Magazine article Artforum International

Foreign Exchange

Magazine article Artforum International

Foreign Exchange

Article excerpt

THE ANTHOLOGIZING HABITS of medieval Arab authors produced many texts that are as intriguing for their degree of cultural specialization as they are for their deeply suggestive arcaneness. These compendiums range from collections of graffiti left by lonely strangers in foreign lands to anecdotes about gate-crashers, a tome about misers and miserliness, and exhaustive listings of memorable gifts. Of the last, the best-known anthology is Kitab al-Hadaua wa al-Tuhaf (Book of Gifts and Rarities), composed in the eleventh century and attributed to Qadi Ibn al-Zubayr. His text is a memory house of famous presents, encompassing raw materials, animals, slaves, and manufactured goods and mostly arranged according to a typology of events, viz. banquets, weddings, parties, circumcisions, marriages, and ambassadorial receptions, Ibn al-Zubayr's text, made available to non-Arabic readers through Ghada al-Hijjawi al-Qaddumi's 1996 annotated translation, reanimated inquiry into medieval objects, their display and use, and their distribution between Islamic courts and Christian Byzantium. Al-Qaddumi's book gave rise to a series of innovative articles by Islamicists and Byzantinists alike, including Anthony Cutler, Oleg Grabar, Eva Hoffman, and Alicia Walker.

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The translation coincided with a moment when many art historians were turning their attention to collection and reception, i.e., the "social lives" or "cultural biographies" of things, theorized most prominently in the writings of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. The intersections between social identity and taste illuminated by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were central to this enterprise as well, as was, of course, Marcel Mauss's investigation of how the gift creates structures of obligation and reciprocity. So an exhibition framing Islamic art through exchange--one that examines the selection and making of objects designated as gifts and the processes by which they changed hands--is long overdue, especially because there is such rich material evidence and such a vast, albeit not comprehensive, written record to draw from (Ibn al-Zubayr being only one of numerous sources). Thus, "Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts," curated by Linda Komaroff and on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this summer, promises to offer a refreshing and bold alternative to the mostly moribund paradigms that have underpinned recent temporary exhibitions of Islamic art.

From the late 1980s until the turn of the century, exhibitions of Islamic art increasingly reflected--and in some instances directed--new patterns of research and teaching, as specialized scholarship broke apart the cultural monolith of Islam criticized most forcefully by Edward Said. This fragmentation fostered new modes of exhibition practice: Some curators focused on discrete areas of production classified by region, dynasty, and time period; others presented an individual medium such as glass, ceramics, or jewelry, often elucidating the techniques of artmaking as they did so. Such approaches propelled new research and, crucially, avoided the reductive encyclopedic models, favored since the late 1800s, that continued to have currency up to the 1970s--as embodied most infamously in "The Arts of Islam" at London's Hayward Gallery in 1976. To organize its many hundreds of objects from disparate regions and eras, the curators of "The Arts of Islam" played on the trope of Islamic art's "unity in diversity" and emphasized the role played by religion in shaping artistic outcomes, but without ever attending to the varying social and political circumstances that would condition such a causal relation. Primarily, "The Arts of Islam" offered an appealing framework for those who wanted to instrumentalize Islamic art as a medium for teaching Islam and Islamic studies.

After more than a decade in eclipse, temporary exhibitions in the mold of "The Arts of Islam" resurfaced as a form of neo-Orientalism after 9/11, in tandem with the growing simplistic belief that Islamic art might function as a "bridge to cultural understanding" for museum-going publics in Europe and North America. …

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