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Who is a Muslim?

[Ammar al-Beik, [Ammar al-Beik, "Maximum Alert" (2008). Image copyright the artist.]

Islamic Art Now, Part 2: Contemporary Art of the Middle East. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 24 January – 23 October 2016.

Interest in Islamic art—a label that became popular in Western museums after World War II—has substantially increased since 11 September 2001. Some of the biggest and wealthiest museums in Europe and North America, including The Louvre, Benaki Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, have expanded, renovated, and highlighted their collections of Islamic art. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s collection of Islamic art, which began purchasing works in 1973, has seen major acquisitions since 9/11. Middle Eastern museums have also joined the race. The Kuwait National Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha have become major competitors in this market. The controversial openings of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi are scheduled for the next few years.

All these museums hope to boost profits in the tourism and culture industries by playing on a renewed fascination with Islam. Moreover, they hope to introduce visitors to a softer, more tolerant side of Muslims by educating them about the history and culture of regions that have become associated with war and religious fundamentalism. As Sophie Makariou, head of the Louvre's Islamic art department, said, “I like the idea of showing the other side of the coin.”

Unfortunately, such gestures are still unable to move beyond two sides: the inevitable binary of the good, cultured Muslim and the bad, terrorist Muslim. In their attempt to show that Muslims are not all radicals and fundamentalists, but also artisans and artists, the curators and collectors forget that identity is interminably shifting, always in flux, impossible to flatten into a coin with only two sides. Instead of defining Muslim identity as a changing, diasporic identity, the museums paralyze it by ignoring the pitfalls of translating culture.

LACMA’s “Islamic Art Now, Part 2: Contemporary Art of the Middle East” (January 24, 2016 – October 23, 2016) is an important reminder that Muslim identity is dynamic and syncretic. It cannot be reduced and compressed into xenophobic packages. Though it has become fashionable to pit Muslim fanaticism against American secularism and liberalism in a hopelessly simplistic dichotomy of good and bad, especially since 9/11, the artworks in LACMA’s exhibition show how hard it is to delineate such lines by displacing and mixing “Western” and “Islamic” symbols.

Entering the exhibition, the viewer is immediately confronted by Sherin Guirguis’ trio, Untitled (Subbak V), Untitled (Subbak II), and Untitled (Subbak VI). The artworks depict designs of Egyptian windows but overlay the architectural geometry with abstract strokes of paint, gold powder, and gold leafing. The result is a bold burst of color that reconfigures the Egyptian windows, resisting their reduction to purely documentary representations of exotically gendered and racialized Islamic art. Another work that de-familiarizes an established symbol of Islamic art, opening routes for its dialogue with secular developments, is Illumination Diptych (Ottoman Waqf) by Ahmed Mater. The artist employs margins and borders that bring to mind heavily decorated manuscripts of the Quran, but instead of using them to present the sacred script, he inserts X-rays of a human head and chest set face-to-face inside them. The juxtaposition of the heavily illuminated frames with X-rays, a late-nineteenth century scientific discovery, asks important questions about the imbrication of religion and science, Islam and modernity.

Two other works that provocatively subvert traditional relations between visual and textual motifs in Islamic art, unsettling the long and rich history of calligraphy, are Subhan Allah by Lulwah Al Homoud, a silkscreen that uses the standard materials of calligraphy – ink and gold – on archival paper, and Grid 30 by Hadieh Shafie, an ink and acrylic drawing on Arches paper. Both Subhan Allah and Grid 30 arrange sacred texts within austere geometric models. The works fluctuate between rigid abstraction and the sinuous, flowing forms of Arabic and Persian scripts. The reticulation provides a strict outline to the works, but the curvilinear religious and mystical texts strain against their linear confines, creating a mesmerizing interplay of fixed and fluid forms. The result is a dialogue between the sacrosanct texts representing the modern calligraphic tradition in Islamic art and the abstract geometric patterns of post-cubist European artists.

Building on the experiments of earlier Asian and African artists who were looking for new potentialities in calligraphy, particularly artists working in the aftermath of decolonial movements, Al Homoud’s and Shafie’s works can be understood as “calligraphic modernism.” The term is used by the art historian, Iftikhar Dadi, to describe the work of artists like Ibrahim El Salahi and Anwar Shemza, who formed the foundations for “a critical engagement with metropolitan modernism and cosmopolitanism,” in whose art the “Arabic script was not simply utilized in a classical manner to render beautifully a religious verse or endow it with ornamental form; rather, the script was often imbued with figuration and abstraction to a degree that resisted a straightforward literal or narrative meaning.”

The aforementioned artworks take traditional practices in Islamic art as their beginning, notably architectural and calligraphic designs, and improvise on the given theme in a way that reconfigures established paradigms and creates discrepant fissures in time-honored conventions. However, there are other pieces in the exhibition that trouble the very certainty of “beginnings.” Instead of denaturalizing the symbols associated with Islamic art, they question the very practice of signifying Islam through recognizable symbols.

A work that engages with the Arabic script without any reference to the orthodox tradition of calligraphy is Hassan Hajjaj’s Feetball. Hassan’s photograph – a group of feet vying for a football, all of them wearing babouche slippers emblazoned with the Nike logo – is framed by a wooden border that contains colorful plastic blocks, reminiscent of the learning tools used by children, all of them inscripted with Arabic letters. The photograph is an apt representation of the way global sports and fashion cultures impact children and youngsters in the Middle East and North Africa. Hajjaj, a Moroccan artist, captures a dizzying array of cultural referents in a vibrant palette, reminding us that identity cannot be imprisoned within ethnicized motifs. His art brings to mind the energy and imagination of street photographers and studio portraitists like Dennis Morris, Jamel Shabazz, and Malick Sidibe – an unapologetic dive into the world of diasporic popular culture.

Another artist who uses the medium of photography to interrogate relations of identity is Ammar al-Beik. Al-Beik uses found and archival photographs in Maximum Alert and The Strong Believers: old black-and-white photographs of soldiers and bodybuilders striking brash poses that are framed by rows of ultra chromatic thumbnail prints of ancient goddesses preserved in the National Museum of Damascus. The nude representations of ancient models of femininity, printed in bold colors, make a compelling counterpoint to the dull and faded black-and-white portraits of the men and their hyper-masculinist poses. In their interrogation of the difference between men and women, color and black-and-white, the photographs also incite thoughts about the relationship between pre-Islamic deities and modern Syrians. Contemporary representations of the Middle East are often exclusively concerned with Muslim identities, erasing the long, ancient history of the region and its people and their various, nuanced engagements with religion. Ammar al-Beik’s photographs are an important intervention. They create a space for themselves outside the narrow definitions of Islamic art. 

While LACMA’s exhibition does a commendable job of focusing on works that trouble the easy dichotomy between secular and religious, good and bad, it doesn’t, in the final analysis, go nearly far enough. It succumbs to the lure of conveniently simplifying the complexities of the works it has exhibited under the reductive identity of “Islamic Art.” It is significant for a progressive politics of representation to construct platforms that privilege the risk of difference rather than the stable grounds of identity. Or perhaps we are too scared to admit that there is no conclusive reply, no closed and final answer to the question that has everyone on edge: Who is a Muslim?

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