Opulent And Apolitical: The Art Of The Met's Islamic Galleries

Aug 3, 2015
Originally published on August 10, 2015 3:44 pm

This is an introduction to NPR's Muslim Artists, Now series, which will highlight contemporary Muslim musicians, writers, painters and filmmakers, among others.

When the Islamic galleries of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art reopened in 2011 (after eight years of renovation), it was heralded as a landmark moment for deepening American understanding of the Islamic world. Amid live performances and lectures, the museum's 15 new galleries brought audiences into a physical world of lavish carpets, ceramics and miniature paintings.

Since the Met's Islamic revival, the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London have also invested in glittering new galleries for Islamic art. And this year alone in the United States, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Baltimore's Walters Art Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art each has an exhibition dedicated to the genre.

Sheila Canby, the curator in charge of the Met's Department of Islamic Art, acknowledges that showcasing the galleries' objects provides an alternative to the predominant political narrative. She says, "After things like Sept. 11, after things like the destruction of ancient sites in northern Iraq and Syria, museums serve as a place where people can come to this idea of Islam through the material culture, not just through what they're being told all the time."

But at a time when the meaning of Islam is so fraught and the debate over Muslim values is so charged, what exactly constitutes Islamic art? Is it a religious definition, an ethnic category or a political statement?

The formal, art history discipline of "Islamic art" originated in 20th-century Western museums. It began as an offshoot of antiquities departments as curators began to notice the aesthetic links between medieval Islamic courts stretching from Spain to India. The Met defines the most salient of these links as "the predilection for all-over surface decoration," and it includes calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns and figural representation.

The Met's first Islamic galleries were called "Islamic Art" and opened in 1975. When they reopened in 2011, they were also given a new name: "New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia." Curator Sheila Canby says, "What we want to reflect in the title over the door is kind of what we cover and what we don't cover, because of course there's a huge population of Muslims in places like Indonesia, but we don't have the art of Indonesia in these galleries."

That evolution in the study of Islamic art mirrors cultural shifts in today's Muslim societies. The kingdoms that gave rise to the workshops and artisans whose work fills the Met's galleries no longer exist, and today those regions have new borders, new crises and new economic realities.

For Met curator Navina Haidar, the central vision in reopening the museum's galleries was to highlight these objects as the world's heritage. She says the fundamental question is whether you see it "as the heritage of the Islamic world or do you think about it as the Islamic heritage of the world. You see, there's a difference there."

This summer, Haidar curated a critically acclaimed exhibition about the Muslim kingdoms of India's Deccan plateau. It included bejeweled decorative objects, massive diamonds and miniature paintings filled with details that required magnifying glasses. Like the museum's permanent Islamic collection, the emphasis was on showcasing the global trade links that created this world. Gallery labels underscored influences from China, Africa and Europe. And to make this even more inviting for a modern audience, Haidar sought to create an alluring vibe using music, mood lighting and and deeply colored walls — after all, the subtitle of the show was "Opulence and Fantasy."

"Sometimes when you're too puritan about things you can actually kill off the vibe completely, which is what we definitely didn't want to do," Haidar says. "One of the important concepts, actually, in the Deccan is Rasa — is flavor, is juice, is essence."

That might seem to run counter to the perception a lot of people have of Muslims as puritanical and uninterested in physical beauty. But Haidar says, "The interesting thing about the arts of the Islamic world and courts is that there is always a wonderful tension between ... the stark of beauty of [the most austere traditions] contrasted with a kind of opulence and a love for color, for texture; an imagination, a feeling for romance and beauty; some great music. So, you know, you have both ends of the spectrum and to somehow be inclusive in one's thinking is the best way to go."

But the museum's exploration of the Islamic world stops short of the 20th century, and that's a challenge for Munir Jiwa, a professor of Islamic studies at Graduate Theological Union. He says he loves visiting the Met's Islamic galleries, but it's difficult for him to make the connection between what's in the museum and what he sees, hears and teaches. "My daily work reminds me of ... just how difficult it is to relate or translate that very beautiful aesthetic experience that one finds in a place like the Met to the realities on the ground and the very difficult and challenging present," Jiwa says.

But according to Haidar, the role of the Met and of Islamic art historians is to be dispassionate and apolitical. "We show things on the basis of their artistic merit, their rarity, their condition and their historical importance," she says. "So we don't censor the evidence. We don't promote the evidence. We try to be strictly dispassionate about the evidence. The only place where we allow ourselves any passion is in the artistic joy and excitement of something that's beautiful and elevating and technically accomplished. But we don't get ideological about it."

Still, as you leave the Met's opulent galleries and return to the real world, it's striking that the formal idea of Islamic art ends in the 19th century. What's happened to Muslim creativity since the collapse of these kingdoms, since industrialization, since globalization and since our current debates around radicalization? Those are questions that contemporary artists have taken up — artists Haidar has the utmost respect for.

"Most contemporary artists are very brave people," she says, "because they actually are willing to take on these issues and not let their expression be suppressed. ... And if their voices were to be extinguished — the voice of the writer, the voice of the artist, the voice of the poet, and then the evidence of history — that would be a truly terrible, dark world that would descend upon all of us."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On the second floor of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, you'll find 15 galleries dedicated to Islamic art. The Met is not alone. The British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris - they're all investing dollars and space for glittering new galleries on Islamic art. Now, at a time when the meaning of Islam is so fraught, what exactly is Islamic art? What belongs and what doesn't belong in those galleries? Well, today we're launching a series about art and Muslim culture past and present, and we're joined by NPR producer Bilal Qureshi.

Welcome Bilal.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Thank you Audie.

CORNISH: So Bilal, why this focus on Islamic art now?

QURESHI: So since the attacks of September 11, there has been so much focus and debate around Muslims, Muslim values - is there a clash of civilizations, do Muslims believe in the freedom of expression? And museums and all this investment in gallery space has had to do with this desire to bridge that division. And we just sort of started thinking about, what exactly is this term? Is it a religious term? Is it a geographical one? Is it a cultural term? And that was sort of the start for this series.

CORNISH: So did you come to an answer? I mean, which one is it?

QURESHI: No. So what it turns out is that Islamic art is a very traditional Western art historical term, and it has a very formal scholarship and academic background. And it's also been evolving in recent years. So I went up to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to actually see how the curators there think about this question.

QURESHI: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And this is a sticker in case you want to walk around the museum afterwards.

QURESHI: OK, great.

The Met's been collecting Islamic art since the 19th century. Its galleries closed for renovations in 2003 and they opened 10 years after the attacks of September 11. Sheila Canby is the head of the department there.

SHEILA CANBY: After things like 9/11, after things like the destruction of ancient sites in northern Iraq and Syria, museums serve as a place where people can come to this idea of Islam through the material culture, not just through what they're being told all the time.

QURESHI: When these galleries first opened, they were part of the Near East department. That became the Islamic galleries in 1975. Now they're defined by geography, focusing on the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, Central and South Asia.

CANBY: What we want to reflect in the title over the door is kind of what we cover and what we don't cover because of course, there's a huge population of Muslims in places like Indonesia, but we don't have the art of Indonesia in these galleries.

QURESHI: Once you're inside, it's like traveling back in time to a lavish Arabian court. There's an intricately woven carpet that stretches 30 feet across a gallery, a carved Moroccan courtyard with a fountain at its center, paintings with details you need a magnifying glass to see. So much of the art has nothing to do with religion at all. Navina Haidar helped plan these new Islamic galleries. She says when they began renovating them after 9/11, they asked themselves one fundamental question about the term Islamic art.

NAVINA HAIDAR: Do you think about it as the heritage of the Islamic world, or do you think about it as the Islamic heritage of the world? You see, there's a difference there.

QURESHI: The Met has definitely taken that second approach. The emphasis here is on connections, says Haidar, on how trade with China, Africa and Europe transformed Muslim societies, and vice versa.

HAIDAR: Because you have now cultural threads that extend all the way from Spain to India in this period. You can see incredible little currents of exchange and stylistic influence travel along these lines. And it's perfectly believable that the modeling of a particular metalwork object at one end of this world resembles that at the other end of the world.

QURESHI: She points to a peacock-shaped incense burner from India that mirrors a piece from Spain, miniature paintings designed for Indian kings that include Persian calligraphy and Arabesque borders.

Navina Haidar seems to relish bringing these objects to life. She curated a temporary exhibition this summer of art from India's Deccan kingdoms, which flourished from the 15th to 17th centuries. She wove together a playlist of music, maroon and purple walls, mood lighting. The exhibition's subtitle, Opulence and Fantasy.

HAIDAR: Sometimes when you're too Puritan about things you can actually kill off the vibe completely, which is what we definitely didn't want to do. One of the important concepts actually in the Deccan is Rasa - is flavor, is juice, is essence.

QURESHI: It's interesting you bring up the idea of killing the vibe because I think that's unfortunately a thing that a lot of people perceive Muslims do, is kill the vibe. I mean, you know, that there's something quite austere and puritanical about the way that Muslim societies are arranged, and perhaps that's because of how we think about them now.

HAIDAR: Well, the interesting thing about the arts of the Islamic world and courts is that there is always a wonderful tension between the most austere traditions, whether they are simple black ink calligraphy on a very simple plain page surface, the beauty - the stark beauty of that contrasted with a kind of opulence and a love for color, for texture and imagination, a feeling for romance and beauty, some great music. So, you know, you have both ends of the spectrum. And to somehow be inclusive in one's thinking is the best way to go.

QURESHI: But as inclusive and inviting as these galleries are, it's hard to keep the crises facing Muslims today out of sight, says Munir Jiwa. He's a professor of Islamic studies at Graduate Theological Union.

MUNIR JIWA: I love to go to these galleries and just relish in the beauty and the splendor of those galleries. And at the same time, I'm very mindful, especially because my daily work reminds me of it, of just how difficult it is to relate or translate that very beautiful aesthetic experience that one finds in a place like the Met to the realities on the ground and the very difficult and challenging present.

QURESHI: But that's not what the Met does in its Islamic galleries. Navina Haidar emphasizes that she and the other curators there are art historians first and foremost.

HAIDAR: We show things on the basis of their artistic merit, their rarity and their historical importance. So we don't censor the evidence. We don't promote the evidence. We try to be strictly dispassionate about the evidence. The only place where we allow ourselves any passion is in the artistic joy and excitement of something that's beautiful and elevating and technically accomplished. But we don't get ideological about it, and I think that is something to keep in mind.

QURESHI: But as you walk out of the Met and you return to the real world, which has a lot less fantasy and opulence, you know, it's definitely striking that the formal idea of Islamic art ends in the 19th century.

CORNISH: So Bilal, what has happened to Muslim artists? And I know I'm asking along a long timeline here, but what's happened to them since the collapse of these Islamic kingdoms?

QURESHI: And Audie that was exactly the question for us starting this series. Islamic art is not a category you can apply to 21st-century artists. You know, Muslim art and culture isn't defined by the same borders and geographical regions as it once was, and so many of these collections by Western institutions were started when there was a very different kind of interest in the East and in displaying the East. And so today's Muslim artists live all over the world. Some of them are religious, some of them are not. Some are making sitcoms in Britain. Others are rappers in France. Some are making digital art installations in New York City. Many of them are political because they've come up in a very political time. And actually, Navina Haidar, who's the curator at the Met that you heard earlier, she actually said to me how much she admires these contemporary Muslim artists.

HAIDAR: Most contemporary artists are very brave people because they actually are willing to take on these issues and not let their expression be suppressed. And if their voices were to be extinguished - the voice of the writer, the voice of the artist, the voice of the poet and then the evidence of history - that would be a truly terrible, dark world that would descend upon all of us.

QURESHI: And so over the coming weeks, we're going to meet some of these people, and we're calling the series Muslim Artists Now.

CORNISH: Bilal, we're looking forward to it. Thanks so much for coming in.

QURESHI: Thank you Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR producer Bilal Qureshi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.