Emma Nash: Locating Islam in Contemporary Islamic Art

Untitled, Generation Series (Father and Son) by the artist Arwa Abouon

Untitled, Generation Series (Father and Son) by the artist Arwa Abouon

Emma Nash

December 19, 2016

Locating Islam in Contemporary Islamic Art

Islamic art, in the traditional sense, is an invented category, as the concern with identifying authentic Islamic cultural practices emerged in part from the encounter with the West.[1] Is there a new, contemporary Islamic art? And to what extent does this art have continuity with traditional Islamic art? Much contemporary Islamic art is identified by its engagement with Islamic artistic traditions; however, not all of this art is Islamic in the sense of being truly inspired by religion and much of the re-appropriation of traditional practices, in its negotiation of the demands of the international marketplace, tends to reinforce the juxtaposition between Islam and the West. In order to locate Islam in contemporary Islamic art, one might look to contemporary artists in the process of inventing a new visual vernacular for their religious expression.

Susan Babaie suggests that contemporary artists from the Middle East feel an imperative to “re-appropriate their own culture—and especially its ‘Islamic’ characteristics if they are so inclined—in order to build the modern variant of those arts now deemed to be ‘traditional,’ or unmodern.”[2] Negotiating the assumption that there “can scarcely be a conceptually viable relationship between contemporary art and the artistic traditions of Islam” has required freedom from the constraints of religiously defined traditions; ironically, Islam “seems to have been removed from its historical location as an intrinsic part of the artist’s creative pulses” so that artists might build a “contemporary Islamic art” in sync with the international mode.[3]

Babaie argues that contemporary artists “have tended to articulate the relationship between tradition and the Muslim experiences of the modern by appealing to the contemporary social and political complexities of the cultural zones they occupy.”[4]. The articulation of a contemporary Islamic art through appeal to cultural identity is in accord with some of the early ways in which artists from the Arab world sought to recover the traditions of Islamic art. Silvia Naef describes a similar displacement of Islam from its historical location at the center of the artist’s creative production, in which Arab artists of the twentieth century used the traditions of Islamic art to articulate a local or pan-Arab character; in Naef’s description, one of the obstacles to defining a contemporary Islamic art also seems to be the internalization of Western conceptions of art—that is, of Western definitions of art that in turn redefine Islamic art as a “non-art.”[5]

According to Naef, the shift toward recovering local traditions in what we now think of as the Arab world occurred in the 1940s and 1950s due to two factors: knowledge of the new experiences of Western artists (including the rejection of academicism and integration of forms inspired by the artistic traditions of the Islamic world, among other elements) and the “explosion of nationalisms and the building of new identities after the post-World War II independence of most states in the region.”[6] Naef, in describing how the nationalist project that informed the recovery of local artistic traditions was itself informed by the desire for reconciliation with modernity, points toward how Islamic and contemporary art from this region came to be defined as two distinct discourses.

The project of Jawad Salim, the painter who founded the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, illuminates the connection between nationalism and the recovery of local traditions. Salim felt that Iraqi art could not compete on the international stage until it had developed a character of its own, which would reveal itself through the combination of “local character” with the modern art language of the West.[7] Salim so began to incorporate folkloric patterns and “Islamic” motifs (such as the half-moon) into his figurative paintings.[8] Thus, the distinctly religious traditions of Islamic art were subsumed into a larger project: the articulation of local character. Salim’s interest in expressing local character through the language of modern art also reflects the requirement of nationalist projects that modernity be made compatible with the cultures of the region.[9] Modernity came to be conceived not just as a way of adopting Western forms and concepts, but also as “a way of reconquering the past.”[10]

Although nationalist projects advanced the turn toward local character, Naef argues that as long as art remained figurative, “Islamic art” would remain marginal, for its heritage was still not considered innately compatible with modernity.[11] The popularity of abstraction in the 1960s facilitated the reconciliation of artists one important aspect of the Islamic heritage: the calligraphic ornament. The reconciliation of this heritage with Western conceptions of art, however, also underlines the emergence of Islamic artistic traditions and “modern art” as two distinct discourses; as Naef describes, painters of the twentieth century made use of the calligraphic ornament in ways distinct from modern calligraphers.

Inspired by Sufism, Shakir Hasan Al Said issued his 1970 manifesto “The One Dimension.” Arguing for the “essential modernity” of the Arab script, Al Said explained that through the use of the letter, which unified form and content, art could “once again become become the expression of a philosophical concept, of the artist’s attitude toward existence.”[12] Al Said so launched hurufiyyah, the first pan-Arab art movement since the beginning of the century.[13] The emphasis of this movement remained, however, the expression of a contemporary Arab character rather than a return to the patterns of “Islamic art.” Its adherents thought of themselves not as calligraphers in the traditional sense but as artists making use of Arabic letters; distinct from modern calligraphers, they aimed not at returning to calligraphy but at being painters “in the full sense of the word.”[14] To elucidate this distinction, Naef turns to the work of Jamil Hammudi, who sees himself as the father of the hurufiyyah. According to Naef, “most of his production—the bulk of which was painted in the 1970s and 1980s—was basically figurative, with some forms developing into Arabic letters”:

Sometimes, the presence of the letters seems quite forced: the feeling given by the composition is that of a juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements. The relation to the visual tradition of Islamic art is almost completely lost.[15]

Of course, hurufi can mean different things—in the work of Nja Mahdaoui, it manifests in the production of the calligrapher’s “gesture”; though his paintings are distinct from calligraphy in that they “are built on shapes that resemble Arabic letters yet are not Arabic letters,” most of his work is close to traditional calligraphy in its emphasis on form over figure.[16] Thus, Naef argues that haruffiyah could be probably defined as “the use of forms inspired by Arab letters and employed in order to ‘arabize’ painting,” with the potential danger of eroticizing Arab painting.[17]

Naef so describes how the absorption of Islamic artistic traditions into the larger project of defining a local artistic character compatible with modernity produced a separate discourse, in which Islam was displaced from the center of the artist’s creativity; though these artists made use of Islamic forms, the adaptation of these forms to Western conceptions of art necessarily differentiated from traditional discourses marginalized by the modern, internationationalist conception of art. Though the artists Babaie analyzes are not engaged in a nationalist project, they similarly put their re-appropriations of their culture to use in commentary on aspects of the modern (and often the postcolonial) experience of global order. Their attempts to negotiate with the demands of the international art scene, of which the West is center, similarly produce a discourse which is both of and apart from the Islamic artistic tradition it simultaneously defines.

According to Babaie, the double standard applied to the contemporary arts of and out of the Middle East is that they “remain tied to [the Middle East’s] regional geopolitics while contemporary art as a phenomenon has prided itself on transcending the politics of the locale.”[18] To navigate the international market, Middle Eastern artists must negotiate between two demands. To be received as contemporary artists, artists hailing from the Islamic world “are at great pains to detach their art, its motivations, and sources of inspiration from the fifteen-hundred-year prominence of the artistic histories of Islam in the region.”[19] They must equally, however, meet a market demand “for utilizing what are basically ethnocultural identity markers, often reduced to universalized symbols and geopolitically oriented concepts: calligraphy standing for Islam, motifs from ancient civilizations of the Middle East and figures of modern history for secular nationalism, or the veil for essentialized cultural views toward women, gendered experiences, and the body.”[20] The re-appropriation of Islamic traditions by contemporary artists is thus circumscribed by discourses of modernity and the demands of the international marketplace.

It is worth recognizing that there are artists whose work does not detach itself—and cannot detach itself—from its religious sources of inspiration who have been received as contemporary artists on the international stage. However, the reception of these artists, too, reifies an interpretive framework in which Islam and modernity are always at odds. The work of Nasser Al Salem—who was trained as a calligrapher and architect—is, in some ways, closer to traditional and/or modern calligraphy than the harufi; it is Al Salem’s use of non-traditional media such as neon, video, and even sand (in addition to the more customary ink on paper) in his calligraphy that identifies him with the contemporary artistic practices.[21] In Al Salem’s God is Alive, He Shall Not Die (blue), a work of neon calligraphy, Al Salem “employs neon to amplify the word ‘Allah,’ which, through the use of mirrors, provides visual substantiation to the believer of God’s infinite nature.”[22] Though the subject of this piece is religious, in a blog post for Los Angeles County Museum of Art, research assistant Linda Williams equally stresses its juxtaposition of (Western) modernity with Islam; neon is, in her words, “a material most often associated with convenience stores and Las Vegas” but is here used “to convey the deeply spiritual concept of the infinite nature of God.”[23] Thus, even when the artist locates his creativity drive in a religious source of inspiration, his reception by the international contemporary art community still reifies a framework in which the sources of this tradition and its material re-appropriation are put at odds.

In contrast, the marginalization of the Iranian calligraphy-painter Muhammad Ehsai from the globalist marketplace demonstrates the conceptual challenges of incorporating locally situated traditions into the global avant-garde. According to Babaie, “the discourses of the avant-garde” find Ehsai’s work, which is rooted in spiritual subject matter and the metaphysical traditions of Persian poetry, music, and other arts, “too sacralized to be modernist.”[24] The absence of a “postmodern international artistic posture that valorizes conceptual work over traditional media” makes Ehsai seem even more unmodern; while Al Salem’s use of a non-traditional media (neon) meets expectations for a “certain kind of critical sophistication (political, ironic, transgressive, and so forth)”—i.e., by implicitly juxtaposing its spiritual subject matter with the material trappings of the modern world—Ehsai’s work remains too strongly tied to a local tradition that is both personal and spiritual to find acceptance in the international marketplace.[25] At the same time, historians of “Islamic” art “would think of such ‘modernist’ calligraphic exercises as too inauthentic for inclusion”[26]; Ehsai so remains stranded outside both the traditional discourses of “Islamic” art and the globalist, avant-garde discourses of contemporary art.

Conversely, Babaie identifies Farhad Moshiri as an artist who, like Al Salem, works within both “the globalist expectations of the postmodern” and “calligraphic convention” to great acclaim.[27] Writing the Persian for “love” (and the “conceptual cornerstone of Sufism”) in Swarovski crystals, Moshiri effects an ironic investigation of “the thin line between consumerism and art as an object of consumption,” which has at once won him international acclaim and excluded him from studies of “Islamic” art in its historical sense.[28] (In this respect, Moshiri and Al Salem are similar; the use of neon, a material associated with the gaudy faces of contemporary urban life, to explore a subject both personal and spiritual effects a similar negotiation between pre-capitalist conceptions of art and art as an object of consumption). Admittedly, the Islamic histories of art from which Moshiri is often excluded “barely make an appearance in the way Moshiri’s work is ordinarily situated.”[29] Still, Babaie argues that locating the modern in Islamic art requires a reorientation of the discourse toward the location of “the politics of aesthetic sources” and “the locality of the emergent global identities of arts from the region [which is, for the purposes of Babaie’s study, Iran].”[30]

In locating a contemporary form of Islamic art, it may be useful to turn away from a framework that attempts to reconcile the traditions of “Islamic” art—which it only emerged as a category due to the colonial category—with modernity and toward a framework that looks toward the ways in which Islam is, in contemporary art, represented as a living subject and lived practice. Finding continuity with the artistic traditions of the past does not necessarily locate a contemporary source of Islamic art in which Islam is at the center, as these artistic traditions are often re-appropriated to express geopolitical critique rather than religious identity (or, in the works of Moshiri and Al Salem, are received on the international stage within a binary framework that separates “Islamic” art from the contemporary). In the words of Valerie Behiery, artists of Muslim descent visible on the Euro-American scene “often employ symbols and themes pertaining to Islam to address issues of identity, marginalization, and discrimination rather than religion or spirituality or to proffer feminist and political critiques directed at either East or West.”[31] To locate the contemporary in Islamic art, one might turn away from searching for this re-appropriation of symbols and themes, which inevitably reifies the division between traditional and contemporary art rather than restoring continuity to the two, and toward the ways in which artists have sought to visually imagine contemporary forms of Muslim life.

Behiery identifies the Libyan-Canadian Muslim artist Arwa Abouon as one who “challenges the continued antinomy posited between art and religion and modernity and religion.”[32] Abouon “jointly aesthetic and spiritual” aims are reflected in art that, while indebted to Islamic aesthetic principles—such as that beauty’s ability to serve as a primary vehicle of meaning—may not necessarily register as “religious” with all publics.[33] Abouon is a photographer whose work is thus not “Islamic” in the sense of reclaiming artistic practices from before the colonial encounter. Rather, her work is Islamic in that it finds its own visual language for representing Islamic ideas (which, again, may or may not register as such for some audiences). In Untitled, Generation Series (Father and Son), she photographs a younger and older man in jilbabs surrounded by white space, such that the overall whiteness of the image seems to dissolve figure and ground, and space “becomes as important as what is more palpably visible.”[34] The piece so conveys, in visual terms, “that a noumenal quality underwrites the phenomenal world”[35]; this notion, “that the world and being possesses a theophanic aspect or at least exist as signs pointing to an unknowable reality” is “a central premise of both Islamic theology and aesthetics.”[36] By finding a new visual language for Islamic themes and principles, Aboun makes references which “are themselves plural: moving from the particular and denominational to a wider and more global frame of reference, they reveal both the difficulties of qualifiers such as Muslim and their usefulness.”[37] Though cognizant of Islam’s place as Western secular modernity’s other, Abouon possesses a “bicultural vision [that] dissipates any East-West or religion-secular antagonism” and so moves beyond the postcolonial critique.[38]

Is there a contemporary Islamic art? Attempts to re-appropriate Islamic art in the contemporary mode seem destined to reify the binaries between East/West and Islam/Modernity so long as they appeal simultaneously to the demands of the international marketplace. Otherwise, the appropriation of traditional styles and motifs tends to serve creative motives other than religion. In order to identify the new location of Islam in contemporary art, one might then look beyond the use of styles central to Islamic tradition and toward the new languages artists like Arwa Aboun are finding for modern forms of religious expression.

[1] Sedgwick, Mark. “Islam and Popular Culture.” Islam in the Modern World, ed. Jeffrey T. Kenney and Ebrahim Moosa (London: Routledge, 2013): 283.

[2] Babaie, Sussan. “Voices of Authority: Locating the ‘Modern’ in ‘Islamic’ Arts.” Getty Research Journal, no. 3 (2011): 133.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Naef, Silvia. “Reexploring Islamic Art: Modern and Contemporary Creation in the Arab World and Its Relation to the Artistic Past.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 43 (2003): 166.

[6] Ibid, 167.

[7] Ibid., 168.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 167.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 168.

[12] Ibid, 169.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 170.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 171.

[18] Babaie, “Voices of Authority: Locating the ‘Modern’ in ‘Islamic’ Arts,” 136.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Komaroff, Linda. Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Williams, Sandra. “Realizing Islamic Art Now,” LACMA Unframed (blog), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 20, 2016, http://unframed.lacma.org/2015/05/27/realizing-islamic-art-now

[24] Babaie, “Voices of Authority: Locating the ‘Modern’ in ‘Islamic’ Arts,” 141-142.

[25] Ibid., 142.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 143.

[30] Ibid., 143-144.

[31] Behiery, Valerie. “Imaging Islam in the Art of Arwa Abouon.” Journal of Canadian Art History / Annales D’histoire De L’art Canadien 33, no. 2 (2012): 129.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, 132.

[35] Ibid, 133.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 142.

[38] Ibid.