Berlin exhibition takes new approach to Islamic art | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 12.11.2009
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Berlin exhibition takes new approach to Islamic art

A new Berlin exhibition parallels ancient and contemporary Islamic art. The works are meant to be taken at face value, without any political or religious overtones. And stereotypes are to be left at the door.

Video installation of balconies in Beirut, by Hale Tenger

Hale Tenger's video installation of balconies in Beirut contrast with ancient Islamic art

In the newest exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, visitors are asked to take a fresh look at Islamic culture.

"It is now very common to speak of Islamic culture in a way that reduces it, whether it is violence or a patriarchal culture or the veil," said the exhibition's head curator Almut Bruckstein Coruh, who came from Jerusalem to Berlin to explore her own German-Jewish background. "This exhibition tries to undo these very strict and rude and basically violent boundaries created by this form of public discourse."

The exhibition is titled "Taswir," which, in Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish means roughly "portrayal, likeness, drawing, or photograph." Despite popular misconceptions, images are not absent from Islamic tradition, Bruckstein told Deutsche Welle. The attitude toward images in Islamic culture is ambivalent and has varied through history, she added.

Abdulnasser Gharem's The Path, 2007

Abdulnasser Gharem's "The Path," 2007

To understand the exhibition that has been painstakingly assembled by Bruckstein, together with classical art historian Hendrik Budde, it is worth considering what it is not. The structure of the show, which incorporates over 250 works, does not have a beginning or an end. There is no chronology, it is not political, and most specifically, said Bruckstein, it is not a study of religion.

A poetic arrangement

The exhibition's 18 rooms have been set up based on an idea by Aby Warburg, a late 19th-century art historian - a first for a European gallery. The concept, called the Mnemosyne Atlas, is a way of exhibiting art based on poetic association instead of chronology or theme.

In addition to works by over 50 contemporary artists, classical Islamic works are on loan from important national and international libraries and museums, including the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the British Museum and British Library in London, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin's Pergamon Museum.

"The mixing of classical and contemporary objects is absolutely new for me," said Budde. "Of course it was a struggle. Ms Bruckstein was fighting for her contemporary works and I was begging, please don't overwhelm my mostly - let's face it - tiny classical objects. But there are many rooms I am delighted by and the classical objects have, in fact, been heightened by their juxtaposition with the contemporary."

Maliheh Afnan's Veiled Minds, 2006

Maliheh Afnan's "Veiled Minds," 2006

Not least of the classical artefacts assembled by classicist Hendrik Budde is a set of three painted Korans, including an extremely rare 10th-century golden Koran. These examples were rare even in their day as Korans are traditionally not decorated so as not to detract from the words.

In some cases, however, visitors can't be sure whether they are looking at a classical or a modern piece, Budde added - which may make them observe the objects more closely.

Unveiling art

The exhibition asks the visitors to resist the temptation to compartmentalize Islamic and European art.

"I have never liked tags," said Palestinian-born artist Maliheh Afnan. "I happen to be a woman, I happen to be an artist and I happen to be from the Middle East. There is all this talk nowadays about the veil and I thought about what we are hiding from within. I think I prefer to deal with a person who veils their face and not themselves. I think it is easier to deal with."

Afnan has presented six works of calligraphy - a tradition she said is often connected to poetry as well as the Koran. Even when using a very decorative script, religious texts or poetry always had to be readable. Afnan, however, has broken with this tradition. She said her work is about the idea of writing itself, and is never actually readable.

"I come from an ancient part of the world, so my work never looks fresh. It looks weathered by time. It is about the passage of time and about the ageing process," said Afnan.

Chant Avedissian's The Arab Nation, 2008

Chant Avedissian's "The Arab Nation," 2008

One of the exhibition's strongest rooms, Face and Effaced Face, is a play on the concept and idea of the veil. The question here, said Bruckstein, is what you see if you don't have a regional, ethnic, or religious definition.

At one end of the room is a 16th-century miniature of the Prophet Muhammad. The picture shows a classically-veiled Muhammad pointing at a full moon, which is traditionally a metaphor for beauty or perfection. Muhammad's posture says: If you want to see me, look at the full moon.

While the curators and artists are adamant that the show is neither about religion nor politics, this may not always be clear to the visitor. The most recent piece in the room is a 2001 photo montage by Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji, who was exiled from Gaza and is now living in Paris. The photographs, taken black on black, depict the faces of 170 people killed by the Israeli defence forces.

Bruckstein had to fight hard to get the art out of Gaza. She said that, even here, the focus is not on martyrdom but rather on engagement with the human face.

Life as a trace of absence

In following with the exhibition's method of poetic association, the show's walls are scattered with sayings from thinkers and philosophers that define the theme or sentiment of each room. One of them is from French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who said, "Life must be thought of as a trace of absence."

Budde has chosen a 16th-century miniature painting of the Prophet Muhammad's sandals for this room. It is part of a larger Indian and Persian tradition that sees footprints as the presence of someone's absence.

Khusraw watches Shirin bathing, 16th century miniature

"Khusraw watches Shirin bathing," 16th century miniature

The centerpiece of the room is a four-by-four-meter well of sand. A dial moves around the circle continuously, creating grooves with one side and rubbing them out with the other.

"It is not a show about religion," said Bruckstein, "for example the question of the feet leaving a trace of absence is not a religious question; it is a question of leaving a trace. The three artists in the room are having a conversation."

Budde said that this kind of exhibition is rare, since European museum-goers are more familiar with Christian art.

"I hope that visitors from Islamic countries will be interested to see what we dared to put together, to do what can't be done in some Arabic countries," said Budde.

The exhibition runs until January 18, 2010.

Author: Tanya Wood

Editor: Kate Bowen

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