The mainstream portrayal of Islam does not usually deal with transcendent beauty, elegant ornamentation, or intricate calligraphy. But might art be one of the keys to healing some of the chasms and conflicts that have plagued Muslim-West relations over the last 10 years? The power of art to build bridges of understanding is becoming more recognized as a vital component to repairing the Muslim-West divide. The new exhibit on Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has already attracted thousands, and leading contemporary Islamic artists in America were recently featured at the Andy Warhol Museum, as part of the Dislocating Culture exhibit.
In an another effort to present the great masterpieces of Islamic art and architecture to an American audience, a new documentary film, Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World, is slated to air on PBS in 2012. The film will launch with a series of nationwide screenings starting today at the Kennedy Center with its world premiere. Exploring five themes that are central to Islamic art–the Word, Space, Ornament, Color and Water–, the film traces the arc of Islamic art as a universal human endeavor that frequently interacted with people of other faiths and cultures. Framing Islamic art as the result of a multicultural and adaptive set of artistic approaches and creations, the film highlights Muslim artists who developed new art forms through an integration of various cultural expressions.
The film highlights the Great Mosque of Djenné in the West African country of Mali as a good example of this artistic syncretism, as the mosque is thought to be a hybrid of Islamic and Sudano-Sahelian architectural forms. One of the most recognizable images of Islamic architecture, the Taj Mahal, is another magnificent example of artistic cultural collaboration. The mausoleum’s designers inlaid marble from India, China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Middle Eastern countries, and were influenced by Hindu traditions and Persian, Islamic, and Indian architectural styles.
The film also takes on the controversy of whether Muslim artists are uniformly opposed to figurative images. In fact, there have been many times in Islamic history where figural representations have been the norm. One striking example discussed in the film is a beautiful ivory box made in 10th century Cordoba, which is exquisitely carved with animals and other natural scenes.
We also learn how and why Islamic art turned the written word into masterpieces through the development of calligraphy, and how it made water into an expressive, useful art form.
Like all art, Islamic art carries with it the fundamental values and perspectives of the artists who created it as well as those who commissioned and paid for it. It incorporates the basic themes of transcendent beauty common to all creative endeavors. For those of us that are interested in developing a shared admiration for the artistic projects that link our rich tapestry of cultures together, we look to the material objects of great beauty, for which we don’t have to have any special knowledge of to appreciate other than our own senses and universal human awareness.
As University of Illinois Landscape Architecture Prof. Fairchild Ruggles points out, “Sometimes material objects can be the bridge between one world and another. Translucent glass is beautiful regardless of your religious background. Monumental tall domes that stretch over the heads like the heavens above are awesome whoever you are.”