Why do we keep talking about ‘Islamic art?’

First of all the term “Islamic Art” is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest, as it suggests the art is religious in nature. The truth is the art was merely produced by a wide variety of cultures in predominantly Islamic regions. The term “Islamic Art” makes as much sense as “Catholic Art” as a blanket term for Renaissance works. How it continues to be an official term in the West despite its patently misleading nature is beyond me.

This was a reader’s comment on my WSJ review of “Spirit and Matter: Masterpieces from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art,” and I cannot tell you how many times I have had these very same thoughts myself.  Nor am I alone.  There probably isn’t a student or writer or scholar who deals with art from Islamic societies that does not struggle over the use of this term.

So why does it survive?  My take on this is that, for all its inadequacies, the term offers a helpful shorthand.  “Islamic architecture” conjures images of domes, intricate geometric patterns, pointed arches, arabesques in tile…  “Islamic ceramics” triggers images of lusterware, bowls with beautiful calligraphy running along their borders, colorful tilework with arabesques and interlocking shapes…   If someone talks about “a 17th-century  Islamic battle scene” you’re not going to think it looks  like this Italian drawing by Francesco Allegrini…Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 3.41.05 PM

… or this Japanese screen.

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You’re going to immediately imagine something along the lines of this 17th-century Indian Mughal miniature…Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 4.25.56 PM

or this 16th century Persian miniature from the Princeton Peck Shahnama (whose 48 paintings, by the way, are currently on view in a lovely show).


Persian, Iran, Shiraz, Giv Charges into Battle against Piran, folio 185a from the Peck Shahnama, 1589–90. Image courtesy of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.  Currently on view in “Princeton’s Great Persian book of Kings at the Princeton University Art Museum.

So is  “Islamic art” an all-comprehensive term?  No.  Is it sometimes misleading?  Absolutely.  Does it at least point us in the right direction?  Well, yes.  For good or ill, “Islamic art” has come to denote an aesthetic, an approach, a redilection for certain kinds of forms, and a repertoire of techniques that are recognizable even if not actually definable.  But — and this is a crucial but — “Islamic art” only means something if we’re on the outside looking in.  Its very vagueness implies  distance in the same  way that, say, “Indian art” is only meaningful from the perspective of someone standing in Europe or the US.  Go stand in Gujarat or Tamil Nadu, and a marble statue of Mahavir bears no resemblance to a Pala bronze of Shiva.  Yet, from afar, we recognize both as  “Indian.”

A conversation with artists in Kabul drove this point home not too long ago.  I was researching a piece for Aramco World magazine and, at one point, asked several artists at the Turquoise Mountain Institute  whether they were making “Islamic art.”  They answered no, their work was not religious.  And in terms of style, calling it “Islamic” seemed to make no sense to them at all.  Their work, they said, was Afghan.  But for many  in Europe and the Americas “Afghan art” doesn’t conjure an image.  Referring to “Islamic art” does.

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Chiseling between his guidelines, a wood-carving student at the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture in Kabul carves out an eight-point floral arabesque. All draw upon Afghanistan’s rich and colorful artistic heritage. Photo published in Aramco World courtesy of the Turquoise Mountain Institute.



Escaping art history’s little boxes

It’s the difference between a crisp line drawing and modeled, shaded painting with plenty of blurred lines.  Not as easy to describe in short sentences, but oh so rewarding.  That’s how I feel about the shift in art history from a discipline of strict categories and linear progress to one that celebrates the porousness of cultural borders, the effervescnt curiosity that animates art, and the squiggly lines, radical turns and even dead ends that mark artistic journeys.  Just look at some current shows — Made in the Americas at the MFA, Boston, and before it Interwoven Globe and Lost Kingdoms at the Met, and a show I just saw at the Dallas Museum of Art, Inca: the Conquests of the Andes, which could be a prequel to the story told at the MFA.

Why am I so excited?  Here’s my simplistic recap of history.  Scholars and curators have, yes, long pointed out how artists have borrowed motifs from imported good or styles from earlier works.  But this has usually been done within art history’s tidy little boxes, each representing a distinct, well-defined movement or style.  There are good reasons why the discipline developed this way.  We’re hard-wired to think and analyze by sorting data into categories — we name forests so we don’t get bogged down by all those trees.   So it makes perfect sense that as  men and women of the Enlightenment set out to understand the world around them, they made lists and created groupings.  With the concept of nation-states came additional impetus to place art in well-defined and separate categories.  If people could claim a distinct culture, they constituted a “nation.”  They could draw borders around their land and  claim the right to govern themselves.   Throw in the additional notion of  progress, and all those little boxes line up into straight, forward pointing vectors.

So what about objects that don’t fit into a box or stray from the path of progress?  Easier to push them to the margins, label them anomalous, or ignore them altogether.  The alternative was to attack the very  sanctity of those boxes — which is exactly what is happening now.  IMG_0741

Look at this desk-cum-bookcase: as I point out in my WSJ review, its exterior has Mudéjar flair (Mudéjar already being a swirling mix of Moorish and Spanish, whatever that really means); its interior adopts the colors of Chinese lacquer imports, using a technique borrowed from the Inca; and the scenes depicted are South American complete with palm trees, enslaved Africans and haciendas.

The form itself, of course, comes straight from Europe.  And, yes, I am well aware that to describe this I am invoking all those categories this piece of furniture defies — which just goes to prove what useful tools these abstractions are.  But that is what they are: abstractions, not mirrors of reality.   What is exciting about the shift in art history is that what used to be marginalia are now celebrated as  the physical traces of  exciting, multi-layered, ever-shifting cultures.  Inca art itself, as the Dallas Museum show illustrates, has elements of other Andean peoples.  Take this tunic (which I love to imagine swaying with every step the wearer takes): made sometime between 1400 and 1540, it shows highland styles seeping into coastal areas (or so the label says — not my area of expertise.)  The take-away here is the same: cultural borders have always been porous because artists have always been curious, inventive, and experimental.  Want even more evidence? Check out Ferozkoh: Renewing the Arts of Turquoise Mountain.

Tunic, 1400-1540 Peru (Dallas Museum of Art 1989.W.2433, should you want to look it up)

Dallas Museum of Art 1989.W.2433, should you want to look it up

Beauty and meaning in a Roman villa’s paintings

triclinium 2nd styleNobody knows who the villa belonged to except that they were wealthy, Roman, and keen to dazzle guests with their lavish residence on the flanks of Mount Vesuvius.  Not far from Pompeii in the town of Torre Annunziata, the 1st century villa was consumed by lava in the eruption of 79, an eruption so violent that it altered the coastline, creating a landfill so that homes like this one that once had sea views now were further inland.

detail of mural
This particularly lavish country home is variously known as Villa Poppea and  Villa Oplontis.  By any name, it offers a treasure trove of Roman painting styles and an ingenious decorative scheme designed to keep everyone in their rightful place during extended visits.

That last part, at least, is what the University of Texas team, headed by John Clark and Michael Thomas, believes may be the reason behind a most unusual zebra-stripe motif.  It covers the walls in the courtyard reserved for slaves–


Courtyard in the villa’s slave quarters

hallway with stripesand the same stripe motif reappears in some of the hallways throughout the villa.  Clark’s and Thomas’s thesis is that it let the slaves of guests — as well as the guests themselves — know which areas were reserved for guests and which were to be used by their slaves.  Very clever.

John Clark (left) and Michael Thomas (right) in a storeroom-office in Villa Oplontis.

John Clark (left) and Michael Thomas (right) in a storeroom-office in Villa Oplontis.

For more information about the work the University of Texas team, check out The Oplontis Project.

And for more on Roman painting styles, there is a fabulous free on-line Yale class which you can also take through Coursera.  My husband and I took it before traveling to Pompeii last year, and it proved invaluable — the class was the reason we made a point of going to Villa Oplontis where we had the unexpected good fortune of running into John Clark and Michael Thomas hard at work.

Newly opened Japanese garden in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Here are some more photos that relate to my WSJ review of two Japanese gardens.  You can see images of the MFA Boston’s garden in my earlier blog and here are photos I took in the Japanese garden of the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

wending our way down to the lake

wending our way down to the lake

a viewing platform -  Japanese Garden in the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

South waterfall

at the top of the South waterfall, a large (yin) and smaller (yang) boulders

a boulder appears to leap upstream in the south waterfall

a boulder appears to leap upstream in the south waterfall

North waterfall

North waterfall

view from the peninsula of a group of menhir-like sculptures: "Existence" by Masayaki Koorida

view from the peninsula of a group of menhir-like sculptures: “Existence” by Masayuki Koorida

approaching "Long Island Buddha" by Zhang Huan

approaching “Long Island Buddha” by Zhang Huan

Long Island Buddha by Zhang Huan -  Japanese Garden in the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

The verse reads: The young leaves, all the shapes of hearts, all the shapes of eyes

One of 23 verses carved into boulders: part of “For the Garden” by Jenny Holzer

Large boulder with smaller accompanying one

In the Zen-style rock garden

a view from atop viewing hill

from atop ‘viewing hill’

Even the gardeners' gloves strike a mudra

Even the gardeners’ gloves strike a mudra

The Japanese garden at the MFA, Boston

Some of the comments on my review in today’s WSJ complained about the lack of photos, so I am posting a number of pictures I took.  Here are some shots of the Tenshin-en or Garden of the Heart of Heaven at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (see the next post for photos from the Frederik Meijer Garden & Sculpture Park ).  The MFA also has a mobile site with videos on different aspects of the garden.

from the viewing platform, turtle island on the left, crane island on the right

from the viewing platform, turtle island on the left, crane island on the right

View of crane island with rocks that suggest wings -- while also recalling Mt Fuji on the right and Massachusetts' Mt. Monadnock on the left

View of crane island with rocks that suggest wings — while also recalling Mt Fuji on the right and Massachusetts’ Mt. Monadnock on the left

turtle island - Tenshin-en garden at MFA, Boston

view of turtle island

waterfall - Tenshin-en garden at MFA, Boston

the waterfall with dark, round pebbles standing in for pooling water

Old Man rock - Tenshin-en garden at MFA, Boston

following the river in our imagination - Tenshin-en garden at MFA, Boston

water basin - Tenshin-en garden at MFA, Boston

my personal favorite rock - Tenshin-en garden at MFA, Boston

My favorite rock in this garden — easy to see why Japanese designers name rocks.

Malawi’s Rock art

A screen shot showing animals silhouetted in white pigment on a rock face in Malawi.

Screen shot of CCTV’s “Faces of Africa” report on Moses Mkumpha, Malawi’s only conservator

Moses Mkumpha is a quiet man with unrushed movements and a thorough approach.  Watching him dust a basket and meticulously bag every strand that broke off, it was clear that he had the perfect temperament for a conservator.  And listening to the respect with which he spoke about the history contained in Malawi’s rock art, the ruins of its ancient slave trading post, and the country’s dinosaur and early hominid fossils, it was  clear he had a passion for his country’s heritage.

Moses Mkumpha studying and cleaning a basket from Botswana as part of his training at the Comservation Center of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

Moses Mkumpha in the ethnographic conservation lab of the American Natural History Museum –              photo: Lee Adair Lawrence

I had the privilege of reporting on him while Mkumpha was in the US getting training at the Conservation Center of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.  Now Naashon Zalk, a director in South Africa, has followed him in Malawi and made a documentary that aired in the series “Faces of Africa.”  You can see it here:  http://english.cntv.cn/2015/04/05/VIDE1428230775088513.shtml

One of many treats of Asia week

Painting by Pu Ru made for his student, An HoSuch a delight to see works by one of my favorite painters, An Ho, alongside a painting (on the right) by her teacher Pu Ru, one the last scholar artists of China.  There is also a marvelous hanging scroll of a tiger that Pu Ru and An Ho painted together.

China 2000 Fine Art is showing some of An Ho’s figurative paintings from the 1950s (below) …

by An Ho at China 2000 Fine Arta couple of stark, winter landscapes in ink from a decade or so ago…

and then, a recent landscape (below) where trees are again in leaf.  An Ho landscape at China 2000 Fine Art

An Ho’s vision is as poetic and sharp as ever, and her hand as deft and expressive.  A thrill to see.

(I first met An Ho when I wrote about a show  at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art; I then wrote  a short feature when An Ho was teaching students at MICA how to handle the brush in the way that Pu Ru once taught her. )