NEW YORK — Amid the calamitous violence sparked by cartoon images of Muhammad, it’s only natural that the Museum of Modern Art would tread carefully when opening a major new exhibition dealing with the Islamic world. “I was acutely aware of a number of pitfalls,” says curator Fereshteh Daftari.
There are no caricatures of the prophet on view at MoMA. Nonetheless the exhibition has a subversive agenda of its own. It features 17 contemporary artists, almost all of them born in Islamic countries but now living in the United States and Europe, and sets out to show how these artists challenge both popular preconceptions of their identity and the traditions of Islamic art.
Daftari notes in her catalog essay that the region referred to as the Islamic world stretches from Indonesia to the Atlantic coast of Africa. To call the creativity of this vast area “Islamic art” is tantamount to “calling the art of the entire Western hemisphere ‘contemporary Christian art,'” the Iranian-born curator writes. Indeed, some artists in the exhibition titled “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking,” are not Muslim at all, including Mona Hatoum, a Christian born in Lebanon, and two Americans asked to participate to reinforce the premise that origin has little to do with identity.
The exhibition was six years in the planning, and its opening on February 26 as bloody riots raged against the cartoons first published in Danish newspapers led the curator to stress in an email message, “This exhibition is not about politics or religion or the controversies that have stemmed from them. The timing of the exhibition was entirely coincidental.” Yet the organizers are sensitive to both its political context and potential. Harvard literature professor Homi Bhabha, who served as an exhibition advisor, writes in his own catalog essay that despite the difficulty of invoking “Islamic” images in the West without calling up “entries in the musee macabre of war and terror,” the artists in this show offer an alternative.
Oleg Grabar, an art historian at the Insitute for Advanced Studies at Princeton who also acted as an advisor, said that MoMA struggled for some time to find an overarching theme for the exhibition. In the end, although there is little to unify the works apart from scattered references to calligraphy, carpets and the Persian miniature tradition, these artists speak a visual language that is commonplace in the contemporary art establishment and that delves into questions of gender and the rise of hybrid cultures in a globalized world. Although most of the artists live in exile, this exhibition confirms that, at least in art world terms, they are outsiders no longer. Not only have they now gained access to MoMA’s glittering precincts, but several enjoy representation by blue chip New York art galleries.
Just next to the exhibition entrance hangs a flat panel video piece in which text written in Arabic calligraphy morphs into a pair of erect phalluses slicing sword-like through the air. With his thrusting contribution, Kutlug Ataman of Turkey raises the polemical question of Islamic power as asserted by radical fundamentalists. Or does he? Adjacent to the first flat screen hangs another video piece, Beautiful (no.2) in which Ataman has still more calligraphy, this time fluttering in the shape of a butterfly before mutating into a female sex organ.
A larger video installation by Ataman is described in an accompanying wall label as his response to the most dramatic assertion of radical Islamic power — 9/11. Titled “99 Names,” after the manifold appellations and qualities of Allah, it shows a young man stripped to his undershirt and entering a meditative state. In five separate screens hung off kilter as they ascend within a darkened chamber, the man chants and sways, grows increasingly agitated and eventually pummels his chest in a hypnotic frenzy.
Like “99 Names,” a few other works in the show relate to matters of spirituality and religious practice. One is by Hatoum, the daughter of Palestinian exiles who now lives in London and Berlin. Her “Prayer Mat” consists of what at first appears to be a plush surface on which observant Muslims kneel to offer supplication to God five times daily. Look closely and see that rather than offering a comforting softness, the mat consists of thousands of sharp-pointed pins; a bed of nails for the modern-day truth seeker. It also contains a small brass compass with which to guide the faithful toward Mecca, or help find one’s way in an alien place far from home.
Mike Kelley, an American with no direct link to Islam, plays with a related sense of syncretic disorientation by reinterpreting an Ottoman carpet that he saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His reworking of the traditional notion of a carpet involves combining Americana with Orientalism, by rendering the original red color a vibrant green derived from his own Irish American origins and replacing the central Islamic medallion with a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign. Shahzia Sikander, who was born in Pakistan and then studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, puts a modernist overlay on her native tradition of miniature painting, creating a surreal blend of fighter jets, galloping gazelles, oil rigs, and Mughal dancers.
The other American-born artist included in the exhibition, Bill Viola, contributes a video diptych that seems but minimally relevant to the context, and then only by virtue of a wall text stating that it was inspired by Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic poet.
In a second piece by Hatoum, she puts her own mark on the kaffiyeh, the checkered headdress traditionally worn by Arab men. In Hatoum’s version, the dark patterned lines on what has become an icon of Palestinian political expression are embroidered in virginal white cotton using female tresses, underlining women’s contribution to the Palestinian struggle. “No one has put the Palestinian experience in visual terms so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same moment so allusively,” the late literary critic and Palestinian advocate Edward Said wrote about Hatoum.
Two large-scale photographs by a half-Iraqi, half-Irish artist who lives and works in London, Jananne Al-Ani, also treats the status of women in Islamic society. In these black-and-white photographs, the artist, her mother and her three sisters sit in a row in which each woman is progressively less veiled. Are these images representations of an emancipatory evolution of women who from a Western perspective are often deemed to be oppressed, or is Al-Ani playfully subverting the tradition of the odalisque in Western artistic fantasies of the orient.
Ever since the 1989 publication of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” and the ensuing fatwa against the author, there has been a keen sensitivity to any critical portrayal of Islam in art. Nothing at the MoMA exhibition compares to Chris Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which caused an uproar when it was shown seven years ago at the Brooklyn Museum of Art because it positioned elephant dung on the Madonna. The only cartoon in sight is Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” the comic strip narrative of her vexed girlhood encounter with Western pop culture in 1980s Tehran that has now been published to acclaim in several translations.
Gannit Ankori, a professor of art history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the author of a new book on Palestinian art, praises the exhibition for demonstrating how artists can “create within a hybrid of space of creativity, which has the potential to bridge the gap that contemporary politicians and fundamentalists of all faiths have been constructing—Theirs is a moral and cultural force that can lead to understanding, countering the politicians’ ‘clash of civilizations.'”
If the exhibition had gone beyond art created in the Islamic diaspora to inquire what sort of contemporary art is being forged within Islamic societies themselves, it would have confronted a factor left largely unspoken in “Without Boundary,” and the reason why many of the artists in it opt to remain in exile.
Art is subject to censorship in Iran, the birthplace of many of those exhibited here, including Shirin Neshat, Shirazeh Houshiary, Y.Z. Kami, and Shirana Shahbazi. And there are fears for the future of free expression should Islamic fundamentalists continue to gain strength elsewhere. In the West Bank and Gaza, the Charter of the newly elected Hamas movement speaks of Islamic art having characteristics that are “among the requirements of ideological mobilization” and how creativity has “regulations and measures by which it can be determined whether it is Islamic or pre-Islamic art.”
Hamas may have distinct notions of what qualifies as Islamic art, as Western museum goers too have their own ideas of what Islamic art classically entails. But in what’s on view at MoMA through May 22, whether the works are Islamic or not is far from clear. In an increasingly fraught world in which an objectionable cartoon can spark death and destruction, the exhibition holds up a contrasting image to the simplifications that lead to polarization, giving evidence of the complex diversity of any Islamic identity.