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The Legacy of Muslim Societies in Global Modernity | 2. Plenary Panel: Art and Architecture of Muslim Societies
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2. Plenary Panel: Art and Architecture of Muslim Societies

Gulru Necipoglu, Harvard University

Massumeh Farhad, Smithsonian Freer and Sackler Galleries

Gulru Necipoglu, Presentation Summary

The panel first addressed the problem of scholarship on post-medieval Islamic art, a term which is itself problematic and over-simplified. Prof. Necipoglu described the 19th century classification of Islamic art as a genealogical-artistic offshoot of the late-antique shared European heritage, which, after fusing Byzantine and Iranian-Sassanian elements, became transformed into an exotic tradition characterized by its decorative qualities and lack of figurative representation. This Eurocentric, Orientalist perspective essentialized Islamic art within the binary of an East/West civilizational divide. Other aspects of the prevailing paradigm include reading the visual arts of Muslim societies in ethnic and national categories (Moorish, Arab, Persian, Turkish, Indian, etc.), with its compartmentalization and lack of attention to trans-regional connections and influences among Muslim societies and between Muslim societies and others, from the Far East to Europe. The artistic and architectural production of Muslim societies in the period after 1300 CE, and especially that of the 16th through 19th centuries has been viewed through the lens of decline following the golden age of Islamic art of the medieval period, obscuring its particular characteristics, cultural and social context. Another problem is the presumed unity or universal quality of Islamic art in the golden age, interrupted by the Mongol period, after which regional styles were said to have predominated; these Orientalist essentializations even appear in recently developed museums that emphasize Islamic art as a cultural bridge, but fail to build one. A problem at the foreground of the period from 1300 to 1900 is the tendency to halt studies of Islamic art at 1800 CE, as though there were no continuity or progression of the tradition into the modern period.

Professor Necipoglu positioned her own scholarship on Islamic and Ottoman art and architecture as postitioned between the Eastern and Western horizons, with a glance toward the Mediterranean. Her efforts to show comparisons and relationships both toward east and west, and to bring to light trans-regional unities and trans-cultural exchanges with neighboring lands and to show the depth of these interactions among Muslim and non-Muslim subcultures as reflected in art and architecture. Her work contributes to the reconstruction of the very field of Islamic art and architecture in training the next generation of students, in new scholarly research, and in displaying and contextualizing Islamic art for the public. Overcoming its 19th century foundations, its isolation from European and other traditions in surveys and museums of world art, and its relegation to a past without any bridge or contribution to modernity. As a way forward, Prof. Necipoglu proposed insisting on rigorous periodization of Islamic art in order to delineate its historicity and cultural context in relation to world-historical trends, but also to provide a framework in which trans-regional and intercultural connections can be appreciated, and in which scholarship on Islamic art and architecture focus on continuity and change from its inception into the modern period.

Among the specific findings of her research that illuminate the period of early modernity covered in the Forum are her discussion of the autobiography of architect Sinan as a figure representative of modern individualistic ambition, the emergence of the tradition of portraiture employing both eastern and western influences, and the context of Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal architecture as part of a global discourse embedded in the expansion of urban spaces and the emergence of new social and cultural institutions, and its expression of imperial presence. Highlights of Dr. Necipoglu’s work and/or access to articles can be found in the bibliography at and in the Forum Reader.

Massumeh Farhad, Presentation Summary

Dr. Farhad’s presentation focused on several objects from the three empires as a way of discussing the choices made by scholars interfacing with the public. She emphasized the difficulties of presenting beautiful and sumptuous objects of art to the public in such a way that they gain insight into the historical setting that gave rise to them, but also to foster appreciation of their beauty and interest. The challenge of overcoming widely held essentialized views of what Islamic art is or is not are a major responsibility for museum curators. Like Dr. Necipoglu, Dr. Farhad argues that historicizing the objects, treating them in scholarly and public display contexts like the documents they are, is the key to creating meaning for these audiences. Addressing the problem of the decline paradigm, she highlighted the problem that the 17th and 18th centuries were previously considered to represent the decline of Persian painting because they seemed to look toward Europe. While this dismissive assessment has been overcome, she discussed the need for much more work, particularly in the area of assessing cross-cultural comparison and influence. Rather than simply seeing in a painting generic European influence and hence the decline of an indigenous tradition, she used the painting to illustrate how it represents a classical Persian theme that shows western influence. This influence, however, was not merely imitative but selective, just as earlier influences on Persian painting were selective, and that these artistic features tell us about that particular moment in Safavid history. This kind of contextualization avoids the essentialist, ahistorical approach that has characterized perceptions of the period.

Dr. Farhad surveyed the origins of private and museum collecting in 19th century Europe, noting that for Charles Lang Freer to actually go to Asia to study Asian art rather than going to dealers in London or Paris was pioneering at the time. The collections were often assembled for purely aesthetic reasons, which led to assembling a hodge-podge of poorly classified and dated objects that have required much curatorial work and scholarship by modern museum staffs. Together with the paradigms of early scholarship on Islamic art in the West discussed above, these issues have meant formidable challenges in contextualizing and displaying the works for the public. More recently, there has been a rush of collecting contemporary art in Muslim societies, while there are still major gaps in the period from 1800 to the 1970s. While established European and American museums have re-thought and re-installed their Islamic collections, new museums in Doha, Kuwait and elsewhere represent rich new collections and purposes of celebrating Islamic arts that present new challenges to connecting publics and scholarship. Among the problems Dr. Farhad highlighted were the isolation of objects in displays, taking utilitarian objects out of context, and not helping audiences to relate these objects either to each other or to the historical context in which they are embedded. She mentioned the limitations of museum space that require curators to show centuries and a wide geographic range of objects in a few rooms, requiring utmost thought in order to invest the objects with meaning. Clustering related objects is one way to achieve this, letting the objects speak through translation of related texts or inscriptions, and taking care to spread curatorial knowledge across a wide range of objects, from coins to clothing to ceramics and so on, and to educate the heterogeneous museum audience about this vast space and time. A further challenge that has heightened during the past decade is the tendency for audiences to want historical, artistic objects to lend meaning to events of the present day, especially in the over-wrought atmosphere surrounding public perceptions of Islam and Muslims today. Conversely, people tend to want the objects to fulfill pre-determined ideas that viewers hold about Islam and Muslim culture, requiring curators to assist viewers in seeing the objects for what they are, as evidence of historically and geographically located artifacts.

Dr. Farhad emphasized the fact that the museum world is frozen in space with its objects, but to display them in such a way that audiences aware that there is no single interpretation, that there are shifts back and forth in time and space. What stands for a moment in history—say in the 15th century—isnt the same in the 17th c because the networks have shifted, the connections are different in the region and the world. In the context of the museum this is the most important thing to get across, that these objects are not frozen in time, and we can make them more dynamic by historicizing them, placing them in the context in which they exist as a part of their culture, time and place. She called upon scholars to study objects and architecture from cross-disciplinary perspectives, to place the works from the period of the three empires in the context of connections among Muslim societies of the period and beyond them. Historians need to enhance their collaboration with curators in order to achieve the necessary paradigm shifts and use this scholarship to enhance understanding of the arts as a matter of public knowledge. Among the points of discussion among other participants at the Forum were the limitations inherent in placing the three empires at the center of the period, the need to conceptualize and include the arts of lands on the periphery of the central territories of the three empires, such as southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, southern Arabia and even Central Asia and China in this period. In response, the panelists noted the importance of historical context and periodization as ways of avoiding the “unity in diversity” model and attributing agency and choice to the makers of objects and monuments, as well as bringing to bear scholarship on the connections in the region and in the world as a whole at different periods.


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