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Islamic Art Now

In recent years, the parameters of Islamic art (particularly as defined by museums, commercial art galleries, and private collections) have expanded to include contemporary works by artists from or with roots in the Middle East. These artists draw inspiration from their own cultural traditions, using techniques and incorporating imagery and ideas from earlier periods. They are not so much reinventing Islamic art as they are repurposing it so that it becomes more clearly a vehicle for personal expression, freed from the constraints of patronage and functionality.

The Letter "Kaf"
Guide us upon the Straight Path

Writing in Arabic is a consistent and powerful theme in classical Islamic art, as can be seen throughout this website, but it also resonates with many artists today as both an art form and a means of addressing their religious or cultural identity. One such artist is Ali Omar Ermes (Libya, active United Kingdom, b. 1945), whose calligraphic work, fluidly rendered with a brush rather than the traditional reed pen, often focuses on a single letter. In his version of the letter kaf (K), the bold, black mark, dramatically offset against the light paper (fig. 60), recalls the black inscriptions on a white ground that characterize tenth-century ceramic wares from the eastern Iranian world (figs. 10, 11). Although these works of art are widely separated by time and purpose, they share a common artistic vocabulary based in the Arabic alphabet. Situated among examples of classical Islamic art, the contemporary calligraphy is imbued with a sense of timelessness, while it, in turn, pulls the historical objects into the present day, giving them a new relevance. Trained as a calligrapher and an architect, Nasser Al Salem (Saudi Arabia, b. 1984) has developed his own approach to writing in which he focuses on the words and their meaning, the medium (he employs video and mixed media in addition to ink on paper), and the aesthetic, resulting in complex, highly nuanced and engaging works. Guide us upon the Straight Path (fig. 61) represents a novel approach to traditional calligraphy as it intentionally references the readings of a heartbeat monitor while adhering to a consistent proportionality in the script.

Untitled (Qajar Series)

Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, b. 1979) trained as both an artist and a physician. In his Illumination series, to which this beautiful diptych belongs (fig. 62), Mater draws inspiration from the Islamic arts of the book, in particular manuscripts of the Qur’an, whose pages were decorated with illuminated borders, headings, and verse markers. At the top and bottom of each panel, he inscribes the word waqf, a notation often found in manuscripts of the Qur’an, which designates a charitable donation. Mater radically magnifies his illuminated page, generally a small scale and intimate art form, creating instead a new sense of intimacy by using his pages to frame human x-rays. Set face to face, the skeletal images suggest some elemental form of humanity, stripped of the skin, hair, eyes, and clothes that differentiate as well as separate us.

Untitled (Qajar Series)
fig. 63 Speechless

The written word functions somewhat differently in the next three works by artists now based in the United States. Shirin Neshat (Iran, active United States, b. 1957) returned to her native Iran in 1990 after an absence of sixteen years, and much of what she saw and experienced informed her first major body of work the photographic series Women of Allah, to which belongs the mesmerizing print Speechless (fig. 63). It shows the right side of a woman’s face, the barrel of a gun emerging like a gaudy earring from the shadowy area between her cheek and the barely visible chador that covers her head. She stares calmly outward. The face, except for the eye, is covered with Persian text written directly on the image. For Neshat, the often painstaking and meticulous act of writing provides her with a more physical connection to her art. The words are those of the Iranian poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh, in which she addresses her brothers in the Revolution. Here Neshat is imagining for us in strong visual terms the mental state of a revolutionary woman.

Untitled (Qajar Series)

Lalla Essaydi (Morocco, active United States, b. 1956) frequently combines writing in Arabic with representations of the draped female, often appropriating Orientalist imagery from the tradition of Western painting, as in the triptych Odalisque (fig. 64). Its scale gives this work some of the same presence and power as the Western paintings, but here the supine figure covered in and surrounded by words inscribed in henna provokes in a very different manner, daring viewers to see her for who she is and not who they think she might be. Perhaps, she is simply waiting to be read.

Untitled (Qajar Series)


For an American audience there is the expectation that, as a diaspora artist from the Middle East, Ayad Alkadhi (Iraq, active United States, b. 1971) necessarily should express and clarify in his work the issues of war, destruction, politics, and sectarianism, especially as they relate to his homeland—Iraq. We have his provocative response in Upside Down (fig. 65). As in much of his work, the artist juxtaposes strong draftsmanship, in the Western sense, with his mastery of Arabic calligraphy, which makes for both dramatic fusion and visual tension. The words are not mere decoration but merge with and amplify his emotionally charged image of a pair of legs belonging to someone hung upside down. The text, by the tenth-century poet Abu Firas al-Hamdani, is written as if spoken by a prisoner to a dove that has landed near his window.

Untitled (Qajar Series)
Untitled (Qajar Series)

Shadi Ghadirian (Iran, b. 1974), who works in the medium of photography, uses her art to express herself as an Iranian and as a woman. Ghadirian’s best-known body of work, the Qajar Series, was inspired by nineteenth-century studio portraits of women depicted in the fashion of the day: thick, black eyebrows, headscarves, and short skirts worn over baggy trousers. In order to re-create the earlier photographic settings, Ghadirian employed painted backdrops and dressed her models in vintage clothing from the late 1800s. She added modern objects to these traditional scenes, such as a Pepsi can or a boom box (figs. 66, 67), a bicycle and an avant-garde Tehran newspaper. She has said of her work, “My pictures became a mirror reflecting how I felt: we are stuck between tradition and modernity.”

Untitled (Qajar Series)
Untitled (Qajar Series)




In the ingenious print series Rostam 2 The Return, Siamak Filizadeh (Iran, b. 1970) draws inspiration from the rich literary and visual traditions of the Shahnama or Book of Kings. In his retelling of the classic Persian tale, Filizadeh bypasses its universalities in favor of more specific social commentary. Indeed, his skillful blending of anachronistic and contemporary details that carry the viewer from the mythical realm of Iran’s greatest hero—Rostam (fig. 68)—to the artist’s take on the consumerism and popular culture of today’s Tehran employs conventions of Shahnama illustration that are nearly as old as the text itself. As in classical miniature painting in which a whimsically implausible world is created through the juxtaposition of expert draftsmanship, jewel-like colors, and multiple picture planes (fig. 69), the artist constructs a similarly incredible fantasy using re-created images and elements borrowed from medieval manuscript illustrations, contemporary magazine covers, and comic books, in which, as in the precise execution of the finest miniature paintings, no element seems too small or insignificant to have escaped the artist’s attention.



Untitled (Qajar Series)


Deported from Iraq to Iran at the age of six, and a member of the youth militia in the Iran-Iraq war as a teenager, Sadegh Tirafkan (Iraq, active Iran, 1965–2013) experienced loss at an early age. In his remarkable mixed media piece Always in Our Thoughts, he remembers those lost to him by referencing the hijla, an Iranian tradition of erecting temporary shrines to commemorate the dead (fig. 70). Tirafkan characterizes it as an offering from the living to the deceased to preserve their memories. The commemorative structure is suggested here by, among other things, the use of colorful strips of cloth, which allude to bits of fabric tied by visitors to the hijla in remembrance of the loved one. Tirafkan here extends the meaning to encompass family and friends still living from whom he is separated by distance or circumstance; it is they who are pictured in the photographs. This work was originally commissioned for the LACMA exhibition Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts (2011–2012).

LACMA has only recently begun to acquire contemporary art of the Middle East within the context of our Islamic collection. We do so in the belief that the function, strength, and ultimate success and relevance of the collection should not be based solely on exploring this art as a means to better understand the past. The collection can also be seen as a way to build creative links between the past, the present, and the future. We hope to continue to expand this section of our Islamic website as the collection grows.

Browse Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East

See the Online Exhibition: Ghadirian, Untitled (Qajar Series)

 

Images in top banner:
Shadi Ghadirian, Untitled (Qajar Series), 1998; silver bromide print; image: 15 x 10 in. (38.1 x 25.4 cm); sheet: 17 1/4 x 12 in. (43.82 x 30.48 cm); Purchased with funds provided by the Art of the Middle East Acquisition Fund, Art of the Middle East Deaccession Fund, the Ralph M. Parsons Fund, the Joan Palevsky Bequest by exchange, and Catherine Benkaim, with additional funds provided by Angella and David Nazarian, M.2008.35.9

Shadi Ghadirian, Untitled (Qajar Series), 1998; silver bromide print; image: 15 x 10 in. (38.1 x 25.4 cm); sheet: 17 1/4 x 12 in. (43.82 x 30.48 cm); Purchased with funds provided by the Art of the Middle East Acquisition Fund, Art of the Middle East Deaccession Fund, the Ralph M. Parsons Fund, the Joan Palevsky Bequest by exchange, and Catherine Benkaim, with additional funds provided by Angella and David Nazarian, M.2008.35.29

 



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Text by Linda Komaroff, PhD, curator of Islamic art.
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