Islam with a capital I

Ibrahim Kombarji
Staff Writer

A week has passed since the grand opening of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi. Artworks from around the world are now showcased under this sculptural dome, with a particular focus on ‘bridging the gap between Eastern and Western art’. Among the many exciting artworks exhibited, the Islamic art section will inevitably be under the spotlight. The modes of exhibiting Islamic art are a pressing issue that still have not been fully addressed.  And as such, this grandiose opening acts as an intricate point of entry to address this issue.

Let’s take David Roxburgh’s “After Munich: Reflections on Recent Exhibitions”, in After One Hundred Years, 359-386 published in 2010 as a starting point. In this text, this Professor of Islamic Art History at Harvard University proposes a series of reflections on exhibitions of Islamic art from 2003 till 2008. The trained art historian introduces the context these exhibitions emerged within. Roxburgh looks at three major exhibitions and permanent collections while underlining the importance of the actors at play such as the patrons, curators, reviewers and visitors. The attacks of 9/11 and the emergence of islamophobia have reshaped the objects of Islamic art. In the context of the museum, these objects and their sub-adjacent ‘content’ have been instrumentalized by complex political and economic forces.

With the rise of Islamophobia, misreadings of these objects rose and are articulated through three main behaviors explained by the scholar. The first being a clear strategic choice of the location in which the objects are exhibited targeting those with “negative image and little familiarity with Islamic art”. This agenda is set by the wealthy benefactor and the curators in charge. The second being curator’s problematic ‘adoption’ of thematic decoupage of a much earlier Islamic art exhibition while intentionally disregarding some of its components. The third one being the “flattening and homogenization” of Islamic art in published reviews. The reviewers conceptualize the exhibitions for visitors while submitting to media pressure. Understanding these three patterns, the field of Islamic art might be considered as dynamic, one that should adapt and shift as the modes of exhibition evolve. He lingers on the anticipated opening of the Islamic wing of the Louvre in Paris.

Looking at it today, the question: how does the space instrumentalize and represent of Islam, begins to rise. The Islamic wing in Paris was organized chronologically in a rather misleading way, with many chronological jumps and unclear readings of the segments of the collection. Sounds of Persian, Turkish and Arabic language were also presented and unified within the whole collection, evidently giving a feeling of a seemingly peaceful Islamic ‘world’. This encounter with the Louvre as an institution in this particular context also brings interrogation on the museum as a teaching device discussed by Roxburgh. Education departments are now considerable parts of institutions and permit a questioning of the didactic role imposed on museums. How can a museum’s role take on a new dimension? Sophie Makariou, the head of the department of Islamic arts at the Louvre, said that the aim of this new wing was to , as Armelle Rocquincy writes for Le Figaro, “show Islam with a capital I”.

However, this soft-power approach lacks a deeper and more thorough reading of the objects and their historical contexts. Instead, the museum could create a healthy framework with cleared intentions that can provide the platform for new discourse on Islamic art. This would allow the visitor to be curious enough to understand and clarify his own ideas on Islam as a religion and thus continue his experience outside of the museum. This re-thought experience can then counter serenely the media and the globalized negative connotation that Islam has echoed recently. The visitor also creates his own reflections on the many aspects encompassed in an exhibition and uncover the institutional make-up, the actors and the layers of interest in an exhibition.

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