Artists challenge traditional Islamic style, form

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Author: Malcolm MacLeod

Since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January, the media has been saturated with discussions about Islam’s representation in popular culture. With a new exhibit entitled Islamic Art Now, LACMA is joining that conversation, and showing the world how contemporary Islamic artists are pushing the boundaries of what is accepted in the world of Islamic art, from the Middle East and beyond.

Charlie Hebdo’s satiric depictions of the Prophet Muhammad outraged not only the two Islamist terrorists who carried out the Paris killings, but also the Muslim community at large. Creating an image of the Prophet is a dire sin under the tenets of Islam. Though not strictly forbidden, humans in general are not often portrayed in traditional Islamic art and have been historically replaced by geometric patterns and calligraphy. Calligraphy in particular is revered among Muslims due to its use in the Quran. Many of the pieces displayed at LACMA embrace calligraphy while reinventing it to convey a modern message.

When patrons walk into the exhibit on the fourth floor of the Ahmanson building, they are greeted by two pieces that set the thematic tone of the show. These works, made by Nasser Al Salem and Arash Hanaei, are bright blue and red neon signs that each spell out a different phrase in Arabic. Al Salem’s piece is called “God is Great, He Shall Not Die,” and is a testament to the artist’s faith. The bright blue neon amplifies the word “Allah,” repeated infinitely in a mirror’s reflection.

Next to Al Salem’s piece is a red neon sign that reads “Too Khali,meaning “void.” According to LACMA’s description, Hanaei’s piece is a response to the garish neon signage of his home city, Tehran. The red neon lines stand out in the darkness, and the negative spaces between them create visually stunning shapes that feel very substantial and three-dimensional. Al Salem and Hanaei adhere to the tenets of Islam by avoiding human subjects in this instance, but modernize traditional methods by experimenting with new ways to incorporate calligraphy into their work.

Al Salem and Hanaei’s pieces are visually shocking, dominating the space and demanding patrons’ attention as soon as they walk in. From there, visitors proceed into the main exhibit, where 23 additional pieces represent the work of artists from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the United States and Israel.

Another stirring piece on display is a series of three prints called “Reclining Odalisque” by Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi. The prints flow into one another and mimic the form of 19th century European Orientalist paintings, which objectified Eastern women through a male, Western imperialist gaze. The woman in Essaydi’s piece is not naked, as would have been typical in the 19th century source paintings, but is covered from the neck down with cloth and calligraphy. Her form is obscured more by the calligraphy than the pale cloth. All three prints are adorned with calligraphic letters, written chaotically throughout the space in varying sizes.

The artist has challenged a number of norms with this piece. The pairing of holy calligraphy and a sexualized image of a woman is bold and encourages the viewer to contemplate the identity of the woman and the meaning of the words surrounding her. Any patron who can read Arabic will have a distinct advantage when it comes to unpacking the meaning of certain pieces in this exhibition, but the descriptors placed throughout the exhibit help visitors interpret the work.

The artists featured in the show approach the social and cultural aspects of their work with varying degrees of subtlety. Some pieces, like Abdullah Al Saab’s “Technology Killed Reality,” are very upfront and direct in handling images of growing pains in the Muslim world, where young people fight for modernization but find themselves stifled by social conservatism.

Other pieces, such as Shirin Neshat’s “Speechless,” are more symbolic. “Speechless” is a photograph of a woman wearing a chador, or veil. Next to her face, a gun protrudes almost like an earring from beneath the veil. Neshat’s photographs often show similar depictions of women with guns in order to renounce the idea that all Muslim women are oppressed and incapable of defending themselves. Calligraphy is spread subtly across the woman’s visage. The words are those of Iranian poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh. In the poem, a Muslim woman asks her brothers’ permission to take part in a revolution. According to the artist and the LACMA descriptor, the intent of the work is to empower women. It seems contradictory that the work includes a poem about a woman who has less agency than her male siblings.

Short films, photographs, paintings, prints and sculpture are also featured in the exhibit. The works are representative of the diverse issues faced by Muslims around the world and provide non-Muslims insight into a culture that is in flux and undergoing a period of social evolution. This glimpse into the visual history of Islam reveals a rich artistic tradition fueled by the faith and commitment of its practitioners.

“Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East” opened Feb. 1, 2015. The exhibit is ongoing.

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