The exhibition Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art includes work by contemporary Islamic artists who have taken part in Shangri La’s artist in residency program. One of those artists is Ayad Alkadhi. Born in Baghdad, and now living and working in New York City, Alkadhi fled war and expressed his experience through art. He was in Honolulu in February to give a talk and demo on Arabic calligraphy in contemporary Islamic art. We caught up with him for a few minutes in the gallery where he talked—in his undefinable, elegant, accent—about his work I Am Baghdad XV, on view through June 7.

You say in your artist’s statement that this work is not directly inspired by Shangri La.
Yes, I already had an idea of what I wanted to do [while at Shangri La], so the work itself doesn’t reflect this. Actually, things inspired by Shangri La started to creep in afterwards. For example the surveillance camera, because I stayed there, and I was told by the security guards if you leave at night let us know because the surveillance camera will pick up movement.

This specific work I did for myself. This is part of a series that started in 2008, about the invasion of Iraq. It is sort of a metaphorical interview with Iraqis from different educational, religious and cultural backgrounds, and they’re all talking about their own experience or feelings about what’s happening in their country. It’s the same face in each work, because this is a universal Iraqi face, but each one has a different layout, different calligraphy, patterns, color schemes. [Read about his 2013 residency on the Shangri La blog.]

Tell us about the role of calligraphy in this work.
The calligraphy for the series is only meant to reflect emotion, it’s not actual words, because with art it has to speak universally and I don’t want Arabic-speaking people to learn more about this work than non-Arabic-speaking people. So when you look at it, it’s as if you are having a video interview with somebody who’s talking in a foreign language. You know they’re saying something, but you don’t know what they’re saying. From the way they’re talking or from the tone of their voice you can sum up.

Calligraphy is also heritage. Each culture has its own specific creative nuances. In Polynesia you find their own things. Each culture has its own visual hook. With Islamic culture it’s calligraphy. Contemporary artists use it as an identity card, so to speak. You put it there, and people say, Oh this is Arabic. I don’t come from a particularly religious background, but it’s something I was surrounded by growing up, so now I use it as a reference.

Whatever feeling you get from it, that’s what you want. I don’t believe that art should be dictated, should tell you OK this is how I feel and this is how you should see it. I want each viewer to take whatever they want out of it, and that’s where it creates a relationship between the work and the viewer.

What newspaper did you use in this work?
It is a mix of Iraqi and Palestinian newspapers.

How did you make your way to New York?
I left in 1994 and went to Jordan for a year, then moved to New Zealand for five years, then moved to New York for graduate school, then to California for three four years, then back to New York. So I’m a modern nomad.

Was it strange to arrive at Shangri La in 2013 and find the amazing collection of Islamic art in the middle of the Pacific?
No, you know what? Especially right now, especially what they’re doing destroying the statues, you have to think of the heritage aspect of it. I’d rather somebody takes it and puts it in a safe place where people admire it, versus staying in a place where it’s at risk. It’s global heritage. The Egyptians have this issue right now with Nefertiti and other things, and Iraq with the Babylon Gate. I’d much rather that they are safe. There is no point of saying [return the art to] me, me, me when you look at what they’re doing with it. That’s heartbreaking to me. So if it’s something that belongs to history, I’d rather that it stays in hands where it’s safest.

Would you say contemporary Islamic art is on the rise now?
Yes, it is very much so, because of things like Art Dubai, and because of, strangely enough, well, money and art go hand in hand, even though we don’t think it does—it’s money that pushes that engine and they speak together.

Ayad Alkadhi (b. 1971, Iraq)
Lives and works in New York
I Am Baghdad XV, 2013
Charcoal, acrylic and soil on Arabic newspaper on canvas
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i
Gift of Ayad Alkadhi and Leila Heller Gallery