms in newly built houses is dictated by the economics of building but also by the echoes of past styles (the rectangular room of classical architecture, the fireplace). Our lives are framed by these rooms and their assumptions. So too our sense of the photograph carries with it a set of formal qualities and expectations – we look for significance, the telling detail. In Making Space the images are doubly framed – as photographs and, inside the boundaries of the printed image, by the defining lines of the walls, floors and ceilings. It is within this interlocked set of aesthetic, architectural and formal expectations that the cultural interaction of the images takes place. That this series of images is so lacking in drama, and so contemplative, should make us think twice about whether we should understand the notion of Islamic prayer in an ‘Irish’ home as a strange juxtaposition. Ireland itself has a long tradition of worship outside of the formal structures of the church. Open air masses and the iconic ‘Mass Rock’ were important features of religious life in Ireland in the nineteenth century. Twenty-first century Ireland is experiencing a phenomenon which is global – the fracturing of established institutions of religion, with the exponential rise in informal and new places of worship. Evangelical Christianity, for example, has, for centuries, made use of domestic space against, and without reference to, the now assumed notion of the church as consecrated building. So the double-framing of the images in Making Space is central to the way in which they function aesthetically and central to their capacity for ‘revelation’.
There is always a potential gap between ‘host’ and ‘migrant’ cultures. A gap in knowledge, in understanding, in lifestyles. It is here, in making the most of, rather than lamenting, this space, that Making Space appropriately places itself. The image can do something in this arena because, at its most superficial, the difference between ‘host’ and ‘migrant’ cultures tends to be recognized in visual and, therefore, in racial terms. An anonymous Irish Muslim interviewee told Susan Knight, in 1999, of her dismay at the way in which a visiting female Muslim friend of hers, ‘covered from head to toe’ and walking down Grafton Street, elicited a confused mélange of responses based on an attempt to place her ethnically, and thus founded entirely on how she looked. And yet the same interviewee talks of the ‘unbelievable’ and positive ‘changes’ happening in the experience of Muslims in Ireland. The value of Making Space is that it uses the visual, the descriptive, to deepen the revelation and, hopefully, to enhance the change. Making Space asserts that what people believe, what they do, how they live out their beliefs, takes us beyond the type of looking which affixes a racial or ethnic ‘identity’ in order to de-individualise an individual.
Ireland’s Muslim population in 2006 was at around 30,000 according to that year’s census, with the number expected to be increased when the results of the 2011 census are made available. As with migrant Muslim populations in other western countries, the places which Muslims in Ireland have arrived from are varied, and include Africa, the Middle and Far East, and China. Amongst these there are representatives from all the major traditions within Islam (Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi) and, of course, there are many Muslims, first and second-generation migrants and converts, who are as fully Irish as anyone on the island. There has been Islamic worship in Ireland since at least the 1950s, beginning in small numbers in Dublin and including the long-established mosque in Ballyhaunis. The growth and status of mosques in Ireland, though, has not always been made easy. In the mid-1990s, in particular, there were controversies about whether mosques were recognized by the state as places of worship for the purposes of marriage, while in the same period the establishment of the large Sunni mosque in Clonskeagh in South Dublin was met, according to The Irish Times, with some ‘guarded suspicion’ in the local area. The Clonskeagh mosque has more recently become the focal point for the representation of Islam in Irish public life, though one thing that Making Space perhaps reminds us of is that Christian assumptions about the ‘church’ as a hierarchical, organized and representative institution cannot be transferred wholesale on to Islam. Because of this relative structural informality in Islam, mosques appear where they are geographically and economically needed, and thus in what can seem to be unlikely places. This is similar to the ways in which mosques have been established in, for example, Britain. A survey carried out less than ten years ago found that around 40% of Muslin prayer spaces in the UK were in domestic houses, while industrial units were also commonly made use of.
The beginnings of mosques in these often ad hoc places speaks of the social position of the migrant and the beginnings of a nascent religion in a ‘host’ culture. It is also possible for such a variety of places to be utilized for worship because Islam requires of its followers ritual daily prayer more than a place to pray. As the images in Making Space show, the mosque space, when empty, is left dominated by a sense of direction, with spiritual and physical lines which indicate the place of prayer and the direction of Mecca. Making Space, with its interiors striated with lines of various kinds on the floor (in the patterns of carpets, in duct tape on the flooring), conveys the spiritual geometry of the prayer-life of Islam, and its lines mark out the places where the viewer must repopulate these images with worshippers. It is this crucial absence, which asks to be filled, which is central to the tension in Making Space. It is a series of images in which the missing people act as a catalyst for reflection – reflection on whether their absence is symptomatic of the invisibility of their faith in wider Irish perception, but also a deeper reflection on the nature of that faith, which has its own particular relationship with its Prophet and its deity. Muhammad’s unrepresentability, and his role as messenger of the one, indivisible and transcendent God, is part of the explanation for the ways in which these prayer spaces can remain unadorned and relatively unconcerned by their surroundings. What remains important is that reverence given to the Prophet and, thus, to Allâh, is timed by the pattern of the day and the year and directed back along the geographical lines which lead to Mecca, Muhammad’s birthplace and the site of the ancient Ka‘ba (shrine). Occasionally in these images Mecca’s compass point is signalled by the mihrâb, a concave niche which is derived in form from the rebuilding of the Prophet’s mosque in Medina in 705. The mihrâb as such stands in for the absent Prophet and his own homage to Mecca as centre and origin of Islam. Its concave space is also something of an encapsulation of Making Space’s sense of the psychogeography of the mosque in Ireland – an architecture of absence and geographical distance, pointing to something beyond itself, existing in, but not contained by, its material circumstances.
In the mosque and prayer spaces ‘described’ in Making Space, and in particular in the domestic and industrial spaces which have been converted rather than having been purpose-built for worship, there is a sense of modest privacy. From a non-Muslim viewpoint the rooms in houses which here stand ready for prayer look curiously empty, as if waiting for furniture, waiting to be lived in. That they are used for prayer is a kind of reanimation of the previously devout and increasingly secularized Irish home, a place where daily prayer would once have been the norm and is now, probably, the exception. Noel Bowler’s photographs, in their deadpan, straight-on gaze, emphasize the blankness of the interiors of the buildings in which they are taken. This, and their eye-level, centred viewpoint, comes close to surveying the property at hand. These photographs are, then, initially striving for a kind of photographic disengagement in order to allow the space to speak for itself (and in doing this they wryly hint at an obsession with surveying property which is a comment on contemporary Ireland). Within this framework of potential ‘objectivity’ the homely and the industrial are given an intensified visual and cultural charge. Small details come to have a greater resonance – radiators, for example, appear persistently, reminders of Irish winters; ceilings, in the scale and framing of these images, seem oppressively present; the colours of walls come to have a melancholy ordinariness to their domestic ambitions. The signs of inhabitation are evidence of the way in which the prayer which goes on here ignores the harshness of the strip lighting, the intrusion of a fireplace, or the awkwardness of an open-plan room. Those signs are there too in the traces revealing how these spaces are used – the lines which occasionally diagonally cut across the dominant rectangular space, for example, reinforce the importance of prayer over the functionality which the space once aspired to.
As the image of Clonskeagh Islamic Cultural Centre might remind us, the almost underground existence of the Blackpitts mosque, or the encapsulation of other prayer spaces into suburbia, is not an aspiration, it is a necessity. Mosque architecture in the parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion is, of course, beautifully ornate and often epic in scale. It is also endlessly adaptable to its environment. That adaptability is reflected in the functional simplicities inherent in the places in these images. So a curtain can be drawn to separate the genders, and education easily takes the place of prayer. Clearly these mosques do not cherish their temporary status. They would like to be bigger and certainly they would like to be more appropriate. Making Space performs that key documentary function of showing us something happening in our world, something new, important, with local and global resonance. The modest growth of Islam in Ireland is a social and cultural phenomenon which we all need to know about. But much more than this, Making Space takes us further and puts us in the place where the nature of faith and belief must be understood with sensitivity and insight. In rendering this question through the architectural, and the material, and through the interior space of worship, Making Space challenges us, Muslim and non-Muslim, to think about how we exist through our beliefs and what we do, not through the perceptual laziness of easy labels and identities. And it is right to ask the question in this way, since it is in the everyday, in the way we do things and think about ourselves and others that we find our futures.
Documentary photography is often ‘about’ a social issue, and in Wallace Stevens’ terms, its seeks to be a ‘revelation’. If that revelation is too obvious then the photograph tends to fail in its aim – it becomes the simple record of photojournalism, not the lingering insistence of the best of documentary. Making Space is ‘about’ the way that Muslims in Ireland pray and where they find themselves worshipping. Its absence of people is a beautifully simple tactic. It asks the viewer to imagine what happens here, to populate this space which waits. For a non-Muslim viewer this creates a kind of drama of alterity, a request to place yourself here, to observe, yes, but almost to participate. It is an invitation and a challenge, the challenge a society faces in the act of welcoming difference.
In the end, Making Space considers the ways in which these places of prayer render the ordinary extraordinary. These are images which wait, in tension, for the experience of transcendence to take place, for something of supreme importance to happen in the most familiar of surroundings. They are images which are of, and which are, description as revelation.