Amy E. Schwartz: World Museums Rethink Islamic Art

By | Dec 31, 2012

The next generation of exhibits builds bridges in ways you might not expect.

When the Louvre unveiled its new Islamic art wing in September—under armed guard to avoid violence from the protests roiling Paris over a purportedly anti-Muslim cartoon—French president François Hollande called the exhibit an act of peace, a message of cultural pride to the nation’s angry and disaffected young Muslims. Ten months earlier, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had reopened its Islamic galleries after an eight-year hiatus, and critics hailed the redesign as a true window on the Middle East—a “rival space,” said one critic, to that other site dominating American views of Islam, Ground Zero.

The sweeping claims made for these projects are not so farfetched. Major art museums all over the world have been “rehanging”—art speak for totally rethinking—their collections of Islamic art. Museums in Copenhagen, Athens, London, Toronto and Cairo have completed large-scale revisions; Berlin’s Pergamon Museum plans to finish its revamp by 2019. Many of these projects have come to fruition just when the Arab Spring and subsequent upheavals have upped the ante on cross-cultural empathy, revealing Arabs to Westerners as people with political yearnings we recognize.

A generation ago, displaying Islamic art was more about decorative brilliance than cultural context. Curators were connoisseurs, guiding viewers in technical appreciation of a static and alien world.  The new approach turns a wider cultural lens on Islam and its history, with insight into the diversity of the region’s religions and cultures and the complexity of its present. The idea isn’t to produce a more positive (or negative) response but one that is more intimate, neither seeing the art in isolation from its culture nor obsessively linking it to the region’s latest outrage or disaster.

It’s a laudable effort on all counts. And it holds a sharp and particular interest for American Jews, who may have both the most difficult time seeing Islamic culture as anything but scary and hostile—for obvious and legitimate reasons—and the deepest well of potential cultural kinship with it.

The new scholarship focuses on universal themes, “not just how an object was made but why,” says Sheila Canby, the Met’s chief curator of Islamic art.  Most of the objects in the Met’s unparalleled collection, tour guides stress, were never intended for display. Unlike most Western art, they are “beloved, utilitarian objects”—a lamp, a prayer book, a cereal bowl—“raised from the ordinary to the extraordinary” by religious passion and human imagination.

None of this should be news to Washingtonians. The Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art have been doing this kind of thing since the Sackler opened in 1987, a pioneering counterpart to the Freer’s more classical presentation.  At the Sackler’s 25th anniversary gala in November, Julian Raby, the galleries’ director, pledged that an upcoming Sackler redesign will give even more attention to “the interplay between the historical and the contemporary,” including avant-garde artists working in the region today. Glenn Lowry, the Sackler’s former chief curator of Islamic art who now heads MOMA, made a passionate case for the work of several of these, from an Israeli artist who questions museums’ take on history by inventing and documenting fake historical figures to a Lebanese artist who, to suggest alienation from his own culture, creates mock installations of objects that are too small to see.

Paradoxically, the focus on the religious imperatives surrounding Islamic objects makes them more, not less, accessible to those outside the fold.  Religiously literate Jews might find in Canby’s “ordinary objects raised to the extraordinary” an echo of the halakhic principle of hiddur mitzvah, or beautifying the commandment—the same impulse that fills synagogue gift shops with silk tallitot and fancy menorahs.  Aesthetically, there’s unsuspected kinship as well: A small Sephardic Hebrew Bible in the Met exhibit, illuminated in Seville in 1472, makes you look three times to see that it isn’t a Koran.

Synagogue groups have been flocking to the Sackler’s “Roads of Arabia,” a traveling exhibit of recent archaeological breakthroughs from the Saudi kingdom that reveals unsuspected cultural diversity through seven millennia, brought by caravans plying the incense trade. True to the mission of bringing the story up to the present, the exhibit ends with a pair of glorious silver doors to the interior of the Ka’ba in Mecca, donated by a 17th-century Ottoman sultan and in use until 1947. It’s as close as a synagogue group is likely to get to the present-day Ka’ba, which, like all Mecca, has been closed to non-Muslims for centuries.

Sometimes understanding the present involves turning your back on it—at least for a moment. “I was going around the galleries with a member of the media,” says Canby, “someone who—I’m trying to describe him so you don’t recognize him—let’s say, someone who is from a part of the news media that doesn’t spend a lot of time being introspective. And whenever I said ‘Coptic textiles’ or ‘Syrian silver,’ or whatever, he’d mention some terrible event going on in that place. But five minutes in, he gravitated toward one beautiful piece of glazed ceramic. And then as we moved through other galleries, I noticed he was seeking out similar pieces.  And he started asking questions not about the news but about the objects, why they were made, how they were used and so forth. And that was really very satisfying, because the electronic media reach so many people, so if they come away with the thought that anything positive or beautiful comes out of that region, well, good.”

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