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Islamic art: U of T community reflects on its remarkable worldliness and diversity

Museums have an active role to play in representation
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Students and faculty weigh in on how to properly represent Islamic art in museums. GARY TODD/CC FLICKR
Students and faculty weigh in on how to properly represent Islamic art in museums. GARY TODD/CC FLICKR

Today, Islamic art is defined as works of art that were and are produced in Islamic nations or nations where Islam is the dominant religion of the rulers. It tends to focus on representing a subject’s essence as opposed to its physical shape, and it encompasses textiles, ceramic, calligraphy, and countless other forms. 

On February 27, the Islamic Art & Material Cultural Collaborative, a research network of scholars from U of T, the Aga Khan Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum, hosted a webinar featuring museum curators and directors titled “The Museum’s Role in Amplifying and Sustaining Craft and Making.” 

The speakers touched on a number of different topics, including how to portray Islamic art properly in museums, the difference between fine arts and crafts, and the connections the art has with local communities.

I was so intrigued by the event that I reached out to members of the U of T community for their insights on the diversity of Islamic art and its place in museums.

The diversity of Islamic art

Arafat Razzaque, an assistant professor of Islamic history at U of T, talked about the diversity of the Islamic world itself. He said that “we have to remind ourselves that Islamic societies historically were incredibly diverse,” noting the Middle East, South Asia, and India as places where Islamic art flourished. 

In some ways, due to its vast localities, it invites us to reconsider and explore how religion, culture, and locality impact art. Razzaque gives the Great Mosque of Djenné as an example of the adaptability of Islamic art: the mosque is “the largest mud building in the world” and does not conform to traditional understandings of what a mosque should look like. However, it fits with the traditional iconography of Mali. 

Safiya Patel, a first-year student in life sciences and English, elaborated on how diverse the concepts that Islamic art draws from are.

“What I find very interesting is that everything is not only religious; it’s not all related to God or religious leaders… It has so many different elements. It has Greek and Roman elements, and also from Saudi Arabia.” This diversity of concepts, she added, is accompanied by “so much meaning behind every little thing.”

Islamic art in museums

According to Patel, while it’s probably not possible to integrate all of Islamic art in museums — “you can’t put a whole mosque inside a museum,” she says tactfully — she does acknowledge that there are multiple alternative ways to integrate it into these institutions.

Leslee Michelsen, a curator at the Shangri La museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design and one of the speakers at the event, noted that art history and museums are “deeply Eurocentric.” To properly incorporate Islamic art into them, curators need to step back from the hierarchy of media that places paintings and sculptures above textiles, ceramics, and metalworks. The former are “not culturally significant in the same way” to Islamic creators, and so curators must give equal due to other media. 

Properly integrating it in museums also provides a sense of culture. For Sahir Dhalla, a first-year student studying neuroscience and philosophy, his fascination surrounding this art is related to his heritage. Dhalla maintains that there are few places to view Islamic art here in Toronto: “It’s just really important to me personally to learn because there’s not much representation of that kind of art over here. So we sort of just hold on, and it’s important to hold on and learn about the history.”

Pushing the boundaries 

Islamic art is constantly evolving and incorporating new artistic practices thanks to new artists bringing in new perspectives. Such an example is artist Faig Ahmed. Michelsen mentioned how his work is breaking barriers, particularly regarding how Islamic art can be seen and interacted with in museums. 

Beyond the traditional visual experience, Ahmed also asks visitors to touch his tapestry. This reaches beyond the Western conception of art as a refined abstraction, as his work engages us to challenge our notions of art.

Michelsen elaborated on the compelling “graphic nature of his work,” emphasizing that “there’s so much depth and so much dimension,” when encountering his works. The interactive element adds another dimension that visitors don’t often get to encounter.

Due to the nature of Ahmed’s works, visitors feel his work is “less threatening, or less intimidating.” Michelsen added that visitors often feel an added connection to the artwork, one that paintings cannot necessarily achieve.

Emphasizing the importance of discussions on the place and power of Islamic art, Michelsen said, “We tell richer and fuller stories when we engage in the full spectrum of visual and material culture.”

Disclosure: Dhalla and Patel are staff members for The Varsity.