Middle of what? The tricky business of labelling regional art

Putting a title on the region’s art has long led to half measures and hand-wringing around the world that often fails to nail its nub, so what can be done to solve this complex conundrum?

Visitors look at ancient artifacts during a press preview of new galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  in New York, October 24, 2011. After a eight-year construction project, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will open on November 1, 2011, a suite of 15 newly transformed galleries to house its collection of Islamic art. Through the new installation of some 1,200 works of art--including carpets, jewels, a luxurious room setting, illustrated manuscripts, and spectacular works in metal and glass--the rich diversity of the Islamic world will be emphasized.  AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)
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For the past few weeks, an array of works have spread out across Sharjah: an installation of Nima Nabavi’s precise geometric drawings, a video collaboration between musician Sami Yusuf and poet and filmmaker ­Nujoom Al Ghanem, and Ahmed ­Keshta’s pencil installations.

They’re part of the annual Sharjah Islamic Art Festival, a month-long celebration “illustrating the authenticity of Islamic Art and its ability to keep up with current artistic changes,” as the festival organisers put it.

The Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival, which is a government initiative independent of Sharjah Art Foundation and Sharjah Museums, has, in its first decade, developed into an increasingly watched art event – and not only for religious work, nor forms related to Islamic expression such as calligraphy or hurrufiya, as its title might suggest.

Indeed, as the art landscape of the UAE solidifies into different institutions, the breadth of the work shown in the festival highlights a hidden story: the terms chosen by the institutions to describe their works are in themselves significant. Islamic art, Middle Eastern art, Arab art: each comes with different histories that are being challenged, often deliberately, by the new museums of the region.

Islamic art

“Islamic art” is historically highly contentious term, particularly in the West, where it is seen to underline the West’s obsession with Islam as the defining characteristic of Arab identity, and vice versa. You will rarely find works from Indonesia in the Islamic art section of a museum, despite it being the world’s most populous Islamic nation.

The term “Islamic art” is also understood to reduce the variety of Arab cultural artistic output to religious emblems, again ­reinforcing the perception that Islam is the only prism through which to understand the Arab region: there was a sharp rise in interest in “Islamic” art shows in the US after the September 11 attacks, for example, and European and American exhibitions of Arab art regularly take some variation of Under the Veil as a title.

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will use the title West Asia, North Africa and South East Asia for its regional collection. Courtesy Guggenheim
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will use the title West Asia, North Africa and South East Asia for its regional collection. Courtesy Guggenheim

For how these problems play out curatorially, take the case of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's reopening of its Islamic art galleries in autumn 2001. The New York museum gave its galleries a tome of a title – Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia – while also keeping the term "Islamic art" for the department name. It was a compromise that pleased no one. Some claimed that the hefty name purposely avoided the word "Islam" amid post-9/11 Islamophobia, while The New York Times argued that the retention of the term "Islamic art" amounted to a "denial of cultural identity" in limiting the artistic output of Arab nations to that of the Islamic period.

But where “Islamic” is seen by western art historians as a misrepresentation of Arab work, it’s chosen in the Gulf with much less controversy. “Islamic” graces the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, which appeared in its current premises in 2008, having moved from the city’s Heritage area, where it had existed under the name Sharjah Islamic Museum since the 1990s.

One of a series of geometric drawings by Nima Nabavi. Courtesy The Third Line
One of a series of geometric drawings by Nima Nabavi. Courtesy The Third Line

Manal Ataya, director-general of the Sharjah Museums Authority, says Sharjah Ruler Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi’s choice of name for the museum was deeply considered. “There are too many museums in the world where the focus in Islamic collections is only on the decorative arts,” she says.

“He wanted to make sure that the museum gives a more holistic perspective and a broadened understanding of the contributions of the Islamic world throughout time, rather than the decorative arts that might have appealed to some people in the West, and were given value by them where other aspects were not.” These included architecture and science, and the museum partnered with the University of Tuebingen in Germany to re-create displays of some of the region’s historic scientific advances. These are still on permanent view.

Sharjah, UAE - Mar 18, 2018 - Ms. Manal Ataya, Director General of the Sharjah Museums Department and a highly influential woman in the UAE Art Scene - Navin Khianey for The National
Manal Ataya is the director-general of the Sharjah Museums Authority. Navin Khianey for The National

Ataya underlines, too, that the appeal of the term “Islamic” is precisely because it refers to Islam – an ironic reversal, given that many non-Arab critiques of the term argue that it disproportionately emphasises religion. “The Islamic world had this wonderful history of producing wonderful objects and then they often mention some Islamic references or information about religion only in the context of the art,” she says. “Sheikh Sultan wanted to make sure there was a full gallery to explain to people what is Islam: what is its five pillars and what does each pillar mean?” Here, there is a major contextual difference: where museums in the West are secular, that isn’t necessarily the case in other contexts.

Middle East art vs Arab art

For modern and contemporary art, the distinctions are less to do with religion and more about identity. Though Arab art and Middle Eastern art are often used interchangeably, they each cover different territory. “Middle East” encompasses Turkey and Iran, both of which were so important to modern art of the region, but its lack of geographical specificity compounds the sense that it is somehow a euphemism. “I always ask my students: Middle of what? East of what?” says NYU Abu Dhabi art historian Salwa Mikdadi. The term, she says, was coined by the British India Office in 1850. The answer here to “east of what?” is perhaps Britain. It became particularly popular in the US after the establishment of Israel, giving a name for the region that could include its new non-Arab population.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, June 22, 2017:     General view of the Louvre Abu Dhabi construction site on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi on June 22, 2017. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: James Langston, Nick Leech
Section: Louvre
Stone beach

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Louvre Abu Dhabi has entirely done away with separate geographical departments. Christopher Pike / The National 

Here again, the new museums projects of the Gulf are challenging these histories. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will use West Asia, North Africa and South East Asia for its regional collection, opting for objective reference points. And Louvre Abu Dhabi does away with separate geographical departments altogether, putting forward a chronological narrative that moves through the museum.

“The challenge lies in the historical and anthropological reading of the works,” says Souraya Noujaim, a director of Louvre Abu Dhabi. She says the museum is moving away from not only regional specificity, but also conventional classifications, such as decorative arts versus fine art.

“The pronounced interest in movements of transfer, transculturality and global perspectives in recent art-historical research brings about new approaches to historical artefacts,” she says, “leading to an ever-increasing dissolution of boundaries between the various disciplines of art history.”

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Arab art, the most innocuous of these terms, comes with its own changing history, mirroring the increasing importance of Arab work on the world stage, as well as the intellectual defeat of pan-Arabism.

“In the past, you had the Arab Biennale in Cairo, where artists would work together under one flag,” Mikdadi says. “This was also the model for the original Sharjah Biennial. In the 1970s and early 80s, in Jordan, artists would meet regularly to actively discuss what Arab art means.”

Today, by contrast, artists shrug off the title of “Arab artist” as they circulate on a more globalised art market. “Younger artists say that our art speaks for itself,” ­Mikdadi says. “They don’t want to be pigeonholed by their identity.”