Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

When Cultural Identity Is Denied ; with 'Islamic Art' Label, Western Scholars Ignore Intricacies of Heritage

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

When Cultural Identity Is Denied ; with 'Islamic Art' Label, Western Scholars Ignore Intricacies of Heritage

Article excerpt

Western institutions tend to perpetuate the myth of "Islamic art," missing geographical and historical nuance and fueling a collective perception of non-European people with funny names.

When the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia were inaugurated at the Metropolitan Museum in November, few visitors were ungracious enough to ask why the book published on the occasion is titled "Masterpieces From the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

The department, of course, has not changed its name. The longer denomination echoes the preference that art historians like the head of the Islamic department Sheila Canby have for historically accurate characterizations. Ms. Canby, who has devoted a lifetime of research to Iranian studies, said, "This has crystallized a real issue in the field that we have been calling 'Islamic art."'

The denial of cultural identity in such a meaningless phrase is deeply resented in those Islamic lands, which have ancient cultures that are considerably longer than any West European nation. Most Western scholars appear to be unaware of it.

Yet, the phrase spread in the later 19th century, largely because of the French. The notion of an "Art Musulman" received significant museum credentials at an exhibition held in 1878 at the Paris Trocadero and was set in concrete following the first important art show of works of art from the "Arab lands, Turkey, Iran," etc..., at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1903.

This was the age of European colonial occupation, which continued to expand after World War I as France and Britain shared the spoils of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The "Islamic art" myth conveniently matched the Western perception of all these non-European people with funny names written in the same Arabic alphabet.

The very concept of "Islamic art" is alien to the cultures that adhered to Islam, but that apparently has never troubled the scholars who hold forth on the subject in their books as in their university lectures.

This phrase was never used in Islamic lands until cultural institutions in Middle East started copying the West and adopted its way of displaying and describing artifacts. The European construct clashes with the very tenets of Islam. In Arabic, the term Islam literally means "surrendering/committing oneself to God," and only humans can be Muslims, not objects.

The Western rewriting of cultural and artistic reality extends far beyond simple rebranding.

During a long period that goes back to the Middle Ages, works of art from the Middle East were treasured in Europe. In the 17th century, collections of Arab and Persian manuscripts were formed. The books, valued for their texts, were preserved in their integrity.

A change to this approach took place around the 1870s. Volumes began to be broken up and painted pages cut out to be framed as "miniatures." Thousands of manuscripts from Iran, Moghul Hindustan and Turkey were butchered through much of the 20th century, for commerce. Dealers made more money by selling pages one by one.

A royal 14th-century Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings) was ripped apart by the French dealer Georges Demotte in the early 20th century. In 1980, two scholars, Oleg Grabar and Sheila Blair, painstakingly endeavored to reconstruct the Iranian manuscript, cautiously concluding on the basis of various inferences that it had been commissioned by Abu Said Bahadur Khan (1317-1335), the last Mongol emperor of Iran. The text is lost.

Pages with paintings are scattered around America and Europe. One of the finest, in the Met, relates to the 6th century A.D. Sasanian emperor Khosrow Anushirvan.

The museum book on "Masterpieces From the Islamic Art Department" reproduces pages from the Met's collection that were torn away from highly important volumes in the Golestan Library in Tehran. These include the Khavaran-Nameh, an exceptionally beautiful manuscript of the late 15th century. …

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