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The relationship between the art of the Islamic peoples and its religious basis is anything but direct.
BY LAURA CURLIN
Islam was present in Spain from 711 to 1492, but was all art produced during that time Islamic? Islamic power in al-Andalus varied greatly from the conquest under Tariq ibn Ziyad til the fall of Granada. During Umayyad rule, art was subject to the political necessity to differentiate Andalusia from the rest of the Islamic world, developing its own form of Islamic art.
Cylindrical box (pyxis), 10th century, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
From 661 to 750, the Umayyad caliphate ruled over the entire Muslim world, including Spain. However, the rise of the Abbasid dynasty created a split between Spain and the rest of the Muslim world. While the Abbasids killed nearly all of the Umayyad family, one member, Abd al-Rahman fled to Spain. There, he declared himself king and established a dynasty separate from the Abbasids. This fracture was peaceful, however, and trade continued between al-Andalus and Abbasid lands. In 929, Abd al-Rahman III declared that himself caliph and took up a more imperial, rather than local, view. In art, this was manifested in “a newly imperial attitude, which was symbolized by architectural construction” (Rosser-Owen 20). New designs mixed local styles, such as the horseshoe arch used in Visigoth churches, allusions to the Syrian roots of the Umayyads, like using bands of different colored stone. Thus, architecture was used to reinforce the regime’s legitimacy by emphasizing its history while differentiating the kingdom from the rest of the Islamic world.
Capital, 10th century, Cordoba, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Early Umayyad architecture carefully imitated Roman capitals and columns. Some Umayyad capitals from the 9th century has even been mistaken for older Roman work. A taste for this classical style was renewed in the 10th century, resulting in the production of new capitals, such as the one above. At the top, a brief inscription can be discerned, perhaps naming its maker, though the damage makes it impossible to know for sure. References to Roman architecture was another method of distancing the Andalusi Ummayads from the rest of the Islamic world. Under ‘Abd al-Rahman and his son, al-Hakam II, extensive construction in Cordoba and Madinat al-Zahra led to the development of a distinctly Umayyad aesthetic for capitals. Capitals made in this period are characterized by deep undercutting, as shown in the example above. Capitals made by the imperial ateliers often included the name of the caliph, rather than those of the artists that made them.
Casket, 961-965, from Madinat al-Zahra or Cordoba, from the Victoria and Albert Museum
Boxes carved from solid ivory were used to store jewelry and other precious objects. The casket shown above “share[s] the dynastic style of the architecture of the period: the walls… are decorated with the same symmetrically scrolling designs based on plants and flowers as the walls of the throne room at Madinat al-Zahra’ and the mihrab at the Great Mosque of Cordoba” (Rosser-Owen 27). Such caskets were often given to women as marriage gifts and thus featured designs symbolic of fertility. The inscription informs us that it was made for a daughter of ‘Abd al-Rahman, though it does not include her name, making a precise identification difficult. This casket’s silver work is also probably original and elegantly matches the carving on the walls. Whereas in other regions ivory was used as an inlay, the Umayyads in al-Andalus were able to use solid ivory because they had access to trade routes in North Africa.
Although Spanish art under the Umayyad caliphs is generally included in studies of Islamic art, it was subject to unique influences and political pressures that differentiate it. Andalusi art was influenced by prior Christian art in the Iberian peninsula, the materials available to them, and the political need to appear distinct from the Abbasid caliphate. Spain was on the margins of the Islamic world.
Department of Islamic Art. “The Art of the Umayyad Period in Spain (711-1031)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sumay/hd_sumay.htm (October 2001)
Rosser-Owen, Mariam. Islamic Arts from Spain. London: V&A Publishing, 2010.
BY LAURA CURLIN
BY LAURA CURLIN
Although Pakistan is now officially known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the region has been, and continues to be home to several faiths, including Buddhism. Asia Society’s exhibition, “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara,” provided a view of Pakistan’s Buddhist history. In the kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now northern Pakistan, Buddhist culture thrived in the 1st through 5th centuries under Kushan kings. In Pakistan, Indian, Persian, and Hellenistic styles combined to form a unique aesthetic. Cosmopolitan Gandhara was tolerant of all religions, demonstrated by the images of Hindu deities included in Asia Society’s show, but the majority of its art is Buddhist. However, because Pakistan’s Islamic identity is currently emphasized as a contrast to Hindu India, this Buddhist inheritance is often ignored in favor of local Islamic art.
Vision of a buddha’s paradise. Mohammed Nari, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. 4th century CE, from Lahore Museum
The central Buddha in this carving is holding his hands in a gesture of teaching, as he instructs the bodhisattvas and followers that surround him. While the Buddha wears South Indian clothing, the surrounding figures wear a variety of dress, demonstrating the variety of international influences present in Gandhara. Though early Buddhist art did not depict Buddha, but rather used symbols, such as his footprint, to represent him, Gandharan art includes some of the earliest images of Buddha. The classic Gandharan Buddha stands and whose “facial features are symmetrical and crisply cut, and idealized” (Cotter). Much of the extant Buddhist art from Gandhara consists of carvings depicting the Buddha’s life, though their exact context remains largely unknown. Buddhist art in Gandhara began to decline after the 6th century due to the destruction of monasteries in Taxila by the White Huns, a revival of Hinduism in the region, and the arrival of Islam.
Seated Vairochana (The Transcendent Buddha of the Center), 9th century- early 10th century, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
This bronze Buddha was made after Islam was introduced to Pakistan by the general Muhammad bin Qasim in 711. A series of Muslim kingdoms, empires and sultanates controlled all or parts of Pakistan, from the Ghaznavids (976-1148) to the Mughals (1526-1857). Although parts of southern Pakistan converted quickly, significant numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs remained in northern Pakistan, where the influence of Gandharan history was strongest.
“Akbar Hunting”, Folio from an Akbarnama (History of Akbar), late 16th century, probably from Lahore, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
When this folio was made, Pakistan would have been part of the Mughal empire. This folio portrays an event in the life of Akbar, the third Mughal emperor. Akbar conquered Pakistan as he greatly expanded the Mughal empire. Akbar commissioned many illustrated manuscripts from from his royal atelier at Lahore. The city was his principle residence after 1585 and a cultural center of the empire. The style of illustrations developed under Akbar came to be known as the Mughal style, though it continued to be refined. Images showing victory in battle emphasized the power of the Mughals.
Calligraphy Panel by Sadequain, 20th century. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Much of Pakistan’s modern art also includes Islamic motifs or Arabic calligraphy. This painting by Sadequain features Arabic in the form of ships. The inscription on the boats reads, “In the name of the memorable Qur’an. In the name of the glorious Qur’an. In the name of the pen [and anything it writes].” Such allusions to Pakistan’s Islamic identity are used for the political purpose of developing a national identity independent from India. Pakistani modern art is noted for its mixture of Western styles with local Islamic practices.
photo from Shabnam Bahar Malik’s article
Taxila is an ancient Gandharan city and home to an important Buddhist architectural site. Master sculptors continue to produce statues of Buddha in Taxila despite pressure to conform to an interpretation of Islamic ideology prohibiting figural art. The artists often keep their work private for fear of being “cursed by their own families” or threatened by the local clergy (Malik 196). The production of replica Buddhas is highly restricted, in theory to prevent or discourage the smuggling of antique Buddhas out of Pakistan. The reproduction Buddhas are made in workshops under the organizing eye of a master sculptor and sold to middlemen, who sell the pieces to international buyers. In addition to legal issues, the stone sculpting tradition is threatened by the presence in the market of cheaper, lower quality replica Buddhas produced using a mold. While these sculptors have continued the use of traditional techniques for centuries, their livelihood is currently at risk due to government regulations meant to protect Pakistan’s antiques.
Ali, Attega. “Modern Art in West and East Pakistan”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-.http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wepk/hd_wepk.htm (October 2004)
Asia Society. The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara. Accessed May 4, 2012. http://sites.asiasociety.org/gandhara/.
Cotter, Holland. “When East Met West Under the Buddha’s Gaze.” Review of The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, by Asia Society. New York Times, August 10, 2011. Accessed May 4, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/12/arts/design/the-buddhist-heritage-of-pakistan-art-of-gandhara-at-asia-society-review.html?pagewanted=all.
Malik, Shabnam Bahar. “Sang-tarash: The Legendry Master Sculptors of the Ancient Buddhist Sculptural Art of Gandhara in Taxila.” Asian Social Science 7, no. 10 (October 2011): 195-212. Accessed May 4, 2012. CCSNet.
“Pakistan’s Historical Background.” Information of Pakistan. Accessed May 6, 2012. http://www.infopak.gov.pk/History.aspx.
Department of Islamic Art. “The Art of the Mughals before 1600”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mugh/hd_mugh.htm (October 2002).
BY NORA ORTON
According to Bernard Lewis, Islamic cultures are backwards-looking and unevolved. This idea that Islamic society has undergone cultural decadence is especially salient in the art community. Finbarr Barry Flood, however, objects to this notion that Islamic culture has precipitously declined. Flood quotes Mahmood Mamdani, author of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim—an African Perspective”:
When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act.
Mamdani’s sentiment not unmerited. In 1854 French writer and photographer Maxime Du Camp said, “Egyptian art is not even in decadence, it simply no longer exists.”
Maxim du Camp
Even proponents of spreading Middle Eastern culture, such as Oliver Watson, chief curator of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, have internalized this idea of decline. This lack of self-confidence is surprising, considering the lavish and cutting edge design of the museum:
Innovative Spiral Staircase
Outside the Museum
In justifying the existence of the museum, Watson said,
People say that at this moment it is more important to recognize that the Middle East and the Islamic world was in its day as advanced culturally, as well as economically and militarily, as any country or empire in the world.”
According to Flood, “the qualifier ‘in its day’” perpetuates Lewis’s ideology and ultimately “reinforces narratives of fallen greatness….”
To consider Islamic countries to be backwards looking is to deny the existence of the prolific street artists seen during the Arab Spring, as well as myriad contemporary artists not involved in the protests. We have studied Arab Spring art quite a bit, so I will not belabor the point. But I found this piece in particular to directly refute Lewis’s theory:
This piece is on a Tunisian wall and is emblematic of the movement to depose the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. A weak, peasant-like man literally sows the seeds of change. Out of the ground pops up multiple fists of revolution, symbolizing the fervor for change and how the push is coming from the bottom up (“grass roots”). Also the piece is dynamic: it seems as though the man has been moving along the plane of the wall. While it is tempting to “museumize” Islamic culture, as it was so vibrant during the Medieval period, the art that present day Middle Easterners are creating is equally engaging and evocative.
The first of these opposed ideas is the so-called “Clash of Civilizations” in which Muslims are invariably seen as the main opponents of the West. This Muslim-Western opposition is not a new idea and is, in fact, a continuation of older ideas about Islam as a predatory civilization threatening the West. The second and opposed idea is the “Dialogue of Civilizations,” introduced by President Muhammad Khatami of Iran in the United Nations and supported by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
We need to be thinking in terms of what Ibn Khaldun called “human civilization” or, to use the contemporary phrase, globally.
BY NORA ORTON
Bernard Lewis was planning to be a lawyer. As an undergraduate at the University of London in the mid 1930’s, Lewis made a whimsical choice to study history, specifically the Middle East, “out of curiosity.” Lewis decided to study what “amused” him as an undergrad but did not plan on pursuing it, because “it never occurred to [him] that one could actually earn a living doing this sort of stuff.” Lewis dedicated himself to the understanding of Middle Eastern life and “learnt a couple of languages. Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish.” What began as Lewis’s choice to study this small subfield of history at University of London became full-fledged scholarship. Lewis specialized in the medieval era, but after college, Lewis’s studies extended to more contemporary times: “Between 1940 and 1945 I was on his majesty’s service, and that gave me an opportunity to see the modern Middle East.”
Decades later Lewis would become a professor at Princeton University and political advisor to the George W. Bush administration. As tensions brewed between the United States and various Middle Eastern nations, the demand for scholarship on the Middle East soared. According to Gerd Nonneman, Chatham House’s Middle East Advisory Board member, “The war in Afghanistan, the ‘war on terror’, the Iraq crisis and subsequent war, and the perception of increased unpredictability and reach of violent Islamist movements in east and west, north and south, have all served to heighten the desire to understand, predict and, perhaps, preempt.” Suddenly, departments of Middle Eastern Studies appeared in universities across the United States. The government sponsored conferences to further the study and understanding of “the orient.” Of his sudden popularity, Lewis said in a CSPAN interview, “What suddenly catapulted me into this kind of prominence was…an article which I published in the Atlantic Monthly in September ’90.” The piece was entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”
After learning more about Lewis’s background, the contents of this article make much more sense. In the 1930’s, the prevailing school of thought was orientalism. Lewis mentions that other scholars view the present situation in the Middle East differently than he. Scholars with a different perspective include, according to Lewis, “those who regard the whole discipline of Orientalist school of thought in which I grew up to be evil, to be a form of imperialism.” One such scholar is Said, who wrote about this type of study in the widely read book, Orientalism. Said explains that the western orientalist, in studying the east, constructs an exotic other out of the eastern peoples. Said accuses orientalists of painting the east as “monolithic and homogenous.” Orientalist thought not only characterizes all Middle Easterners as the same, but also operates under the assumption that the peoples have not changed over time. While this type of study was popular in the 1930’s, when Lewis was an undergraduate, many have since discredited it as an unfair and untrue way to view the Middle East.
Other aspects of Lewis’s study also make sense given his background. For example, Lewis holds the view that Middle Eastern culture has precipitously declined since the Middle Ages. He writes that Eastern states have attempted to emulate the West’s political and economic policies because they are ashamed of their stagnancy: “This desire arose from a keen and growing awareness of the weakness, poverty, and backwardness of the Islamic world as compared with the advancing West.” Given that Lewis focused his studies on the medieval period, and had not even been to the modern Middle East until his majesty sponsored his trip, it is less surprising that Lewis believes the culture has decayed since then. If Lewis were an expert on the contemporary Middle East, he might have studied the protest art of the Arab Spring or the effluence of contemporary art being made even before these revolutions.
It is also noteworthy that His Majesty patronized Lewis’s scholarship. Interestingly enough, 60 years later the United States government used Lewis’s works as ideological backing for aggressive intervention in the Middle East. The U.S. government wanted to secure oil in the Middle East, but it needed a sort of “manifest destiny” in order to maintain the support of the U.S. people (and perhaps assuage their own guilt). While it is unlikely that Lewis knowingly wrote the article so that the United States government could justify its wars, there is a common theme of governments working in tandem with a scholar. It is evident that Lewis has delved deeply into his studies, learning four difficult languages and devoting his life to his scholarship. Yet, how does government patronage affect the scholar, consciously and unconsciously? In a world where facts can be spun in one camp’s advantage, can we completely trust his findings?
To learn more, watch the video:
BY NORA ORTON
According to Arjun Appadurai, at the root of global conflict is “certain fundamental disjunctures between economy, culture and politics….” This opinion seems to mirror Bernard Lewis’ theory on international discord: Lewis describes the relationship between the west and Islam as “no less than a clash of civilizations.” Lewis and Appadurai also both call attention to the conflicting desire to accept novel ideas and to reject anything that threatens one’s cultural identity. As Appadurai says, “The central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenzation.” Lewis describes how this plays out in the conflict between the west in Islam: “At first the Muslim response to Western civilization was one of admiration and emulation…..In our own time this mood of admiration and emulation has, among many Muslims, given way to one of hostility and rejection” (Lewis 59).
While both scholars agree that cultural differences are the root of global strife and that individuals have the impulse to both embrace and reject novel ideas, their arguments deviate when it comes to identifying these cultural disjunctures and their ramifications. While Lewis paints the global players as “the West” and “Islam,” Appadurai discusses “different sorts of actors: nation-states, multinationals, diasporic communities, as well as sub-national growing and movements (whether religious, political or economic), and even intimate face-to-face groups such as villages, neighborhoods and families.” Whereas Lewis presents the west and Islam as two homogeneous, distinct and dissonant civilizations, Appardurai challenges the idea that cultures can be separate. Appadurai contests the concept of homogeneity, arguing that there are deep fissures even within nation-states. He explains that ideas and culture often escape the confines of what we define as a discrete civilization.
The premise of separate civilizations becomes even more strained given the ever-globalizing world. Appadurai writes, “People, machinery, money, images, and ideas now follow increasingly non-isomorphic paths….”
With the exchange of capital, media and cultural products, it because impossible to delineate where exactly one culture ends and another begins. Doing so is not only impossible, but also belittling: Said says, “Any attempt to made to separate [civilizations] into water tight compartments alleged by Huntington and his ilk does damage to their variety, their diversity, their sheer complex elements and their racial hybridity.”
A key example of the multifaceted nature of cultural identity is artist Haji Noor Deen Mi Guanjiang. Guanjiang, a Chinese Muslim, created a calligraphic representation of Ya rahim (‘O Merciful’) in Arabic script; yet, he used a Chinese calligraphy brush and employed the Chinese calligraphic technique of painting all in one stroke.
Artistic flows are not constricted to eastern nations. Siah Armajani, for instance, is an Armenian Iranian who constructs public art pieces in New York City. Armajani engraved words into the railings at the World Financial Center Plaza, combining the Islamic calligraphic tradition with western poetry by Walt Whitman.
These two artists are only a few of many who demonstrate not our differences but rather they ways in which cultures mix harmoniously. Unlike the imagery in my last post, artists that employ these cultural flows create images that foster peace, instead of strife. While art and image can be hijacked by the government in order to create an enemy, art can simultaneously be used for the opposite end: elegantly showing our sameness.