Is Islamic Art a Western invention? I open with this article a series of articles I’ve published this year on the invention of Islamic Art. It comes in line with the reopening of departments of Islamic Art a the Metropolitan  in November 2011 and at the Louvre expected in 2012. It leads to a reflection on the Orientalist tradition and the political meaning of exhibiting Islamic Art.

Poster & Matiss

Poster of "Meisterwerke muhammedanischer Kunst" exhibition, Munich, 1910, photo:DR. // Matisse and friends at the Oktoberfest, Munich 1910, DR.

Are contemporary exhibitions/museums of Islamic Art embedded in a century old Orientalist tradition?
Here’s a book review – published on Studia Islamica, 2011, 2 – of Avinoam Shalem & Andrea Lermer’s After One Hundred Years that celebrated the 100 years of the exhibition ‘Meisterwerk muhammedanischer Kunst’held in Munich in 1910. The aim of the organisers the Munich 1910 exhibition was to break up with Orientalism by linking Oriental Art to Modernism. The exhibition entered history that way with Matisse among other avant-garde artists visiting it. This book examines the heritage of this amazing exhibition considered as a major landmark in Islamic Art studies. This book review offers a chance to reflect on the history of exhibitions as a research topic. It also raises questions on the contemporary exhibitions of Islamic Art in the public space and their political discontent. Is exhibiting Islamic Art political? As more museums are being opened, the orientalist tradition raises under the cover of a so-called  Islamophilia supposed the counter post 9/11 islamophobia.

After one hundred years: the 1910 exhibition ‘Meisterwerk muhammedanischer Kunst’ reconsidered’, Andrea Lermer and Avinoam Shalem, Leyde, Brill, 2010, 401 p. Read the rest of this entry »

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What is the meaning of an Ethnographic Museum in a post-colonial world in which boundaries between the Self and the Other are in a constant evolution? If the Self and the Other are a reflective myth, the Museum is a privileged machinery to construct the representation of Alterity, of Otherness.

Savignac, "Allez au Musée de l'Homme", Affiche, 1981, DR

The Museum orders, screenplays and formalises the re-presentation of the World. Therefore, the Museum appears a effective place to study the history of the representations of Others as in the case of the transformation of the old Paris’ Musée de l’Homme into the new unfortunate Musée du Quai Branly. [On the Quai Branly’s vicissitudes, refer to Kimmelman’s brilliant article: “Heart of Darkness in the City of Light“, New York Times, July 2 2006]

This book review [in French] of Benoît de l’Estoile’s, the Taste of Others [Le goût des Autres*] provides a chance to discuss the role of Anthropology and the Museum in the reprensentation of Alterity. Commenting on the book’s argument also provides an insight that reconsiders the role of anthropologists and intellectuals in the social and political debates on multiculturalism.

Anticipating on the conclusions and on further articles (to come here, stay tuned), I think that this book offered a good example of a certain school of Museum Studies that hardly consider museums as a research subject but as an object: the study of discourses about the museum overdetermines the topic of Otherness. Museum considered as a discourse is a powerful means to understand non said representations and give sense to nonsensical cultural discourses.

* Note: Le goût des autres / The Taste of Others: this is a literal translation as to keep on playing with the reference to Agnès Jaoui’s 2000 film on the experience of multiculturalism in France. As a complementary reading on the same topic, here’s a reference to Sally Price’s excellent Paris Primitive: Jacques’s Chirac Museum at the Quai Branly, Chicago, 2007… [here’s a book review in French].

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Here is a short book review of Silvia Naef’s Y-a-t-il une « question de l’image » en Islam ? [litt. Is there ‘a question of image’ in Islam? / trans. Pictures and Aniconism in Islam] (Paris, Téraèdre, 2004 / published in German in 2007). It was written in 2006 but published in 2004 [sic!] in Studia Islamica. It’s available online on Jstor. If I were to write it again I would write something very different. Reviewing that book offers a chance to discuss the issues of Orientalism and how the contemporary understanding of pictures and images is embedded in the 19th c. conception of an essentialist prohibition of pictures in Islam.

A propos de Silvia Naef, Y-a-t-il une « question de l’image » en Islam ? Paris, Téraèdre (collection « l’Islam en débats »), 2004, 132 pages.

1. La question de l’image en Islam est-elle caricaturale ? « L’affaire des caricatures » aux premiers mois de 2006 a réveillé de vieux démons d’une opposition Occident-Orient. Des caricatures du Prophète de l’Islam publiées dans le magazine danois Jyllands-Posten mettaient le feu aux poudres. Pour les commentateurs, peu importaient les dessins, leur pertinence ou impertinence, le bon ou le mauvais goût, qu’ils aient été vus ou non, c’était le principe de l’interdiction de la représentation figurée (en particulier celle du Prophète) qui avait été enfreint. Ce qui était alors apparu comme une haine de l’Occident pour les uns répondait à ce qui était vécu comme une haine de l’Islam[1] pour les autres. Le débat s’est donc résumé à une opposition de partis autour d’une idée reçue sur l’Islam, des mieux enracinées dans les consciences, celle d’une société sans images. Read the rest of this entry »