press release

In the sixties photographer Niek Biegman became fascinated by Sufism, the mystical movement within Islam that has numerous followers worldwide. Since then he has traveled through the Middle East and the Balkans in order to visit Sufi rituals and take photographs of them. Kunsthal Rotterdam presents a series of photographs made by Biegman in Egypt, Syria, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina between 2004 and 2008 that show from up close what exactly happens during these Sufi rituals.

Ritual Sufis do not attach any value to a literal reading of holy texts like the Koran, but attribute an inner meaning to them. The main focus of attention within Sufism is the longing for an intense and personal relationship with Allah. Through various rituals, of which the zikr is most important, one can get into contact with Allah. The zikr consists of repeating some of the ninety-nine most beautiful names of Allah for hours and hours on end in order to thus approach Him more closely. Poetry, music and dance are of major importance to the zikr. This core ritual of Sufism is practiced in groups as a rule but there are numerous ways of actually performing a zikr. Moreover, there are deviations per region and per country: whereas one order sits down on the ground while praying and singing almost motionlessly, another order goes as far as the use of iron pins to pierce their bodies. There are also Sufi communities that dance around excitedly during the zikr. Despite all the differences there are of course also similarities: there is always a spiritual director present and the actual reason for performing a zikr is always the same, namely to cleanse the heart and fill it with the love of Allah.

Contact with Allah With his camera at hand Biegman participated in a great number of gatherings that are generally exclusively for men, but sometimes also held together with women. From up close Biegman made photographs of what was going on, both inside and outside. From his photographs the prayers, songs, music and poetry become almost audible. Concentration and submission can be told from the faces of the participants. In order to get closer to Allah Sufis try to get into a meditative state, their thoughts as far away from the world surrounding them as possible. Besides close-ups of the ritual Biegman portrays the activities that occur right before or directly after the zikr. These photographs were taken at a larger distance and show how people are drinking tea after the ceremony or how the hand of the spiritual director is kissed goodbye. Besides these photographs a film about the zikr, made by his son Ivo Biegman, is shown at large-format in the exposition hall. This projection gives the visitors a sense of actually being present at a Sufi gathering.

Publication At the time of the exhibition a book on Sufism is to appear at KIT Publishers (ISBN 9789068327922

Niek Biegman
Sufis, Rituals in the Middle East and the Balkans