Magazine article The Spectator

Quest for Self

Magazine article The Spectator

Quest for Self

Article excerpt

Over a year ago my six-yearold grandson Henry Flynn rushed home from his multiethnic south London school playground in Streatham with a solemn but urgent question for his father, an art historian, as it happens. So far as is known, incidentally, mainly AngloSaxon and Celtic blood flows in young Henry's veins. 'Am I a Muslim, dad?' he asked.

Now, at the well-planned eight-year-old Sharjah Art Museum in the United Arab Emirates until the end of February, there is a British Council travelling exhibition involving 22 artists from nine separate countries which is also about the quest for identity.

Many of the exhibits are photographic portraits and one of them is of an Englishman from Streatham, south London, who has married a Muslim woman and converted to Islam, thereby making my grandson's query amazingly pertinent. 'Nick Higgins, London 2003' -- the head and shoulders of the green-shirted subject caught looking thoughtful under a chandelier against an orange background -- is one of a series of images capturing converts to Islam. The photographer is the freelance professional Sam Piyasena, who showed in the group exhibition OOZEROZEROZERO at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1999.

Promoting British art abroad (now including art by British Muslims) is a role that is expected of the British Council, whose guest I was -- a guest who enjoyed matchless Arabian hospitality as well. Visitors to Sharjah, designated 'the Cultural Capital of the Arab world' by Unesco in 1998, may witness something of a new departure in Common Ground, as the exhibition is called.

Artists from the Middle East and South-East Asia join artists from the UK in a travelling show that has snowballed since it was conceived in 2001. In effect there are 22 one-person shows. The layout of the Sharjah Art Museum, with room after room of the ground floor opening out on both sides of an elegant and well-lit long central corridor, is ideally suited to such an installation.

Not all the artists are Islamic but phrases such as 'Muslim identity in the context of a post-modern globalised world' and 'a new "intercultural" identity' feature in the catalogue's preface and foreword. The language of officialdom is notorious for its clichés, but both the Emirate of Sharjah and the British Council are at least trying to do something, however modestly, about the evident crisis in relations between Muslims and non-Muslims by getting people of different countries to talk to each other outside the level of government. Art stimulates conversation and analysis.

Each artist shown here has something individual and different to say in his or her work. The current cartoon controversy has demonstrated, if nothing else, the extraordinary potential power of a single particular visual image despite the fact that we live in an environment in which we are constantly bombarded with visual images.

The feeling among artists to whom I talked in Sharjah was that the publication in Denmark and elsewhere of negative caricatures of the prophet Mohammed was a case of appalling insensitivity and bad manners. Nobody thought that violence in a reactive demonstration was justified. In terms of the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq, however, the disturbing footage that awaited me on my return from Sharjah of British troops apparently beating up Iraqi civilians could well prove that the video is mightier than the gun.

The exhibition in Sharjah has attracted the attention of prominent British Muslims. …

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