The acronym, ALTICALSA, I imagine, would not resonate too loudly with many Muslims in America, and for good reason. In the first place, the artifacts housed in this section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art spring not to mind as telling historical reminders of Islam’s potential beyond bombs and mayhem. And as Mehri Khalil discovered recently, the curators of this and other renowned museums have added to this disjuncture between Islam and aesthetics by rechristening these very sections of their libraries. The Galleries of Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and later South Asia (ALTICALSA) were until September 11, 2001 more elegantly titled the Islamic Galleries. Since then, almost all references to Islam in these galleries have been replaced by nomenclatures that say as much about our changing political landscape as they do about Islam and aesthetics.
That aesthetics and Islam make uneasy bedfellows is a view held increasingly even by those who would otherwise want to celebrate the Muslim world’s artistic heritage. In a recent article ‘Reliving the Distortions of History,’ Khalil surveys the manner in which Islamic art is represented in the great museums of the modern world. What she found was that decisions to change nomenclatures were driven, not just by a politically loaded topic, but also by the complexities of the Muslim world, its relationship to the West, and of course the secularized culture that now holds sway over arts and literature.
To begin with, art galleries today are particularly susceptible to the dismissive disdain of the secular for the sacred, as if the relationship between the two is anything but symbiotic. As much as Sheila Canby, head curator at the Met would have us believe that the gallery as presently construed brings focus purely on the object rather than the viewer, the fact of the matter is that the latter’s curiosity about the historical, political, and yes, the sacred messages encoded in these artifacts is what completes the artistic rendition. This growing disregard for the sacred in public life is precisely what weakens not just the mission statement of today’s museums, but also the otherwise salubrious influence of secular dispensations on interfaith coexistence. For Muslims and others to appreciate Hinduism beyond its deities, for example, it is important that secular space identify Hindu civilization as indistinguishable from its many gods. Muslims, for reasons all their own, will certainly not do so — at least not for now.
In fairness to the curators however, the correlation of Islam to ethnicity on the one hand, and to territorial boundaries on the other is far from clear, even to well-intentioned Muslims. The Middle East for example, is neither exclusively Muslim nor entirely Arab. To say, therefore, as Princess Firyal of Jordan recently did, that the title “Arab Lands” appropriately reflects the origins of Islamic art is as untrue as saying that only Muslims produced Islamic art. One need go no further than the poetry of the Jahiliyia as treated in classical Islamic literature to realize that even our ancestors recognized that both the production as well as the consumption of art transcends faith and geography.
Then there is the layout of the museum, which is clearly an attempt to deal specifically with question of faith and geography. The various galleries are positioned such that they reflect the ties that bind different cultures and landscapes. So, in addition to the cluster of Syrian, Egyptian and Iranian galleries forming an independent unit of their own, all of the other galleries that together comprise both the ancient and the modern Middle East are positioned such that the Greco-Roman gallery becomes their inspirational epicenter! While I appreciate the effort to angle the layout for optimal inclusivity, this goal could equally have been achieved using an indigenous epicenter. That the Museum chose not to do so might well confirm its secular bias, or worse still, Edward Said’s argument that for Orientalists and their latter day surrogates, Europe must forever remain the fulcrum around which eastern culture pivots.
And just as the religious influence on art was being stifled at one end, an entire new section trumpeting Europe’s colonial sway over Islamdom was being added at the other. Just outside the ALTICALSA galleries the Museum chose to establish a spanking new gallery trumpeting the “European Vision of North Africa”. In it are housed the works of among others: Jean-Leon Gerome, Horace Vernet, and Charles Bargue. Gerome in particular, stands out if for no other reason than the fact that his painting, The Snake Charmer made the front cover of Said’s Orientalism. This voyeuristic peak into medieval Islam, with its juxtaposition of inebriated spectators gawking at forbidden flesh backed up by calligraphic tiles further ingrains the very stereotypes the Museum sought to avoid.
It is clear to me at least that Muslim outreach in America is vital not just to build interfaith bridges of understanding, but to ensure our very survival as a community in this part of the world. One of the ironies of living here is the great respect we command as individuals and the equally grave suspicion we garner as a community. Getting over this existential hurdle requires of us that we take our aesthetic dimension very seriously, and that we partner with others to accurately illustrate what it is aesthetically ours, and how this relates to our faith.
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