Posted tagged ‘idendity’

Back to basics – what is Islamic Art?

February 13, 2009

I’ve wanted to write a few posts that veer off from the topic of what people believe Islamic Art to be. But I realised that I haven’t actually done a very good job of defining or explaining what it means myself.

So let’s start with a few definitions from online sources:

Wikipedia says: Islamic art encompasses the arts produced from the 7th century onwards by people (not necessarily Muslim) who lived within the territory that was inhabited by culturally Islamic populations. It includes fields as varied as architecture, calligraphy, painting, and ceramics, among others.

World Images says: art that is produced in the cultural and religious tradition of those who subscribe to the tenets of Islam

The BBC web site says (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/art/art_1.shtml) : Islamic art isn’t restricted to religious work, but includes all the artistic traditions in Muslim culture. Its strong aesthetic appeal transcends time and space, as well as differences in language and culture.

In response to the Wikipedia definition: this is quite true for the early examples of Islamic art. There were many non-Muslims residing within the Islamic territory and they paid a small tax in order to be protected by the Muslims. Many craftsmen from the new regions under Islamic rule used their existing knowledge and skills to produce work they were employed for – e.g. decorating new buildings or redecorating old ones. Their style from perhaps the Far East or far west would be combined with the resources available locally and to accommodate local requirements such as Masjids (mosques) and grand buildings for the Caliph’s residence (although this came at a later time where display of wealth became quite important to the new rulers).

In response to the World Images definition: This is more like what I would expect to read. But the inclusion of the word ‘cultural’ could throw a person off. Culture sometimes conflicts religion and sometimes becomes so entwined with it that it becomes hard to tell which is which.

And finally in response to the BBC definition: well they are telling it as it is – people include the cultural and the religious artefacts within the definition of Islamic art and that’s that.

So it seems pretty obvious from these definitions and others that the term ‘Islamic art’ is used to describe art produced by anyone in a location that has either some history of Islamic rule, someone who is a descendant of a Muslim, someone who may have been born into a Muslim family, and someone who is simply influenced by something ‘Islamic’ (and there are numerous other scenarios that could b included here). The work itself does not have to be Islamic. It could have the most remote connection to Islam, and possibly even no connection until the artist says so.

To be honest I find this annoying. Using this approach anyone living in England could say they were producing Christian artwork simply because they lived in a country that states itself to be a predominately Christian one. Does anyone ever do this? No I don’t think so – I certainly haven’t come across it  unless what we are seeing is truly work with some sort of Christian religious significance.

But then why is it widely accepted to use the approach in terms of labelling Islamic art?

Interestingly enough I found this article by Saudi Aramco: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200901/a.global.guide.to.islamic.art.htm – written by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair.

The article starts off in a similar vein to the point I’m trying to make – what is Islamic art? The following paragraph is highly relevant to my post:

“Even experts agree that the term ‘Islamic art’ is insufficient, misleading, or just plain bad –  until one considers the alternatives. While some types of Islamic art, such as Qur’an manuscripts, mosque lamps or carved wooden minbars (pulpits), are directly concerned with the faith and practice of Islam, the majority of objects considered to be “Islamic art” are called so simply because they were made in societies where Islam was the dominant religion. A few, like the Freer Gallery’s famous canteen decorated with scenes of the life of Christ and saints, were clearly made in a Muslim context (in that case, 13th-century Syria) for use by non-Muslims, while others, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, were probably made for Muslims by non-Muslims, because few craftsmen in Jerusalem had converted to Islam by the end of the seventh century, when it was built.”

So basically the gist of it is that there isn’t really any other term that could better describe the umbrella under which all the examples of art work (architecture, carpets, pottery, crafts, etc.) can be encompassed, as the only thing that ties them together is their link to Islam – be it directly or indirectly. The rest of the article goes on to explain the types of artefacts you would be likely to see in an Islamic art collection. Some collections now include a selection of contemporary work to show that the chronology of Islamic art still continues.

I have to say I really enjoyed reading this article – but there is one point that I do not necessarily agree on that they have mentioned but I cannot dispute it or debate and question its correctness/wrongness until i firstly do some research and secondly find the evidence to argue against it (I will, therefore, only mention it in a future post – if I remember 😐 )

In conclusion, I think two types of art works need to be identified within the general area of Islamic Art. Perhaps we could call one Religious Islamic art and the other Secular Islamic art? Ok that just sounds weird. But the point is that one would have some religious significance and the other would only have cultural/secular significance. The unavoidable problem will arise when we encounter work that has a combination of both. And then again one might ask ‘Who am I and indeed who is anyone to restrict another from creating something of their own? And labelling it as they wish?’

‘Contemporary Middle Eastern Art’ for example is quite self-explanatory. It also allows for the chance that the work include some that relate to Islam due to the fact that it is the pre-dominant religion of that region. But at least it doesn’t state it outright. I think more exhibitions and galleries are taking this approach.

Is it not the responsibility of the artist to label their work correctly and semantically even? And then others may critique their choices (as I am now doing about the subject in general).

I think I’ll leave that there. I am going to be looking at this topic closely from now on though – as I think it is an important aspect of my research. Not only do I need to know what is out there already in terms of Islamic art but also where I can place my own work amongst it all. If I don’t think any of them are ‘labelled’ correctly then how will I ensure that mine is ‘labelled’ correctly and therefore understood in the right context? This topic may also prove to be a good one for my essay (which is coming up some time in the future – i really should pay more attention to my deadlines).

Over and out 🙂

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