The newest of the Louvre galleries has opened this week: Islamic Art is now displayed in a marvel of architecture. Does Display (re)invent Islamic Art? This article examines how Islamic Art as an academic field was invented at the turn of the 20th century as it was being exhibited  in Paris, Munich or London. It analyses the French connection in the invention of Islamic art and reflects on the political meaning of exhibiting Islamic Art in a post-9/11 context and the Orientalist tradition: unveiling the Louvre veil on Islamic art.

The first islamic Art display at the Louvre: Delort de Gléon room, Pavillon de l’horloge, 1921

That article was published (in French) in Qantara, the cultural magazine of the Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris), #82, winter 2012. The issue was dedicated to the Invention of Islamic Art.

Musée du Louvre, Department of Islamic Art, Mario Bellini & Rudy Ricciott architects, 2012

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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 »

Statue de Bourdelle au Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Alger, DR.

For the 15 years now, demands of return, repatriation and restitution of artefacts stolen during the colonial period have been an endless diplomatic issue between former colonised and colonisers in Africa. How objects of cultural heritage became subjects of conflict?

Not all Africans countries claim for their ‘looted’ heritage, North African countries (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) barely asked for cultural artefacts to be repatriated. This article explains that difference through the analysis of 50 years of cultural policies in a post-colonial context. It raises questions that help reformulating the dead-end of the question of restitutions. How that difference enlights the relationship between the part (the object in exile) and the all (the heritage in situ)?
This complete article (in French) is now  on line on

Jean-Gabriel Leturcq, « La question des restitutions d’œuvres d’art : différentiels maghrébins », L’Année du Maghreb [En ligne], IV | 2008,

Enjoy your reading*.

*I’m aware it is a very academic article. Research aims at fuelling cultural policies with new matters, doesn’t it!?

Tripolitania, un via de Tripoli

Commemorative Postcard, Italy or Libya, ca. 1915, DR.

In the midst of the last developments of liberated Libya, we’ve ‘forgotten’ to remember October 5th 1911*: the day the Italian army invaded Libya and started its colonisation. What’s the (political) meaning of commemorating history in Libya? This short article examines the political role of rewriting history in the context of Qaddafi’s regime and questions its future in the reconstruction of Libya.

On October 5 1911, Italian troops invaded Tripoli of Libya. After months of rising tensions between Italian and Turkish (Ottoman) governments, the Italian Navy had started to bomb the port of Tripoli leading to the invasion of Tripoli and Tripolitania. It took few years to the Italian Republican and Fascist troops to conquer what was to become Libya in 1934 after Cyrenaica was conquered and united with Fezzan and Tripolitania. Ironically, the centennial coincides with the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy. 1861, 1911, 2011: history seems to defy common sense in mixing dates. One wonders how the former regime would have orchestrated commemorations… No doubt it would have been a great post-colonial show as the resistance of Libyans to the Italian colonisation had been erected as a fundament of the ideology of Qaddafi’s ‘revolutionary’ regime. This short article – these are personal notes and reflections- examines the political role of rewriting history in the Libyan context and its future in the reconstruction of Libya.

Rewriting History

Historical studies were leaded and controlled by the Markaz al-Jihad (Research and Documentation Centre on the Historical Jihad [in this case resistance]). Created in 1978, that research center have been for more than 30 years a pillar of  Qaddafism. As explained by Clémence Weulersse (click here to read the article), its first role was to “liberate” the history of Libya that had been written by imperialist hands; in this pseudo-Marxist doxa, liberating history aimed at liberating minds. Second, the Markaz al-Jihad aimed at proving the possibility of the (Gadhafist) revolution in rewriting the history of Libya: Read the rest of this entry »

Amingo, ex. Nuer war child in Gambella, jan. 2008

New Sudan: Peace and Unity

Southern Sudan is the 193rd State recognised by the UN on the 14th of July 2011. Happy Birthday Southern Sudan: I wish you peace and unity. With a special thought to my friend Amingo I met in Gambella, the Ethiopian border town back in 2008. Here’s an excerpt of my 2008 Gambella Stories, a history of violence, multiculturalism, failed dreams of modernisation in a remote place:*

Amingo is a Sudanese Nuer. He was a war child and one of the refugees who arrived in the 1980’s when the Sudanese civil war opposing the Northern Sudanese government to the Southern Sudanese guerilla resumed. The leadership of the Guerrilla was based in a refugee camp near Gambella city, and almost ruled on the region. It is a long story. Read the rest of this entry »

On the 7th of October 2009, the French Culture minister  announced the Musée du Louvre would return to the Egyptian authorities five  fresco fragments   supposedly stolen from a tomb in the Kings’ Valley (Louxor). Why did it break the news?

Egyptian officials and the returned hair of Ramses IIThe issue is not really new. Since the early 2000’s, the problem of cultural property have gained visibility and  became a  source of diplomatic and political conflict. Two opposite positions are confronting. On one hand, institutions in archaeological-source countries claim for the right to be returned, rapatriated or restituted “their” “looted” artifacts as part of the national heritage. On the other hand, 18 museums from antiquities-importing countries have signed the Declaration of the importance and Value of Universal Museums (2002) stating the artifacts in their collections do not belong to a  nation in particular but to the entire Humanity. As both arguments can be considered as valid, it results  in a deadlock situation such as in the case of the Parthenon/Elgin Marble whose property is claimed at the same time by Greek authorities and the British Museum.

The new thing about this recent return is that the Louvre is one of the museums that signed the 2002 Declaration. For the first time, one of those museums agrees in such a short time (less than two weeks) to return the claimed pieces… without negociating any condition. How was it possible?

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Here is an article published (in French) in the Swiss weekly L’Hebdo (Lausanne) on the September 9th, 2009. The original article can be downloaded here (with a great cartoon)!

Election à l’Unesco: Le clash des cultures?

L’organisation désigne son nouveau directeur le 17 septembre. Mais les deux favoris en lice, l’Egyptien Farouk Hosni et l’Autrichienne Benita Ferrero-Waldner, n’ont guère de vision et jouent la carte du «choc des civilisations».

texte Jean-Gabriel LETURCQ et Andreas WESTERWINTER

En septembre, l’Unesco doit élire son nouveau directeur général. Parmi les neuf candidats en lice, deux monopolisent l’attention des médias. Ils sont aussi les plus controversés. D’un côté, le ministre égyptien de la Culture, Farouk Hosni, qui avait promis en 2008 de «brûler tous les livres israéliens» dans les bibliothèques égyptiennes et qui se présente comme «une chance pour la culture arabe». De l’autre, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, actuelle commissaire pour les relations extérieures de l’Union européenne (UE) et ancienne ministre autrichienne  dans un gouvernement de coalition avec le parti d’extrême droite de Jörg Haider, le FPÖ.

Présumés favoris, du fait de leur notoriété relative, Hosni et Ferrero-Waldner orientent leur campagne vers une rhétorique du «choc des civilisations» qui sert leurs intérêts respectifs; mais, si elle se révélait assez efficace, elle décrédibiliserait sans doute l’Unesco. Car la tâche de cette agence de l’ONU, basée à Paris, ne se limite pas à désigner des zones de patrimoine culturel mondial. Comme son nom l’indique, l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour l’éducation, les sciences et la culture a des mandats bien plus vastes. L’Unesco est censée aider les pays les plus défavorisés à mettre en oeuvre des politiques éducatives, à promouvoir des politiques scientifiques, à établir des normes universelles en bioéthique ou, encore, à favoriser le dialogue entre les cultures par la promotion de l’éducation, des sciences et de la culture. L’élection du directeur général est donc l’occasion pour l’organisation de repenser ses missions et ses défis. Seulement voilà, vu le profil des deux «favoris», la question se pose: sont-ils à la hauteur?

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Whose Pharaohs?

June 6, 2009

Article publié in Qantara, 62, Janvier 2007 et partiellement reproduit (sans autorisation dans La nouvelle République d’Alger, 18 septembre 2007)

Temple de Karnak (ca. 1870)

Temple de Karnak (ca. 1870)

De l’appropriation du patrimoine préislamique dans le monde arabe.

Le 5 avril 2003, tandis que les forces américaines entraient dans Bagdad, les media annonçaient le pillage du Musée Iraqien et la disparition de 170 000 pièces d’antiquités. La réaction internationale condamnait alors avec la perte irrémédiable de collections d’objets assyriens, babyloniens, etc. la destruction d’un patrimoine de l’humanité. Les Irakiens pour leur part dénonçaient la destruction de leur patrimoine national[1]. Universel ou national ?

Sgt Lindsay posing with Nefertiti (1946) source:
Sgt Lindsay posing with Nefertiti (1946)

À qui appartiennent donc les antiquités assyriennes, babyloniennes en Iraq ou Syrie, pharaoniques en Égypte, phéniciennes au Liban, byzantines en Jordanie, mais aussi romaines, berbères en Algérie, Tunisie, Libye et au Maroc, ou “négro-africaine” au Soudan ou en Somalie ? Comment les témoignages matériels de l’époque préislamique, l’héritage de la jahilyya en quelque sorte, peuvent être intégrés aux constructions des nations modernes à dominante musulmane ? Bien qu’on constate que c’est avec une intensité fort différente que s’exercent les demandes de restitution des œuvres acquises illicitement et conservées aujourd’hui dans les musées occidentaux, les patrimoines préislamiques dans le monde arabe sont finalement devenus des objets de négociation pour les États contemporains. Patrimoine mondial, patrimoine national : ces antiquités appartiennent-elles aux dites nations ou au reste du monde ? Comment les antiquités préislamiques sont devenues des enjeux identitaires tant au niveau des nations que sur la scène internationale

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