by Elda Silva, San Antonio Express-News
Past and present come together seamlessly in Soody Sharifi's collages. Still, something seems off.
In “Fashion Week,” contemporary women who have been digitally dropped into an ancient Persian court scene strut a catwalk that leads to an empty throne. Modestly dressed in street clothes, the ersatz models' heads are covered by hijabs of varying lengths. Meanwhile, their precursors enjoy the show free of head scarves.
The piece by the Iranian-born, Houston-based Sharifi is one of 20 works featured in “The Jameel Prize: Art Inspired by Islamic Tradition.” The traveling exhibit organized by London's Victoria and Albert Museum is currently at the San Antonio Museum of Art.
Inaugurated in 2009, the international biennial prize recognizes contemporary artists and designers who draw on Islamic traditions of art and craft. Some of the pieces in the exhibit, such as Sharifi's, touch on social and cultural issues.
The works in the exhibit are not, strictly speaking, “Islamic art,” says Tim Stanley, senior curator at the V&A.
“Visually, you sense things pulled from Islamic culture and reworked in a way that's relevant to the contemporary world,” Stanley says. “So I think it's really good because it allows you that very quick understanding that there is actually a relevance of Islamic tradition to contemporary art.”
SAMA is the fourth venue for the exhibit, previously on view at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Casa Árabe in Madrid and the Cantor Center for the Arts at Stanford University. Executive director Katie Luber says the exhibit is a good fit for SAMA “because it really gives an added emphasis to our goal of really exploring world cultures through art.”
“The museum has a wonderful collection of ancient Islamic glass, so to have a chance to bring contemporary Islamic art to San Antonio was very exciting to me personally,” she says.
Luber understands that hosting an exhibit of work that references Islamic tradition and culture might be considered a cause for concern to some — and the museum has already fielded a handful of calls to that effect — but she sees it as an opportunity to explore what she calls “touch points.”
“What's really interesting about this is that it's not Islamic art in the sense that it's art for the mullahs. These are contemporary artists who are working outside those bonds or bindings of government sanctioned art,” she says. “And I love the fact that we had a chance to use the museum as a safe place to look at those somewhat difficult ideas or touch points in our society right now.
“Artists are able to often illuminate things for us that maybe our daily lives won't see otherwise. So the chance to look at art that's inflected by the Islamic tradition gives us tremendous access to a culture and a world and a thinking that we might not otherwise see.”
The exhibit features work by 10 artists in all — nine finalists and winner Rachid Koraichi. Almost all of them either live or have lived abroad.
The Algerian-born Koraichi, who divides his time between Tunisia and France, won the award for embroidered cotton banners from a series titled “The Invisible Masters.” The large-scale textile works, which celebrate the lives of Sufi masters such as the poet Rumi, feature elaborate Arabic calligraphy and symbols from other cultures in black appliqué on a white background.
Born into a family of Sufi mystics, Koraichi was inspired by banners carried in ritual processions. Although the series is “enormous,” the exhibit could only accommodate seven banners, Stanley says.
Wall works by Hadieh Shafie in the exhibit are likewise inspired by Sufi mysticism. The pieces are comprised of multicolored paper scrolls tightly wound into concentric circles of varying size and packed into frames. From a distance, the large-scale works resemble giant millefiori pendants, but as the viewer approaches, the impression gives way to an op-art-like illusion of spinning dials.
The Iranian-born artist who lives in Baltimore has handwritten or printed the Farsi word 'eshghe' — “love” or “passion” in English — on each strip, a reference to the way Sufis describe humanity's relationship with God. The motion suggested by the colored circles also references the Sufis' whirling ritual dances. Additionally, the artist's process can be linked to the mystic practice, Stanley says. Sufis use meditative repetition as a means of escaping worldly cares.
Other artists take inspiration from a more concrete source, namely architecture. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian artist who lives in Tehran, uses mirror mosaic in “Birds of Paradise,” a technique employed in architectural decoration since the 1600s. The wall work consists of two panels. At the center of each, an arched, window-like form is made up of small pieces of cut mirror that suggest wings. The play of light on the silvery surface animates the piece. Meanwhile, Noor Ali Chagani's architectural reference is decidedly earthier. The Pakistani artist uses miniature terracotta bricks to create sculpture, a three-dimensional take on the art of Mughal miniature painting. Both works in the exhibit deal with the human need for shelter. In “Life Line,” the bricks are linked with nylon string and arranged to evoke the graceful sweep of cloth.
Like Sharifi, other artists explore political issues in their work. In “Kashmiri Shawl,” Pakistani artist Aisha Khalid alludes to the strife in India-occupied Kashmir in what Stanley describes as “a very evocative, subtle way.” With the help of assistants, the artist created an elaborate paisley design on a black pashmina scarf using 300,000 gold-plated steel pins that jut from the back like rows of bristles. Hayv Kahraman, an Iraqi-born artist who lives in Oakland, explores the difficulties exiles like herself face in large-scale paintings of playing cards. The works reference the “archaeology awareness” decks issued to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In “Migrant 1” from Kahraman's “Waraq” series, the twinned figure of a woman hangs from a noose.
Along with demonstrating the influence of Islamic tradition on contemporary art, the work in the exhibit shows how the culture continues to evolve, Stanley says.
There is a tendency to lump in Islamic culture with the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome “as something in the past,” Stanley says. “And actually, that's not true, because there's a continuous tradition that's very much alive today.”
“The Jameel Prize: Art Inspired by Islamic Tradition” continues through Aug. 11 at the San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 W. Jones. Call 210-978-8100 or go to www.samuseum.org.