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the new Islamic art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Qa’a (reception room), Damascus, Syria, 1707. Installation view, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011.

ON NOVEMBER 1 OF LAST YEAR, after much anticipation and a series of celebratory events, the new “Islamic Art” galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened to the public. They had been closed for more than eight years to allow for the renovation of the Greek and Roman galleries immediately below (the heavy machinery’s vibrations might have damaged the delicate objects) and during their hiatus had undergone their own extensive renovation. Their surface area and content have been expanded, their appearance and significance transformed. The result is nothing less than spectacular.

The new galleries have visibly been designed and curated with the aim of achieving maximum wow effect. Packed with almost twelve hundred artifacts, many of which have been brought back from storage and a few of which are recent acquisitions, the galleries easily qualify as the top exhibit of Islamic art in the United States and one of the top five worldwide. Proceeding through fifteen interconnected rooms arranged in two concentric layers around a central courtyard, the visitor moves counterclockwise in roughly chronological order from the art of the Umayyads and Abbasids in the Arab world and Iran, where the earliest exhibits date from the seventh century, to the art of Mughal South Asia, where the most recent work is not much more than a century old. The galleries in between cover Iran and central Asia (with one gallery spanning the ninth through thirteenth centuries and another the thirteenth through sixteenth); Egypt and Syria (tenth through sixteenth centuries); Spain, North Africa, and the western Mediterranean (eighth through nineteenth centuries); the Ottoman world (fourteenth through twentieth centuries); and Safavid and later Iran (sixteenth through twentieth centuries) in what amounts to an almost comprehensive historical-geographic survey of the Islamic world.

Along the way, the visitor encounters a few specialized smaller galleries, anterooms that function as side excursions in the historical journey. First is the Nishapur and Sabz Pushan Gallery, containing intricate stucco panels carved with abstract designs and excavated by Met-sponsored expeditions to these important medieval Iranian sites. Second is the Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery, named after the famous patron of Islamic art and dedicated to temporary shows. Then comes the reconstructed Damascus Room, which, with its painted boiserie and marble mosaic floor, elegantly exemplifies Syrian Ottoman residential halls of the eighteenth century. And finally there is the Alhambresque courtyard, a new addition, complete with slender Nasrid columns, gurgling fountain, geometric zilij dadoes, coffered wooden ceiling, and intricate stucco carving exquisitely executed by craftsmen from Fez, Morocco. The space serves both as an interlude of repose and as a contextualizing prelude to the Spain and North Africa gallery. It is also meant to demonstrate the survival of the crafts that produced the gems of medieval Islamic architecture: a mixed message that seems to stress both historicism and uninterrupted creativity.

Throughout, the visitor is dazzled, awed, and educated not only about art but also about Islamic history and cultures, in a discreet bid to counter the negative rap that Islam and Muslims have sustained recently. This brings us to a delicate problem that has been endlessly discussed by the museum’s curators and managers and by most reviewers: In undertaking its ambitious redesign, the museum set itself the task of contributing to the effort to rehumanize “Islam” after the attacks of 9/11 without appearing too didactic and without losing sight of the main objective—which is to show art, not elucidate a beleaguered religion. In their effort to meet this challenge, the curators have pursued multiple strategies, some more successful than others. But all, taken together, raise fundamental questions about art, culture, politics, and the role of art museums in today’s globalized world. Two issues concern me most. First: How might a museum realize an immersive viewing experience while using art as the main agent by which to introduce and explain a foreign culture and religion? Second, and more generally: How can a museum reconcile its traditional mission of showing, explaining, and contextualizing art with other, para-artistic aims—diplomatic, political, and, dangerously, ideological?

It is a testimony to the tremendous intellectual and curatorial efforts that have gone into the new galleries that these broader issues are subtly incorporated into the overall design as well as the choice and arrangement of artifacts. The curatorial team has managed to strike a balance between comprehensiveness and accessibility, carving a navigable path through the tremendous profusion of objects on view, including many, especially carpets but also ceramic bowls, metalwork, and pages of miniature paintings, that are so rich in detail as to demand repeated viewing. The loose but orderly chronological succession gives the viewer unfamiliar with Islamic history a road map, whereas the geographically circumscribed exhibits anchor him or her in an artistically and culturally cohesive area within the larger, and supposedly confusing, ambit of Islamic art. Maps, explanatory introductions, interactive screens, and succinct captions complement this approach. So do the varied display strategies: installations that try to achieve the best viewing angles for the artifacts, a coherent color palette for the diverse galleries’ walls, and lighting that is dramatic at times but mostly soft and subdued, which is especially effective in the case of the carpets, with their wavy texture and strong but dark colors.

On the other hand, architectural elements, both historic and newly designed, seem to have been meant to contextualize the objects, but they end up casting them into an ambiguous zone between the artistic and the cultural, sometimes even bordering on the ethnographic. This is how one may read the effect of the classicizing colonnade in the Umayyad gallery, the lobed Mughal carved wooden arch in the South Asia gallery, the sixteenth-century Spanish ceiling of the carpet room, the Damascus Room, and above all the new Andalusian/Moroccan courtyard. The overall goal may have been to provide some representative architectural ambience. But the self-signifying capacity of the artifacts is inevitably dimmed by the cultural referentiality of the decor—a diversion that modern and contemporary art institutions steadfastly avoid. Contextualizing “Islamic Art” at the new galleries may thus reflect the impulse to educate the public about the culture, through the art, above all, which seems to have motivated many of the decisions about the design and the choice of artifacts.

Lessons are disseminated much more subtly in the intelligent display of figurative art throughout the galleries. Dispelling long-held beliefs about the absolute aniconism in Islamic art, human and animal figures appear in almost every medium: carpets, metalwork, ivory carvings, ceramics, tiles, miniature paintings, and, unexpectedly, full-fledged three-dimensional statues. Especially dramatic are two painted stucco royal figures from Seljuq Iran (mid-eleventh century), preceded by a large, lion-shaped bronze incense burner, also from Seljuq Iran. But the most controversial figure in Islamic art is of course that of the Prophet Muhammad, of whom the Met has six illustrations. Predictably, angry voices were raised in opposition to these images’ being put on view, and even angrier voices dared the museum to do just that. Neither flouting these concerns nor giving in to them, the curators have prioritized conservation concerns and will rotate the illustrations to avoid undue exposure to light.

These representational works are crucial to our understanding of the full breadth and variability of Islamic art. But it is calligraphy and the abstract geometric style historically called arabesque (though it should be dubbed, more accurately, Islamesque) that become the principal mediums by which the exhibition charts intracultural harmony in Islamic art. These mainstays of the art were deployed across regions and media, and examples appear throughout the new galleries. One of the most expressive instances, and one that is justly given center stage, is an intricately tiled mihrab, or prayer niche, from a fourteenth-century madrassa in Isfahan, Iran. With its interlacing and overlapping curvilinear and colored-star patterns and its elegantly attenuated muhaqqaq, kufic, and thuluth inscriptions, the mihrab brings the two art forms together in a visually stunning spectacle that is greatly enhanced by its location in the new galleries, where it is the focal point of an Iran and central Asia gallery.

View of Carpets, Textiles, and the Greater Ottoman World Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011.

The intercultural quality of Islam, meanwhile, is brilliantly demonstrated by objects made by non-Muslim artists, commissioned by non-Muslim patrons, or dedicated to other religions’ use. It’s likely that much early Islamic art was produced by non-Muslim artists working for Muslim patrons, as we know from Umayyad and Abbasid sources. Of this category, the Met possesses many examples, ranging from small glass flasks to large metalwork. Conversely, various non-Muslim patrons in Spain, Sicily, and Hindu India are known to have commissioned art from Muslim artists and architects, and the Met does not stint in this category. But art dedicated to other religions’ use is a rarer crossover, and the museum is exhibiting an outstanding example: a vivid seventeenth-century Mughal album painting of the goddess Bhairavi Devi with Shiva, which was commissioned by a Muslim emperor, painted by a Mughal artist with the possible contribution of a Hindu artist, and gifted to a Hindu ruler. Meanwhile, the cross-fertilization of religious traditions is brilliantly illuminated by a small Hebrew Bible completed by a Sephardic scribe in Seville in the late fifteenth century, which shows the lasting influence of Qur’anic illuminations three centuries after the fall of the city to the Christians.

If the exhibition design constitutes a nuanced response to the interpretive and educational imperatives of institutional practice, however, when it comes to the most fundamental didactic act of all—the act of naming—things get a little more complicated. By now, the reader is probably annoyed by my insistence on bracketing “Islamic Art” within quotation marks. This is intentional, for the Met no longer uses the term in its galleries. The official name for the refurbished space is “The Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia,” a mouthful that one commentator felt to be more “academically precise” than the erstwhile “Islamic Galleries.” The curators chose the title in order to convey the variousness of Islamic art and its geographically distinct expressions, as well as to deemphasize the religious identity associated with the old name, since Islamic art, like any other art, has many nonreligious manifestations. This rationale seems sound enough and resonates with the prevalent unease with the term Islamic art, which many scholars find both limited and limiting—although no other academic or cultural institution has taken such a bold step as to jettison the phrase entirely.

Yet one cannot help but notice that the new name is not as neutral as it may seem at first. For a start, it is incomplete. Conspicuously absent from the unwieldy list of places is Spain/Al-Andalus, a European territory that was a pivotal part of the Islamic world for seven centuries. Including Spain in the name would likely have raised many strong objections, all politically or ideologically motivated. But it would have also helped in dispelling the notions of difference and distance, still so dominant in the perception of Islamic art in the West.

Moreover, geography itself is historically bounded, as is made amply clear by the use of Later South Asia in the new galleries’ name. Why “later”? What happened to split the artistic production of South Asia into two distinct periods, an “earlier” that is not part of the exhibit and a “later” that is? However indirectly, the curators are acknowledging that Islam—which came late to the region—is what happened. In other words, the periodized geographic designation functions as a euphemism delimiting the lands dominated by Islam. (The same could be said of the use of Turkey, for the country did not acquire its current name until some centuries after the arrival of the Muslim Turks in the eleventh century.) Evidently, the list was formulated in an attempt to be both culturally sensitive in its avoidance of disputed geographies, such as India and Pakistan, and politically savvy in its adherence to the main national and territorial identities that form the modern Islamic world. Some of the donors came from countries prominently listed in the title, so perhaps this influenced the nomenclature. But the fact remains that the artworks and objects displayed in the new galleries evince more common traits—formal, aesthetic, functional, and, yes, religious—than they do differences predicated on specific locales or nations. Importantly, these common traits have a lot to do with Islam, not only as a religion with its beliefs, rituals, and laws but also as an impulse for empire and as a culture with prescribed sets of attitudes, behaviors, and even tastes and typologies, which go a long way in explaining the commonalities in secular Islamic art as well as in religious art. So, although I am absolutely taken by the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia, I will still call them the Galleries of Islamic Art, without the inverted commas.

Nasser Rabbat is Aga Khan Professor in the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.