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Art As a Bridge to Ancestral Roots

The following review explores 7 artists from diverse corners of the globe whose works resonate with an ancient rhythm. Drawing inspiration from their ancestral roots—whether myths, traditions, or belief systems—they converge in creating artworks that preserve our individual and collective identities: old and new.


© Thomas Allen 'Blackout in Blue', 2023, Watercolour on paper, 35 × 87 cm

 Index of Artists: click on an artist to jump to their section.


 

The Beginnings of Folk Art


In 1926, Peruvian archaeologist Toribis Majía Xesspe was drawn to tales of extraordinary, large-scale etchings across the Nazca desert in Southern Peru. Intrigued, he embarked on a foot journey to document these mysterious markings. After days of searching, he pieced together his drawings of the colossal geoglyphs—biomorphic designs depicting hummingbirds, monkeys, spiders, llamas, plants, and flowers.


It wasn't until the 1930s, with the rise of air travel, that we gained the aerial perspective needed to fully capture the vast expanse of these sprawling engravings, known today as the 'Nazca Lines'. Estimated to have been created between 500 BC and 500 AD, these ancient symbols perpetually puzzle scholars and tourists alike.


The theories of their purpose stretch far and wide. Some speculate they were landing strips made for ancient astronauts who visited Earth, imagined as deities by the Nazca people. Maria Reiche, a prominent Nazca researcher, suggested celestial connections, linking the lines to astronomical events. Others believe the Nazcan people used sites for sacred rituals and prayers to heaven.



Regardless of their purpose, the Naza lines remain a testament to ancient creativity and leave us marveling at how our predecessors devoted themselves to the sublime and the unknown. Their very existence is a testament to the mysteries that define the human experience. Today, much like the Nazcan people, we find ourselves contemplating the expanse of deep blue space: Are we alone? Is someone—or something—watching us?


This quest for communication, meaning, and understanding has been deeply embedded in the human experience for millennia. From the enigmatic cave paintings of our ancestors to the dynamic ranges of contemporary art, from ancient folktales to pop culture, art has always served as a compass for navigating the labyrinth of identity and existence.


 

Echoes of Nature

Thomas Allen


The rhythms of nature are irrevocably intertwined with our lives. We begin each day with the rising sun and conclude with its setting. Our survival essentials—food, water, vitamins—are all gifts from the great outdoors.


For many artists, nature isn't just scenery; it's the very root system of their beliefs. This notion isn't new either: all ancestors from varied regions of the world historically turned to nature for answers and guidance, in one way or another. The Polynesians, navigating vast and tumultuous oceans, relied on celestial navigation—reading the stars for direction. Meanwhile, the Aztec, Egyptian, Inca, Maya, Greek, Roman, and Norse civilizations all developed cultures around sun worship — perceiving the sun as the essential life-giving source for all that exists on Earth.


For British folk artist Thomas Allen, this looks like intricate paintings that whir with texture, where biomorphic depictions of nature meet contemporary cultural idioms, for example, motifs from supermarket branding.

© Thomas Allen, ‘Locust Breeder’, 2024 Oil on linen, 100 x 200cm

Primarily, we can consider Allen's art as an act of place-making: spaces of dialogue and inquiry for us to assess the human experience in relation to our primordial roots. How intrinsic is our internal well-being to the land? What lessons can modern society glean from traditional and indigenous practices?


In The Locust Breeder Allen describes his figure as "a portrait of you and me", a knotted creature embodied by the "contradictions we find ourselves tied up in, as part of a consumer culture facing an environmental crisis".


Flattened, androgynous and boldly patterned, the long-limbed figure reaches his arms outwards, presumably grappling for more, more - it could be any one of us - to no end, as he is being pinned down by its intrinsic attachment to the landscape. When you look closely, it's a somewhat sorrowful sight; its furrowed brows and open mouth suggest a deep, pained anguish. Meanwhile, in the centre, black and white blocks swathe into its body, denying it any state of rest.


Allen's visual style, characterised by repetitive staccato brushstrokes, like a tally, traces the passage of time - time that is conspicuously layered into his artworks. The play between colossal forms and these miniature brushstrokes is not dissimilar from the duality of the universe— both the infinite and the infinitesimal, from constellations to the tiniest cells.


"The micro and the macro – they seem to be incongruous, and yet they’re clearly united as one" - Thomas Allen

© Thomas Allen, ‘Our Seasons Taste the Same’, 2023 Sanguine on paper, 150 x 118cm
© Thomas Allen / Ronchini Gallery, ‘HABERCADABRA’ (left), 'Jinn Suite' (right) Oil on linen, 200 x 220cm | 130 x 190cm x4

© Thomas Allen, ‘In Prayer’, 2024 Watercolour on paper, 87 x 35cm

 

Preserving Heritage

Amna AlBaker


© Amna AlBaker, 'Story of Land, Sea and Stars' (2023) Multimedia installation, 220 x 400cm

Glossy and sleek, Amna AlBaker (b. 1996) is a young Qatari artist whose heavily embellished artwork offers a glimpse into the belief systems of the ancient Arabian Peninsula. Her romantic installation consists of a hand-embroidered cloak (created in collaboration with Tamader Al Sultan), neon tubing, and inked wooden plywood, divided into three sections: land, sea, and stars. On the left, draped-white figures gather under shimmering palm trees and a golden pool of sand; on the right, amber-tinted mermaids encrusted with crystals command the silky blue ocean; above, an ink-blotched constellation of the Arabian Peninsula night sky. At the apex, in white neon tubing, AlBaker has placed an excerpt from the Qur'an (6:97); it reads: "He is the One who has made the stars as your guide through the darkness of land and sea."


The work is rooted in this inscription. AlBaker draws on the ancient, enduring belief systems that bring peace to those faced with a tumultuous path ahead. Shown in a vivid visual metaphor, the artist reminds us that to be guided by the light of faith is to thereby be protected through life's darkness.


 

The Ancestral Feminine: Bedouine Jewellery Bouthayna Al Muftah



Also celebrating her Qatari heritage is prolific artist Bouthayna Al Muftah (b. 1987), whose crisp ink drawings take us back to a time when jewellery wasn't just bling, it was part of a person's cultural identity.


Muftah's 'Um Il Salasil Wil Thahab' (أم السلاسل والذهب) series is a deep dive into this world, where ancient accessories become timeless symbols of cultural pride. Taking its name from a well-known Bedouin folksong, which references women's profound connection to "thahab" (ذهب)—traditional 21-karat gold jewellery — that for centuries has been a symbol of beauty and cultural heritage. Today, thahab is largely reserved for special occasions. Cherished as a family heirloom passed down through generations, it embodies the rich tapestry of Arabic tradition.


"To be a Qatari means an immense feeling of pride"


Muftah's ink drawings capture nostalgia and reverence for the women adorned in these accessories; in her artwork, they are irrevocably regal, elegant, resembling timeless figureheads in black and white. Muftah removes all indicators of gold's signature opulence, replacing the glitz with thin stretches of black and white, jagged lines of ink accompanied by some serpentine curves of pattern and detail. In this way, Muftah's drawing style doesn't separate the jewellery from the women, rather they are one and the same.



 

Collaboration and Community

Sanaa Gateja


What makes an artist? Some say it's a yearning to document the world around us. Others find in art a space of expression, introspection, meditation in an otherwise boundless universe. For artists like Sanaa Gateja, Made Valasara and Ali Maimoun, creating art is a ritualistic journey that binds them to their ancestral roots and the communities they call home.


Sanaa Gateja: Selected Works, Currier Museum of Art, October 19, 2023–January 14, 2024 Photo © Morgan Karanasios

© Sanaa Gateja, 'Blossoming', 2021 Paper beads on hand-woven raffia, 235 x 156cm

There's an ancient belief that rays of sunlight could crystallize into various materials, from gold to glass. The Incas of South America saw gold as the "sweat of the sun." For Ugandan artist Sanaa Gateja (b. 1950), whose reflective beaded artwork glistens in the light, creating art is a profound process of capturing nature's beauty.


Gateja and the 50 women he collaborates with transform recycled paper—think wig-sale pamphlets, political posters, food wrappers—into vibrant beads. These are then threaded and assembled on homemade barkcloth and banana fibre. Visually and practically inspired by local indigenous practices, including the local potters, blacksmiths and basket weavers in the Namutamba where he grew up, Sanaa's work is a return to the roots of craftsmanship.


Sanaa says there is a big difference in the accessibility of paper in different parts of the world. When he started using recycled paper as his working material in Uganda, for example, he found Chinese Propaganda Magazines along the streets of Kampala. Colourful and glossy, they were perfect for reducing to beads.


Sanaa Gateja is an artist of note—a visionary aligned with contemporary global consciousness that prioritises environmental preservation. His art-making practice employs hundreds of women at his Kwetu Africa Studio, where they craft beads for supplemental income.


To encapsulate his artistic philosophy, Sanaa penned a poem that hangs on the wall of his studio:


A dot is a dot is a dot likely to burst into millions of dots

Black, red, green, blue, yellow and gold so far and yet close

A raindrop rolling off a leaf and swallowed by hungry earth

A dot is a dot it is your village a community a voice in the hills

A cell a life a force of light to keep the fire burning.





© Sanaa Gateja, 'Growing Seeds', 2023 Paper beads on barkcloth, 180.34 x 155.57 cm

© Sanaa Gateja: 'Is it morning for you yet?', 2023 Currier Museum of Art, October 19, 2023–January 14, 2024

 

Animist Art

Ali Maimoun


For Moroccan artist Ali Maimoun (b. 1956), creating art is a deeply ritualistic process, a journey into his African heritage. Originally trained as a stonemason, Maimoun's mystical paintings burst with vivid colour, displaying a unique style that is highly detailed and decorative. His works, crafted from sawdust, seem to leap outward from the canvas as if the Nazca lines have come to life in a divergent, dreamlike realm.


Drawing from his African and Amazigh roots, Maimoun's artistic practice involves mixing sawdust into paint to produce three-dimensional works that blur the lines between painting and sculpture. With protruding elements and a dynamic play of toning and contrasting colours, his distinctive angular style reflects the esoteric wisdom of ancient North African indigenous cultures. This includes animism, which attributes a living soul to all things, including plants and animals, and psychedelic rituals that connect individuals to their ancestral heritage.



© , 'Untitled', 2015                                                                                                                                     Sawdust and pigment on board, 134 x 220cm
© Ali Maimoun, 'Untitled', 2015 Sawdust and pigment on board, 134 x 220cm

 

Cultural Hybridity

Made Wiguna Valasara


Emblazoned in tall black script on the windows of the 13a New Street Art Gallery in Hong Kong is a question from the artist Made Wiguna Valasara: "Can we still find our voice when we're distanced from our cultural roots?"


Born in 1983, in Indonesia, artist Valasara first practised painting from a young age, watching his painterly uncle Nyoman Erawan at work. Now an award-winning young Balian artist, Valasara has carved a name for himself with his unique stuffed canvas technique, wherein he threads together various elements of Balinese culture and the Western and Java influences that have permeated its art. Whether he's interrogating the commodification of Balinese culture, or including Renaissance art historical motifs, Valsara flips the script on static perceptions of culture and identity. Instead, he shows it as fluid, ever-evolving— ultimately an individualistic pursuit.


© Made Wiguna Valasara
© Made Wiguna Valasara, 'Rekonstruksi semesta (oposisi biner)' / 'Reconstruction of the universe (binary opposition)', 2017 Acrylic on stuffed canvas, cotton thread; machine sewn


Made Wiguna Valasara, 'Collective Fragment', 2021 ©

Acrylic on stuffed canvas, cotton thread; machine sewn


© Made Wiguna Valasara, 'Circa Madrid 1981', 2015 Acrylic on stuffed canvas, 360 x 240cm

 

Defining Place: Diasporic Identities

Amir H. Fallah


Map-making is an ancient human impulse: the desire to chart the world around us into a more manageable, miniature form empowers us to know and make sense of it.


Amir Fallah (b.1979) takes this ancient impulse to new heights in his unabashedly maximalist work, blending disparate cultural idioms like 17th-century Flemish still lifes, Persian miniature paintings, and architectural arabesques with graffiti, graphic posters, and vaporwave motifs. Exploring Fallah's work is like embarking on an archaeological expedition: it requires digging beneath the surface to see the bigger picture.

© Amir H. Fallah, 'Protector 1', 2022 Acrylic on canvas, 180 × 120 cm

Born in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, Fallah was just 4 years old when his family fled the war-torn country, eventually settling in the U.S. at 7. Growing up in Virginia, Fallah's diasporic feelings fuel the magnificent mismatch of his work: he pulls together cultural elements that ignite new realms of thought and imagination. Driven by the sense of cultural limbo, Fallah describes: “I am an Iranian-American immigrant who entered art through two of America’s best underground subcultures. All of my work is born from these early experiences of cultures colliding”


© Amir H. Fallah, 'Evolution is painful', 2023 Acrylic on canvas, 91.44 × 91.44 cm

Often, Fallah conceals his subjects, the only glimpses of their identity through the fabric covering their faces. Reduced to fabric and shape, we are forced to consider notions of representation — how what we wear reflects culture, economies, aesthetics, and human labour.


Other times, Fallah grids his paintings with textured lines, offering structure to his exuberant layouts and inviting viewers to explore each section individually.


Anyone who views Fallah's work will find themselves in a reciprocal relationship with it. His unique use of colour - brash and brave - pulls you in then spits you back out again. With his diverse visual materials, it's a place where anyone, from any culture, can feel simultaneously displaced and at home—a universe resonating with diasporic communities, including the artist himself. Ultimately, this is what makes Fallah's work timeless. He challenges the boundaries that divide us and encourages us to find inspiration in a collective identity that bridges external and internal universes.



 

Conclusion


Culture is a wild ride—on the one hand, it's perpetually shape-shifting with each passing trend, evolving with every ebb of new influences that flow in and out of our existences, in a digitally-connected, globalised world. But beneath all that flux, a rock-solid foundation of beliefs, traditions, and etiquettes flows from generation to generation. For our 7 artists seen above, creating art around their cultural roots is a preservation of what otherwise could be lost. It's a somewhat sacred undertaking.


The world we inhabit is increasingly digital, with its own set of advantages and drawbacks—topics we'll explore in future essays. However, with AI-generated content projected to dominate online platforms by 2025 (comprising nearly 90% of online content), there has never been a more pressing need to safeguard the cultures and heritages that have nurtured generations with love, connection and a sense of family. Neglecting our ancient roots would be akin to losing a beloved family member whose wisdom and stories we can no longer access. As we continue ahead, let us seek solace in art and culture that fosters a return to community, using it as a celebration of our shared heritage, and the richness of human experience.




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