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In Richmond, International and Local Artists Examine Past, Present and Future of Islamic Art

Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi's Harlem 2
Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi's "Harlem 2." Essaydi is one of the featured speakers at the 7th Islamic Art Symposium. (Courtesy of the artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY) Lalla Essaydi/Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY

Artists and scholars from around the world are in Richmond for the 7th Symposium on Islamic Art. To complement the gathering, VCU’s Anderson Gallery is highlighting the work of international and local Muslim artists in an exhibit titled "The Things I Could Tell..." WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.


The Islamic Art Symposium has been held in Doha, Qatar; Córdoba, Spain; and Palermo, Italy. This year it’s back in Richmond, at the VMFA. Speaking to WCVE via Skype, organizers Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom say the mission is to make the latest scholarship available but in a way that’s not stuffy.

Jonathan Bloom: We try to make it accessible. A lot of scholarly symposia and conferences are designed for the initiated, for people who already know everything and then have to learn some more…
Sheila Blair: To talk to each other (laughs)...
Bloom: And this one is we specifically ask people to speak to the general public.

The husband-wife team share the Hamad bin Khalifa Endowed Chair in Islamic Art. I asked them: What is Islamic Art?

Bloom: Good question!

And a question that’s evolving, they say. Academics generally defined Islamic Art as art made in Muslim-majority countries, but not necessary by Muslims.

Bloom: And so you can have a piece of metal work, let's say that has Christian scenes on it that is called Islamic Art. You can have like a synagogue in Cairo, that would be considered Islamic Art because in both cases the culture, the larger culture is a Muslim culture.

This traditional explanation is being questioned and different answers will be explored at the symposium. Speakers include Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi whose work examines the Arab female identity; Princess Wijdan (Ali) Al-Hashemi, President of Royal Society of Fine Arts, Jordan, an expert on modern Arab art; and Mohammad al-Asad, Founder of the Amman-Jordan based Center for the Study of the Built Environment.

Bloom: One of the most important expressions of Islamic art and culture has always been architecture.

Blair and Bloom says many consider the first work of Islamic Art to be the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Blair: A building!
Bloom: A building, and it has writing on it and it has vegetal motifs and lots of color, everything Sheila was talking about and that’s from 692.
Blair: And Muslims today are great patrons of architecture so for instance in Doha the new Museum of Islamic Art was designed by I.M. Pei and is one of the landmarks of contemporary architecture so it’s a theme that runs through.
Bloom: Our speaker has written very eloquently about contemporary architecture in the Muslim world and how some of it is extraordinarily good and some of it he would say is extraordinarily bad (laughter). But that's like architecture everywhere.

Another speaker at the Symposium is award-winning Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian who taught herself the craft at an early age and began working professionally at the age of 16.

Chase Westfall: When you look at the images, there’s a powerful authenticity and a powerful empathy that’s there.

Chase Westfall is Director of VCU’s Anderson Gallery which opens a new exhibit this week featuring Muslim and Arab-born artists, including Tavakolian’s series “Ocalan’s Angels” documenting the experiences of the YPJ - the Kurdish Women’s Defense Army that is fighting ISIS.

Westfall: Ever since ISIS has begun operations or shortly thereafter, these units of female fighters were organized as part of the resistance. And so there was something for me very kind of powerful and poignant about that: the risks that they take and the series really touches heavily on the fact that they are doing this at great personal risk. In fact a number of the images feature memorial gestures, graveyards, billboards that are all direct documentation of the high levels of fatality that these female soldiers face. But because of the kind of courage that they have because of the severity of the political and social circumstances they are motivated to give resistance to what they feel is absolutely destructive both in broad social terms and also in feminist terms.

The Anderson’s exhibit also includes an installation by NYU Professor and Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal.

Westfall: He's an interesting example of someone who does not frame his work in Muslim terms specifically but in the kind of deeper cultural heritage of of the kind of region of the Middle East as an Iraqi artist.

Bosnian-born architect and art historian Azra Akšamija’s work is also featured. The Director of the MIT’s Future Heritage Lab, she created a long-term project “Mosque Manifesto.”

Westfall: That is about rethinking mosque space as a potentially flexible platform for dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. And so it's a kind of I don't know if you would say post architectural but it's a kind of deconstructing of a traditional definition of architecture and reframing it more and again kind of sociological terms and seeing what that space can do as a hub for dialogue and cross-cultural discourse.

Westfall and the Anderson also partnered with VCU’s Muslim Student Association in a juried photo exhibition. Mazin Nasir is the group’s president.

Mazin Nasir: The selection was very, very great and a lot of people interpreted the theme differently, how Islam encompasses into daily life and just seeing the variety was very inspiring, awe-inspiring. It made me think of it in a different, in a different way.

Nasir says there are many creative Muslims on campus, but not many majoring in the arts. Sculpture major Sana Masud is one.

Sana Masud: I’m like the only Hijabi in my entire department.

Hijabi, that’s someone who wears the traditional Muslim headscarf. 

Masud: And there’s only one other hijabi in the entire art school, so that’s fun (laughs).

Masud’s images combine her textile work and photography, and continue her personal exploration of dealing with trauma through humor.

Masud: I was more interested in trying to maybe showcase something that's not blatantly Muslim I guess, because I'm more interested in the non-Orientalist view of Muslims and I feel like there's so many versions of being Muslim and there's so many people who are Muslim that also need a voice.

Political Science and journalism major Maryum Elnasseh submitted documentary photographs she took in Michigan at MIST, Muslim Interscholastic Tournament. One captures a women’s basketball game.

Masud: And they're just like lined up ready to play the game and I just love that image of Muslim female athletes because it's not something that is represented almost ever so I really wanted to capture that.

The theme of this year’s symposium is the past, present and future of Islamic Art, a conversation that Sana Masud says has traditionally has left people out.

Masud: In the past, Islamic art has been basically defined by white people and they basically took the entire region and was like, “all of that-- whatever comes out of that is Islamic art” even if the people who made it weren't Muslims, it was just labeled as Islamic art.

But now, says Masud, there’s growing recognition of Arab and Muslim artists

Masud: It’s so inspiring and wonderful to see and I’d love to see it continue and more Muslims going into often we are discouraged from going into the arts. I had to fight to go to art school and still I’m one of two blatantly obvious Muslims. And so often when Muslims do go into arts there's like a rejection of the faith that plays into their work. But I feel like there's just so many other narratives than that. And I would love for there to be more voices and where it goes in the future.

The VCU students are excited about having their work displayed next to acclaimed Muslim and Arab artists. Along with Anderson Director Westfall, they hope the exhibit and the symposium breaks down barriers and fosters understanding.

Masud: I hope, especially the Anderson being a space that lots of art students go regularly, I hope that I see my peers there and for them to consume what this exhibit is, because so often I go to exhibits, and this is the first time my people are being represented.

Nasir: I just really want people to ask questions, I want people to go up to Maryum and Sana and ask, Hey, what does this mean? What are they doing in this photo? Because through these questions, they get curious, they get answers and it kind of alleviates the fear of the unknown. And I think that's a big, big factor that's prohibiting unity in our nation, is just the fact that people really don't understand one another and if we don't understand one another, it’s impossible to unite and come together. So I really really hope I hear a lot of questions on Friday and Saturday and throughout the whole symposium.

Elnasseh: Piggybacking off of what Mazin said, like raising awareness to those who are not Muslim about what daily life of Muslims can be like and just the diversity like what Sana was saying, how her art, she wanted to show not blatantly Muslim things but different perspectives of being Muslim and also awareness for other Muslims who can pursue the arts.

Westfall: If we can open a conversation, then this is the sort of safe space aspect of these projects is two-fold. For Western audiences, it’s about opening them up to these these other traditions that they might because of you know the media and for the reasons tend to feel a little skeptical about or guarded towards; we can help sort of break down some of that suspicion or anxiety about kind of the otherness of these Muslim groups. And at the same time we can break down what may be a kind of reverse suspicion or guardedness against what the arts represent and the role that they fulfill here on campus that may be part of you know the Muslim student perspective. And so if we can have them come in here and see if this is the place where those voices are valued, where those perspectives are valued we may be able to get the Muslim student population, again speaking generally and probably to an end to an unfair extent generally, but getting them to feel that this is a place where they can come and be expressive and have their voices and presence valued.

The Anderson exhibit runs through early January. The Islamic Art Symposium goes through the Saturday. This is the final year it’s being organized by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom. The passionate husband and wife team say they’re ready to pass the baton.

Blair: It's time for younger people or maybe for the university to decide, how they want to continue.
Bloom: All things you know get a little bit stale… You know you have a wonderful formula and you repeat it several times and it gets better and better. And then it gets a little stale and then it gets very stale. And I think it's good to retire before this gets stale and that we should you know go out with a bang and not a whimper (laughs).

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.