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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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The glorification of god, saints, and the virgin and child transcended all forms of art in the Medieval period. Christian medieval art created the basis of visual rhetoric, storytelling, and the idea of what art should look like in the Western tradition, making depictions of political figures, sweeping landscapes, posh decor, and Christian icons the standard from which modern art would later rebel against. Now, modern art is highly celebrated for its independence from religion and tradition, and for its value of personal expression. However, in the tradition of Islam, this dichotomy does not exist. While Judeo-Christian practices encourage self-actualization and independence beyond religion, Islam is a more collective practice which, by definition, requires submission to god in all walks of life, including art. Therefore, it is difficult not to question the legitimacy of modern Islamic art as a concept, as the term seems to fundamentally oppose itself. Through analyzing five examples of modern Islamic art, it becomes clear that Islamic art can only be modern in breaking free from the Western meaning of “modern.”

At New York's MoMA, which is widely considered to be the highest standard of modern art institutions, any art made after 1880 is eligible to be exhibited, with particular emphasis put on “avant-garde” artists. Other museums have similar year-based definitions of what constitutes modern art, making modern art fairly easy to delineate, defining Islamic art is more challenging. Some regard Islamic art only as art made in direct service to the religion—for example calligraphy of Qur'an verses or ornate decoration inside of mosques; while others consider any and all art made by Muslims to be Islamic. The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art & Architecture and the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Islamic Art both argue that because Islam transcends local cultures and daily life, all art made by Muslims is inherently Islamic, (unlike art made by Christian or Jewish people), but the goal of any Muslim creating art should be in the interest of connecting more closely with god. The single largest difference between Western art and Islamic art is the lack of depictions of people and spiritual beings, known as aniconism. This stems from the Qur'an's warnings against worshipping idols who are not god (Sura 5 Verse 87; and Sura 21 Verse 51), and the belief that god is the only “maker of forms”. Therefore, the interdiction of Muslims recreating human forms defines and restricts Islamic art to geometric patterns, ornate decoration, and the beautification of Kufic calligraphy.

The first example of art marketed as modern and Islamic is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 2016 exhibit titled “Islamic Art Now.” The exhibit was designed as part of an acquisition effort in “building creative links” between Islamic culture and the American public. Among the works featured was Whoever Obeys Allah, He Will Make For Him a Way Out (Nasser Al Salem, 2012), a three-dimensional maze sculpture made up of the work's title written in Arabic. Though its fabrication in acrylic polymer is certainly not traditional, the fact that the work is a meditation on a Qur'an verse and uses Kufic script makes it undeniably Islamic. However, the other pieces in the LACMA do not fit this pattern—for example Rostam II returns at age of 30 having been brought up abroad (Siamak Filizadeh, 2009) depicts Rotsam, a fabled Iranian warrior, represented with photo collage as a heroic, powerful bodybuilder holding a bazooka, an art piece which conflicts with the Qur'an's teachings of not recreating god's forms and not idolizing anyone but god.

At the Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, an unlikely exhibition of Islamic art named “Islam Contemporary” took place after Aziz Sohail, a Muslim civil servant brought the idea up as a way to counteract Islamophobia following the then-recent Boston Marathon bombing. Islam Contemporary brought works of underrepresented artists to a place they would never have likely been seen, and conjured a peaceful, colorful vision of Muslims. The artwork also featured a similar pattern to the LACMA showing—some pieces were deeply rooted in traditional Islamic art (with modern twists), whereas others used Western art history to convey Islamic subject matter. Tailor Trash (Sausan Saulat, 2012) shows bright sketches of modern dresses against traditional Islamic pattern work, illustrating the clothes of modern Muslim women and the history behind them. On the other hand, works like Charmeur de Serpent (Abdel Aziz Hounti, 2013) were on show as Islamic, but with little Islamic connection. Charmeur de Serpent is a cubist painting of a snake charmer, mixing Western modernism with Moroccan culture. Hounti, in discussing his style, has said he paints to connect with others, as opposed to with god; and does not consider himself an Islamic artist, but rather “a result of a wide range of mixture between so many cultures.” The communality between the LACMA's exhibition and the Whitney Center's was not necessarily the art itself, but instead the purpose driving the exhibitions. Both museums featured art more Western than Islamic, yet the marketing of the art as Islamic makes the museums' motivations clear: to improve public perception of Islam.

At the V&A Museum in London, a biennial contest, the Jameel Prize, takes place in search of new Islamic art. Unlike the aforementioned American examples, the Jameel Prize purposefully and actively questions the definition of modern Islamic art, exploring “the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work as part of a wider debate about Islamic culture and its role today.” In doing so, the Jameel Prize acknowledges the lack of agreement on the definition of modern Islamic art, and lets submissions guide its definition. A theme running through many of the Jameel Prize pieces is the personal experience of Muslims, shown by artwork such as Hat Light (Younes Rahmoun, 2016), in which taqiyah, a symbol of Islamophobia and the “single story” Muslims are associated with in the West, float above pools of warm light as an expression of the individuals wearing them; or How Iraqi Are You? (Hayv Kahraman, 2015), a series of the artists' childhood memories in oil paint as she moved from country to country, finding her religion and Iraqi heritage having different social connotations in each one. The Jameel Prize, instead of marketing art as Islamic in order to change perceptions of Muslims, seeks to make modern Islamic art a reflection about the challenges of the Muslim identity and its points of conflict with Western culture.

An analysis of modern Islamic art is incomplete only examining its place in the West, where it is the other, relative to the mainstream European and American art surrounding it. An example of newly-created Islamic art in a majority Muslim country is the Pacific Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, displaying works by Ahmad Sadali and AD Pirous. While Indonesian art journalist Carla Bianpoen calls the exhibit “an important step toward a serious examination of contemporary Islamic art,” the artists featured evoke an undeniably European modernist style, approaching Mondrian in some cases such as Komposisi Bidang Emas (Ahmad Sadali, 1985), or The Roof of The Sky and The Bed of The Earth (AD Pirous, 1990). Muslim textile designer Marina Alin wrote about this trend for the Islamic World of Art magazine, commenting that “artists are trying to reproduce the same model of development for Islamic art that exists in Western art experiences. Is it a shortage of self-respect and knowledge of Islamic cultural heritage.” One area of Islamic art which Western art has certainly not permeated are mosques themselves. Turkey's Sancaklar Mosque, designed by Emre Arolat, breaks free from all conventions for houses of worship. The mosque is built into a hillside, and visitors slowly pass from outside to inside, around stone walls and gardens “to reinforce the concept of leaving the world behind and being alone with God to worship him in peace.” While some skeptics questioned the use of new materials and artificial lighting, the public responded well to the mosque after its opening. A study by the Gazi University's Department of Architecture found that even with the unconventional spatial arrangement, worshippers at Sancaklar had a more positive praying experience, “the open-air staircase-like example of the free-shaped approach was appreciated by participants for its felt nearness to God while praying characteristic.” Undoubtedly, the modern design of the Sancaklar Mosque must be considered a form of modern Islamic art if it allows its visitors to connect with god on a deeper level despite it lacking traditional Islamic design conventions.

Out of the examples analyzed, the Los Angeles and Pittsfield museums served more as political persuasions than modern Islamic art. While they spread a much needed message in the fight of Islamophobia, their audiences were mostly non-Muslim Americans, and thus not brought closer to god as a result. Similarly, the artwork shown in Jakarta's Pacific Palace put viewers more in connection with Western modernism than with Islamic tradition and values. None of these three examples are truly modern Islamic art. However, the V&A's Jameel Prize and Sancaklar Mosque stood out as true modern Islamic art—because they broke free from the Western interpretation of “modern” art, creating meaning and reflection about Islam's place in the present and future.

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