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Islamic arts, between tradition and modernity?

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Paris: Over 25 years after the opening of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the new department of Islamic arts of the Louvre was inaugurated on 22 September 2012, turning the project announced by President Jacques Chirac nine years ago into reality. This initiative was born from a desire to establish the universal vocation of the greatest museum in the world, but also to pay tribute to the contribution of the Islamic civilisation throughout the centuries and the continents, in a context of exacerbated religious tension. Indeed, far more than a mere extension of the Louvre collections, this eighth department stands as a symbol of opening: the diffusion of Islam has always sought to transcend a purely dogmatic vocation in order to create a common way of thinking and living: the Islamic civilisation. The various cultures marked by Islam then developed their own aesthetics, in the plural – we speak of “Islamic arts” – applied to the religious field as well as to the secular world.

The example of the Musée du Louvre therefore invites us to reflect on these arts come from the Fertile Crescent, and extended from Spain to India, from the 7th to the 19th century: how do they find their own place between tradition and the realities of the market? To what extend can we speak of freedom of creation and expression for Muslim artists, on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea?

Islamic arts and tradition: aesthetic issues

Firstly, Islamic arts raise a historical question: the question of their recognition in the current artistic and aesthetic panorama. Indeed, in spite of their long-time presence in the collective imagination (thanks to the incredible Moorish architecture of cities such as Cordoba, Seville and Granada), it is as late as 1893 that the Musée du Louvre created the first “section of Muslim arts”, evidencing the importance of the notion of “Islamic art”. In 1946 only did this large research field establish the precise denominations “Islam” and “Islamic art”. Indeed, Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts, illuminations, paintings, ceramics, arms, iron work, jewellery and other decorative objects show the abundance and great creativeness of Arabic artists for centuries. It is precisely this richness the cultural players chose to exhibit and highlight in so many museums throughout the world: the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum; the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Islamic Museum in Cairo and the National Museum of Qatar, among others.

The eighth department of the Musée du Louvre, for instance, displays 18,000 objects covering a 1,200-year history of Islamic civilisation, over three continents: the collections show the aesthetic unity emblematic of the Arabic taste for geometrical harmony and the sense of lines successively generating one another. Flowery decoration itself often escapes naturalism and stylizes into arabesque. A revelatory event is the appointment of Sabiha Al Khemir, founder of the Doha Islamic Museum (Qatar), as Senior Adviser of Islamic art at the Dallas Museum of Art. She will have the charge of developing the Islamic collection by organising exhibitions and doing promotional work both inside and outside the institution.

These various initiatives indeed show that Islamic arts perpetually raise museographic questions: one of the most burning issues being the difficult presentation of the artworks, the public being lost and confused before this vast and unknown space. The notion of reception is on debate as well: it is now necessary to reconsider our Western aesthetic judgment of Islamic works of art; indeed the miniatures now displayed in museums, were never intended to be shown when created; the place given to sculpture is smaller for it was considered suspicious; however, calligraphy is recognised as the most prestigious art, for it used to serve the Quran; arts of metal and ceramic, eventually, were greatly valued in the Arabic Islamic world, while we Westerners are accustomed to consider them secondary arts, merely decorative. All this invites to more prudence when it comes to exhibiting Islamic artworks.

Islam, market and contemporary art: socioeconomic issues

This prudence, beyond those aesthetic and museographic issues, addresses socioeconomic dimensions of Islamic arts. Indeed, those issues are linked with fantasies generated by the current political context – and notably by Muslim fundamentalism – as well as censorship and market logics.

First of all, the increased presence of Islamic arts in Western countries seems to evidence a will for social peace, in an extremely tense post-11 September context. For instance, Sophie Makariou, director of the new department of Islamic arts of the Musée du Louvre, explains to Le Figaro, in an article titled “Islam in art” that this recent inauguration might help “clearing up incomprehension and give back to the Islamic world its original greatness. The mere presence of Islamic artworks in a museum as emblematic as the Louvre evidences the fact that beyond political and religious conflicts, connections have been made, there have been mutual influences between both cultures, until a very recent date: artists such as Delacroix in the 19th century and Matisse, who went to Morocco in 1913, were very much inspired by Islamic arts”. There is indeed a will to fight clichés and ease the debate.

The point is also to answer the recent and passionate enthusiasm of the market for Islamic arts: indeed, the great auction houses (mainly Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams) have specific departments offering very expensive pieces on sale. For instance, the Indian and Islamic art auction held at Bonhams on 24 April 2012 recorded very interesting results: a Zangid carved marble basin (the Zangids were a Turkish people reigning on Damascus and a part of today’s Syria between 1127 and 1250) was sold for £193,250 (€236,300). This enthusiasm is not only turned towards ancient art: the players of contemporary art are not passive, considering Qatar’s real offensive on the art market. Moreover the Louvre-Abu Dhabi will be opened by 2014, the success of Abu Dhabi Art Fair is ever growing, and artists inspired by Islamic traditions are being more and more supported. Indeed, numerous prizes and residency programmes are being offered: the Jameel Prize, for instance, is an international prize that has been rewarding artists and designers inspired by Islamic arts in the fields of art, crafts and design since 2009. It aims at exploring the dialogue between traditional Islamic arts and contemporary artistic practice, in order to widen the debate on Islamic culture. This initiative is sponsored by Mohamed Abdul Latif Jameel, who got the idea after funding the renovation of the Islamic art room in the Victoria & Albert Museum (the Jameel Gallery of Islamic art), which opened to the public on July 2006. Rachid Koraïchi was chosen among ten artists as the winner of the last edition of the Jameel Prize.

However, a real problem is being raised when it comes to admitting the market and sponsors into contemporary creation: if there are few Zaha Hadid, it is also because freedom of creation and expression are often broken. This explains a visible aggiornamento in contemporary Islamic artistic production. Printemps des Arts Fair, an artistic event held in Tunis in June 2012, witnessed a series of riots and attacks provoked by Salafi activists, joined by numerous rioting demonstrators. Indeed, many artists exhibited at Printemps des Arts Fair conveyed through their works their comments on the evolution of societies after the Arabic Spring: women rights, the status of artistic creation and the place of religion, among other topics. The Toulouse Festival of contemporary creation and the artist Mounir Fatmi decided to stop presenting one of his works (the video installation Technologia), because of protests aroused by the visitors’ walking on verses from the Quran projected on the floor. The very future of contemporary Islamic art seems to be at stake.

The destiny of Islamic arts is strange indeed. Their presence is definitely integrated in mentalities and ancient and contemporary history, and exhibiting them seems as necessary as it is fascinating. But these same psychological and subjective dimensions restrict the limits when it comes to contemporary art.

(Courtesy: AMA)
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