At LA Museum, A Powerful And Provocative Look At 'Islamic Art Now'

May 5, 2015
Originally published on May 6, 2015 11:33 am

Art galleries are generally quiet, hushed spaces, but at the Los Angeles County Museum a show called Islamic Art Now is sparking some heated discussions as visitors ponder the photographs, paintings and neon sculptures on display.

Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi has covered every inch of a reclining odalisque with graceful Arabic calligraphy. The woman is staring right at us, and viewers wonder: Is the writing protection? A shield? Imprisonment?

Translating the calligraphy, curator Linda Komaroff doesn't see it that way. "I see it more as: This is who I am. See me for who I am. Read me if you like, but this is me," she says.

Egyptian-German artist Susan Hefuna's Woman Behind Mashrabiya I is a black and white image of a shrouded woman looking out from behind a pierced screen. We can't really see her, but she can see us. Is she protected? Trapped?

"It's very mysterious — and deliberately so," Komaroff says. "It's this notion about: Do we really understand? ... To me, a lot of these images are a challenge to an American audience to maybe rethink what their perceptions are of women in the Middle East, women in the Islamic world. Maybe they're not that different from us after all."

Some provocative images may feel very different from Western experience. Viewers get an extreme close-up in Iranian artist Shirin Neshat's 1996 photograph Speechless. We see a portion of a woman's face, circled by a black headscarf. At her right ear, what looks at first like a clunky earring turns out to be the barrel of a gun. With a look of determination, she's pointing the gun directly at the viewer.

"I don't think she's after us," Komaroff says. "I think she could be questioning our view of her. ... It's about reading her."

Her face is covered with calligraphy — words about martyrdom and protection. But one could read menace and melancholy here as well.

"To me, a lot of it is about trying to get the viewer to get past his or her own preconceptions about who this woman is, and what she's doing," Komaroff says.

The curator says this armed and veiled female warrior fought in the revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran. Artist Shirin Neshat went back to an Iran ruled by the ayatollahs. UCLA professor Ali Behdad says this photo reflects the impact of revolution; it has "positioned women in a subordinate position at the same time it has also empowered them," he says.

The women go to college, hold political office, drive, yet still wear chadors.

"A lot of the artists that you see in this gallery, they have double consciousness," Behdad explains. "Many of them are caught between a certain tradition ... and that tradition for the most part is Islamic — Islamic culture — on the other hand, they are secular and they are very much Westernized."

These artists are from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, Israel. According to the show's catalog, they are Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Many are ex-pats. In fact, Behdad questions the title of the show — Islamic Art Now.

"I think the subtitle of this show is actually a more accurate description — artists from the Middle East," Behdad says. "Because many of these artists — I think the overwhelming majority of these artists — are actually not Muslim in the very traditional sense of the word at all. They are incredibly secular. Many of them live in the West. If you called Andy Warhol a Christian artist would that make sense?"

Komaroff disagrees. She acknowledges that "Islamic" is a loaded word, but says that in its broader meaning, it applies here. "When we use the term 'Islamic art' we're not talking about Islam, we're not talking about religion," she says. "... All the artists here are from this world that was initially shaped by Islam, by an Arabic alphabet, but has evolved into something so much more and much more complex than standard views of either religion or violence. It's about beauty as well."

Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East is indeed about beauty. It's also about values, religion and a clash of cultures. And its provocative, dramatic, powerful images linger in the mind.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Art, as we know, is open to interpretation, and different interpretations can lead to disagreements, especially when art is being viewed and interpreted across cultures. That's happening these days with an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called Islamic Art Now. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to have a look.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: An Odalesque harem slave reclining, staring right at us - Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi has covered every inch of her gorgeous model with Arabic writing, fragments of her thoughts.

LALLA ESSAYDI: I am doing this. I am thinking this. I am feeling this.

STAMBERG: Curator Linda Komaroff says graceful calligraphy is a tradition in Islamic art. A viewer wonders, is the writing protection, a shield, an imprisonment? Komaroff doesn't see it that way.

LINDA KOMAROFF: I see it more as this is who I am. See me for who I am; read me if you like, but this is me.

STAMBERG: Another photo, black and white, Egyptian-German artist Susan Hefuna's "Woman Behind Mashrabiya" appears to scream. Shrouded, she sits looking out at the world. We can't really see her, but she can see us.

Its mysterious.

KOMAROFF: It's very mysterious, and it's deliberately so, but it's this notion about, do we really understand?

STAMBERG: To westernize, she's almost invisible, protected or trapped.

KOMAROFF: To me, a lot of these images are a challenge to an American audience to maybe rethink what their perceptions are of women in the Middle East, women in the Islamic world. Maybe they're not all that different from us after all.

STAMBERG: Well, the "Woman Of Allah" in Iranian Shirin Neshat's photo is nothing like me. In close-up with black headscarf and, at her ear, what looks at first like a clunky earring turns out to be the barrel of a gun.

She's pointing the gun at us and looking at us in a very - not fierce exactly, but determined way. So she's after us.

KOMAROFF: No, I don't think she's after us. I think she's - she could be questioning our view of her. And again...

STAMBERG: And you better see me otherwise you get blasted.

KOMAROFF: No. I don't know. I think maybe again it's about reading her.

STAMBERG: The model's beautiful face is covered with calligraphy.

ALI BEHDAD: (Speaking Persian).

STAMBERG: UCLA professor Ali Behdad reads the Persian.

BEHDAD: (Speaking Persian).

STAMBERG: It's about martyrdom, protection. I see menace, threat, determination and melancholy. Again, curator Komaroff.

KOMAROFF: To me, a lot of it is about trying to get the viewer to get past his or her own preconceptions about who this woman is and what she's doing and to maybe rethink.

STAMBERG: This armed and veiled female warrior fought in the revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran. Artist Shirin Neshat went back to an Iran ruled by the ayatollahs. Professor Behdad says this photo reflects the impact of that revolution.

BEHDAD: Which has simultaneously positioned women in a subordinate kind of a position. At the same time, that has also empowered them.

STAMBERG: They go to college, hold political office, drive, but must wear chadors.

BEHDAD: A lot of artists that you see in this gallery, they have double consciousness. You know, many of them are caught between a certain tradition from which they come from, and that tradition for the most part is Islamic, Islamic culture. On the other hand, they are secular, and they are very much westernized.

STAMBERG: From Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, Israel, these artists are Muslim and, according to the catalog, Christian, Jewish. Many are expats. Professor Behdad questions the title of the show, Islamic Art Now.

BEHDAD: I think the subtitle of this show is actually a more accurate description...

KOMAROFF: Well, I'd have to explain.

STAMBERG: Wait, wait. Wait.

BEHDAD: ...Artists from the Middle East, because in so many ways these - many of these artists - I think the overwhelming majority of these artists, are actually not Muslim in a very traditional sense of the word at all. They are incredibly secular. Many of them live in the West. If you called Andy Warhol a Christian artist, would that make sense?

KOMAROFF: When we used the definition Islamic art, we're not talking about Islam. We're not talking about religion, as you can see...

STAMBERG: No, no. But to any western here, you are.

KOMAROFF: It is but...

STAMBERG: It's really a loaded word.

KOMAROFF: It's a loaded word, and I prefer to use it.

STAMBERG: Not to use Islamic, Linda Komaroff says, would imply there was something bad about it.

KOMAROFF: All of the artists here are from this world that was initially shaped by Islam, by an Arabic alphabet but has evolved into something so much more and something much more complex than standard views of either religion or violence. It's about beauty as well.

STAMBERG: The ongoing Los Angeles County Museum show Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East is indeed about beauty and values and religion and a clash of cultures. It's provocative, and its dramatic powerful images linger in the mind. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

GREENE: You can see images from that exhibit at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.