Contemporary "Islamic" Art in Context

In the current wave of heightened interest in Islam and the Middle East, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presents Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking.

The exhibition opened February 26, 2006. The work of fifteen artists born in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia is featured in an attempt to shed light on the classification, production and discourse of contemporary “Islamic” art. The artists of Without Boundary live and work in Europe or the United States but remain connected to their native countries in varying degrees.

According to the exhibition’s curator, Fereshteh Daftari, in a catalog essay titled “Islamic or Not,” “The application of a term without clear definition to artists exhibiting in the global mainstream needs closer scrutiny.” She articulates that the term “Islamic” is, “loaded with political and religious subtexts, and yet it has been applied to artists who would not necessarily use it to describe their own work, who do not live permanently in Islamic areas, and who produce art for European and American art spaces in which Muslim visitors are only a fraction of their audience.”

Daftari attempts to test the validity of the term “Islamic” and the shortcomings of such classification by exhibiting and examining the work of artists considered at the forefront of contemporary art. The exhibition features the work of Jananne Al-Ani, Ghada Amer, Kutlug Ataman, the Atlas Group/Walid Raad, Mona Hatoum, Shirazeh Houshiary, Pip Horne, Emily Jacir, Y.Z. Kami, Rachid Koraïchi, Shirin Neshat, Marjane Satrapi, Shirana Shahbazi, and Raqib Shaw and Shahzia Sikander. In addition, the works of American artists Bill Viola and Mike Kelley are included to “further provoke” the question, what is contemporary Islamic art?

The exhibition is divided into three subtopics through which Daftari aims to address the definition of contemporary Islamic art. She does so through the artistic examinations of formal attributes, questions of identity, and explorations of faith. Such attributes, Daftari argues, are recognized by the West as characteristically “Islamic.”

Daftari outlines the artistic parallels that connect the seventeen artists as being based on a tie, “not in ethnicity or religion, but in their way of revising, subverting, and challenging the aesthetic traditions they deal with and of bringing preconceived notions of cultural homogeneity to ruin.” She is correct in her assessment of the term and current art historical discourse and while the work of Without Boundary does revise and challenge conceptions of “Islamic” aesthetic traditions, the exhibition as a whole fails to bring preconceived notions of cultural homogeneity to ruin.

Art in all societies is not produced under isolated circumstances. A more acute observation revels that art is in fact often a direct reflection of society. This connection is highly visible in the works of Without Boundary, which possess underlying themes of social commentary. The society which the artists comment on is the “Islamic” world. This aspect of the exhibition is perplexing in the sense that the artists are presented as living and working in the West and impacting Western culture and society. Daftari aims to expose the drawbacks of classifying these artists and their work under the one dimensional term “Islamic,” yet through the exhibition the artists are only allotted the opportunity to comment on “Islamic” society. If the artists of Without Boundary do in fact represent an emerging trend in the mainstream Western art scene where they are no longer seen as “other” and their ideas are able to move freely across national, cultural and societal borders, then why aren’t they provided the forum to comment on this society in which they live?

In order to deconstruct the Western classification of contemporary “Islamic” art, as Daftari first suggested, one must begin by answering several questions regarding issues that affect the West and its subsequent shaping of the mainstream art world and art history. What definitions characterize the term “Islamic” when it is used by academia, institutions and galleries of the mainstream art world? How have such definitions influenced the type of reception contemporary “Islamic” artists receive? As social agents of culture, how do the actions of academia, institutions and galleries reflect Western conceptions of the “Islamic” world and the greater political and economic policies of the West towards “Islamic” nations?

Such questions remain unaddressed by Without Boundary. Instead, the work in the exhibition is positioned within an explicit agenda, one determined by Western-centric tendencies and American political rhetoric. Unable to discard the influence of such framework, Without Boundary and the discourse accompanying it, provide little evidence of having transcended preconceived notions of “Islamic” cultural homogeneity.

Despite the fact that Daftari initially outlines in the catalog essay the need for reexamination of the term “Islamic,” the most significant and obvious pitfall of the exhibition is the fact that the origins of prevailing preconceived notions are left unexplored. She deliberately avoids addressing American and European influence and activity in the Middle East and Central Asia over the past century and the direct link between such sociopolitical issues and the definition of the term.

In regards to immediate history, Bush’s “War on Terror,” the violent occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the subsequent political and economic consequences that have affected several “Islamic” nations and their expatriates are completely ignored. Such consequences are directly tied to current and past perceptions of the “Islamic” world by academia and the American public. In spite of this context, Without Boundary presents its audience with an exhibition that refuses to acknowledge that its conception reflects an increasing interest in the Middle East and Islam that is tied to American military and economic dominance.

The discourse surrounding the exhibition not only avoids these realities but actually propagates the exact notions of the “Islamic” world Daftari initially set out to combat.

Two prime examples of this discourse are a catalog essay, “Another Country” written by Homi Bhabha, and the editorial, “Gained in Translation” written by Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, for ARTnews Online.

Although Lowry and Bhabha intended to place the work of Without Boundary within discussions of profound contemporary visual art, broad generalizations are made that obscure fact and reality, subsequently supporting the idea that the “East” or “Islamic” world is characterized by nothing more than dictatorships, backwardness, religious conservatism and homogeneity. Through such characterization, the “multidimensional” nature of the art work in Without Boundary is then attributed to the mere fact that the artists have lived and worked in the United States and Europe, insinuating notions of Western cultural, academic, political and economic supremacy.

These notions work to maintain art of the “Islamic” world as secondary to its Western counterpart. In “Gained in Translation” Lowry includes a discussion of the individual pedigrees of each artist, emphasizing that the artists of Without Boundary are “part of a sophisticated and growing population of émigrés from the Islamic world who live in the West.” He affirms that they are, “well educated and come from mostly solidly middle- or upper-class families.” What are the intentions of his discussion of class and education? Must the director of MOMA justify exhibiting “Islamic” artists through such standards? He then enunciates that the artists discussed “form a counterpoint to the disenfranchised, often poorly educated, and marginalized Muslims living in France, Germany, and England.” By doing so, he assures readers that MOMA and the mainstream art world are not straying from bourgeois qualifications that equate “sophistication” and intelligence with high economic standing.

Lowry’s statements beg several questions. Why are there disenfranchised, poorly educated, and marginalized Muslims in France, Germany and England? What historical and political events have taken place affecting such a large demographic that is scattered from its native countries? To have a counterpoint to such populations is to imply an imbalance in educational and economic standing. Who or what is responsible for such imbalance?

Lowry leaves these statements unqualified. Instead, September 11th is evoked to detract from dealing with these pertinent issues, despite the fact that they are instrumental in how “Islamic” cultures and communities are perceived. Lowry writes, “the problem of defining oneself in this world is extremely difficult, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks first in New York City and Washington, D.C., and later in Madrid and London, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.” Lowry’s evocation parallels the distraction tactics of the American media via the condemnation of “Islam.” Fueled by the “War on Terror,” the entire “Islamic” world is held accountable for recent attacks on Western targets, which then justifies American military action in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Lowry continues his analysis through the archetypical Orientalist lens that uses broad generalizations to distinguish the “Islamic” world as completely “other” in contrast to the West; “given the conservative nature of many Islamic countries-with their restrictive policies concerning freedom of expression, political activism, nudity, sex, religious debate, and homosexuality, among other social and cultural issues-they offer difficult, even impossible environments for artists who make challenging artIt is largely for this reason that all of the artists under discussion live and practice primarily outside their countries of birth.” Ironically, the “restrictive policies” Lowry attributes as being specifically “Islamic” are the exact topics in question in the continuing battle concerning American civil liberties. No mention is made of the fact that artists in America are living and working under the Bush administration’s deliberate political attack on freedom of expression, political activism, and freedom of sexuality.

With such statements, Lowry places Western societies, religions and governments as superior to “Islamic” counterparts. He even goes as far to state that some Muslims, “acknowledge the democratic systems of the West but struggle to balance that appreciation against a religion that they feel leaves little room for liberal values.” What are the “liberal values” Lowry is referring to? Are they the exact American “liberal values” currently in question in the U.S.?

Like Lowry, Bhabha’s analysis of the exhibition is also determined by prevailing notions. He begins his catalog essay by affirming that a discussion of Islam today invokes “the age of terror,” what he describes as, “the calling up of the Abu Ghraib album, the televised beheading of an American businessman, and many other entries in the musee macabre of war and terror.” With such a statement, the “Islamic” world is portrayed as the perpetrator of mass violence that has made its way into the global psyche. The events associated with current invocations of Islam are described as though they occurred in isolated circumstances; “war and terror” are not contextualized in the greater scheme of contemporary history.

The “musee macabre of war and terror” images Bhabha speaks of are directly tied to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, yet there is no discussion of this. Bhabha stresses that the artists of the exhibition, “offer us a way out of the prison house of the culture of torture and ‘security’.” One can argue that without discussion or exploration of the origins and affiliations of such preconceived notions of “Islam today” the work showcased in Without Boundary offers not a way out for viewers but an escape from the reality of American presence in the “Islamic” world. In order to shed what Bhabha calls “the prison house of the culture of torture and ‘security’,” viewers must be engaged within a discussion of the current state of affairs we face in the polarized “West vs. East” global society, which is directly responsible for such a “prison house.”

Bhabha’s analysis of Mona Hatoum’s Keffieh, 1993-1999, continues to support Western predominant notions of Middle Eastern and “Islamic” cultures. “The keffieh–the cotton headscarf worn by Middle Eastern men–has developed a macho aura in the Palestine culture of political resistance.” He goes on to state, “the macho style is an externalized response to the powers of oppression and domination; but it is also a form of domination turned inward, within the community, poised against the presence and participation of women, whose voices are repressed or sublimated in the cause of the struggle.” Bhabha’s statement completely obscures the reality of the Palestinian struggle in which women are active, if not central, participants of the self-determined political movement of their people. Additionally, within Palestinian visual art, literature, and culture in general, the female figure often lends way to allegorical representations of homeland, equating women as the most revered embodiment of the struggle.

To associate the keffieh with oppression and male dominance is to dispel the need for an examination of the larger sociopolitical picture. Bhabha’s analysis steers the discussion of the violation of an entire people towards an internal issue of gender. Such an analysis is similar to examples of Western discourse which focus on the oppression of women in the Middle East and the “Islamic” world, while ignoring the need for an examination of the broader political and economic oppression that has resulted from the actions of regional, American and European governments.

Without Boundary and the discourse surrounding the exhibition demonstrate the desperate need for an extensive and critical examination of the mainstream art world. Art historical definitions used by academia, institutions and galleries remain imbedded in the cultural and social hierarchies that have resulted from the colonial and imperial geopolitical policies and activities of Western nations in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific Islands. These policies have been primary factors in the denigrated classification, documentation and representation of art and visual culture created by non-Western populations. The political, theological, ethnic and class biases of institutionalized art activity today must be held accountable for defining non-Western cultures as inferior.

MAYMANAH FARHAT writes about Modern and Contemporary Arab art for ArtEast. She can be contacted at