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Curating Islamic Art Worldwide

Curating Islamic Art Worldwide: From Malacca to Manchester

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 Curating Islamic Art Worldwide
  • Book Author:
Jenny Norton-Wright
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Introduction: ‘Whether We Like It or not’—Islamic art exhibits and the responsibility of empathic curatorship

Just days into the new US presidency in January 2016, the Trump administration issued an executive order banning the entry of refugees and individuals with valid documents from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. This unleashed a tidal wave of hardship for families who were separated from detained loved ones, asylum seekers who were sent back from whence they came and a general atmosphere of chaos, panic and fear.

Despite the outpouring of protesters who peacefully demonstrated at air-port terminals across the country, the outwardly Islamophobic ban instigated violent hate crimes in its wake, with the murder of six men at the Grande Mosquée de Québec and the torching of the Victoria Islamic Center in Texas, not to mention the political rise of racist ideologies of the alt-right and white supremacists. Now more than ever before, there is a palpable urgency and responsibility for cultural practitioners and media-tors to theorise new strategies to engage with everpolarising publics.

These challenges in the jagged terrain of our cultural landscape are relentless, and how cultural institutions respond to these tectonic changes has never been more vital to social cohesion. At the intersections of critical museology and Islamic art studies, curators and scholars alike have been grappling with the matters of both representations and diversifying publics for the several years.

The ground-breaking compilation, Islamic Art and the Museum: Approaches to Art and Archaeology of the Muslim World in the Twenty-First Century (2012), is a probing collection of essays that wrestle with the entangled questions of representational politics, multiple Islams, public demands and presentist concerns vis-à-vis museums with collections of visual and material culture from the Islamic world.

The late Oleg Grabar inferred that even against the preferences of some curators to only present the aesthetic object qua aesthetic object—without any reference to contemporary global politics or transnational migrations—the curation of Islamic art objects does need to speak to a swelling transnational diaspora (Grabar 2012: 27). Echoing these sentiments, Stefan Weber, the Director of the Museum of the Islamic Art at the Pergamon in Berlin and one of the editors of the aforementioned volume, more recently expounded on the socio-political implications and ripple effects of responsible curation, remarking that, ‘exhibitions of Islamic art are, whether we like it or not, sites of identity negotiation where relations to “me and my world” are established’ (Weber 2018: 238).

It is precisely Weber’s usage of the phrase, ‘whether we like it or not’ that warrants elaboration, for it reflects an epistemological shift in how we interact with and frame Islamic visual and material cultural objects for audiences. Going into a gallery is no longer simply a matter of aesthetic appreciation or grasping an object’s utilitarian function or even defining its dynastic patronage or pedigree.

Collections that were once predicated on and established within antiquarian paradigms have had to reckon with the contemporary moment and jettison outdated taxonomies, hierarchies and privileged chronologies, as well as ethnographic methods of display that essentialise peoples and fossilise cultures. The begrudging ‘or not’ in Weber’s statement points to the selective rejection of old guard curatorial principles that divorce present realities from aesthetic and historical preoccupations with the object or other curatorial methods that do not yield meaningful viewer experiences, such as dynastic layouts (Weber 2018: 240) or the ‘treasures’ formula (Leoni 2018: 328) for exhibiting Islamic arts that fetishises aesthetics to a fault.

 In doing so, Weber outlines the socio-political need for museums and cultural institutions to serve dialogi-cally as spaces where public discourse can thrive as an antidote to the stark polarisations plaguing much of our global social order. Weber states,

Both in defining themselves and defining others, populist and extremist political movements increasingly use ‘Islam’ for the purpose of political mobilization, thereby channelling conflicts of socio-economic distribution, experiences of marginalization, anxieties about the future, and cultural uncertainty in times of globalization. (Weber 2018: 238)

As Weber insinuates, political extremes, partially resulting from social alienation and cultural disidentification, can be challenged in the space of the museum, where collective identity formations can be healthily negotiated, debated and discussed.

As many curators of Islamic arts note, visitors go to museums not only to see beautifully crafted objects of centuries past, but also in search of answers to concerns in their everyday lives (Weber 2018: 239), to dig into their heritage (Blair and Bloom 2003: 176),1 or to make sense of today’s newscast (Junod et al. 2012: 12).

I need not go into the post-9/11 global surge of public interest and museum-initiated interventions in Islamic art (Kadoi 2018: 230), as evidenced in the renovations and reinstallations of the Jameel Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006, to the permanent installation of the ‘Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New  York in 2011 and of the ‘Arts de l’Islam’ at the Musée du Louvre’s Cour Visconti, an exhibit expressly targeted to cater not only to tourists, but also to the many Muslim minorities local to cosmopolitan Paris. In autumn 2018, the British Museum joined the ranks, opening its newly designed Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World.

As the key interface with the public, curators continue to bemoan the imposed burden of not simply representing Islam, but of re-presenting it in lan-guage that, on the one hand, confronts prevalent xenophobic stigmatisa-tions of Islam and bigotry, and on the other hand, artificially reframes millennia of complex cross-cultural interactions in terms of peace, pluralist harmony and tolerance.

Francesca Leoni discusses the long- standing nature of this curatorial conundrum vis-à-vis Islamic arts by highlighting that: the excessive didactic burden put on this artistic tradition to depict related societies in a positive light and alleviate misconceptions has, in fact, served to reinforce ahistorical paradigms, severing both the artistic legacy and asso-ciated cultural realities from the geopolitical dynamics and intellectual forces that shaped and reshaped them. (Leoni 2018: 329)

Linda Komaroff, the Curator and Department Head of Islamic Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) commented in her talk at the seventh Biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art (titled ‘Islamic Art: Past, Present, and Future’) on the necessity of giving a modern- day face to LACMA’s Islamic art installation, enabling her audi-ence to resonate and connect with the works, and on the onus of ‘getting it right’ (Komaroff 2017). In parallel strides taken in the academy, the Yale Islamicist Kishwar Rizvi movingly remarked in a Washington Post op-ed piece on the urgency of teaching Islamic art in these polemical times; she says of her students that she ‘wants them to know that these places are worth saving’—inferring that not only is this richly diverse heritage worth saving but so also are the plural publics that created it (Rizvi 2017).

While these efforts to educate the public on the histories and diversity of Islamic cultures grew in the aftermath of the ‘war on terror’, the representational vilifications and dehumanization of Europe- and America- bound Middle Easterners have been multiplied since the rise of the so-called migrant crisis, by a growing, globalised far-right; cultural practitioners and institutions can no longer maintain passive neutrality. The burdens of representation—or rather, the flagrant and ubiquitous misrepresentations of diverse peoples—cannot be ignored. But how can museums and other institutions showcase and contextualise the plurality of arts and cultures of the

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