Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Images of the Prophet Muhammad In and Out of Modernity

The Curious Case of a 2008 Mural in Tehran: 
Q&A with University of Michigan art history professor and muralist Christiane Gruber
Mural of Muhammad’s ascension, located at the intersection of Modarres and Motahhari Avenues, Tehran, Iran, 2008. Courtesy Jadaliyya.
In 2008, a five-story mural was painted onto the wall of an apartment building in the northern section of Tehran. The mural represents the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension into the heavens, as well as an inhabitant of Paradise offering a flower to a man in the lower right corner. While the composition is based on a 15th-century “Book of Ascension” manuscript, it nevertheless has been altered in two significant ways: first, a man painted in a hyper-realistic mode has been inserted into the composition and, second, the facial features of the Prophet have been removed. Tracing how the original painting has been pictorially augmented and edited for the public sphere, this talk offers some new ideas on how images are received and updated in modern Islamic artistic practices. It will do so by paying special attention to the mural’s symbolic position within Iran’s Shi‘i-Islamic politico-cultural agenda and oppositional responses to the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy of 2005-2006.

by Sarah Vassello,

Christiane Gruber, an art history professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan, will speak at Hanes Art Center today about her work on a five-story mural in Tehran, Iran, painted in 2008, that represents the Prophet Muhammad and the changing visual representation of Islamic tradition. Sarah Vassello spoke with Gruber about the ways in which changes in the Iranian political, artistic and cultural spheres are shown in the painting and how the Dutch cartoon controversy of 2005, in which the Prophet Muhammad was depicted, prompted such a strong response from Iranians.

Daily Tar Heel: What first made you interested in the lecture topic?

Christiane Gruber: I’ve been researching this topic for about a dozen years — images and texts of the Prophet in Islamic devotional traditions — so, for me, what is interesting as an art historian is the way in which Islamic religious cultures and political cultures use images to make certain claims or to send message.

DTH: This mural is relatively recent. How did you come to hear about it?

CG: I drove right across it when I was in Tehran and it caught my eye. I’ve been working on images of Muhammad in Islam across the board and also mural arts in Iran for the last 12 years. I typically do go around Iran and look at the murals — I’ve studied them, I’ve written about them — and when I found this one, which captures both my interest in images of Muhammad and mural arts, and I saw what was happening in the mural, I decided I should really set myself to the task of understanding what was happening with that mural.

DTH: What do you think is interesting about your lecture?

CG: That mural is interesting because it’s the only mural in a Muslim majority country that represents the Prophet Muhammad publicly, and that mural was painted in 2008 as a direct response to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

DTH: How do you think that something that’s constantly evolving, such as a religion, influences art?

CG: This mural actually, in my mind, provides evidence for evolving questions of religion because another alteration in the mural is the inclusion of the Shi’i proclamation of the faith. You’ll notice the three panels have inscriptions and the one right above Muhammad’s head states that Ali is the vice chairman of God on Earth. Ali, the son-in-law and the the figurehead of Shi’ism, is above (Muhammad), so in a sense here, Muhammad is also put to a sectarian use. It’s a mural that’s clearly pro-Shi’i, and Iran is a Shi’i state. Politically, ideologically, it sends messages about the rightfulness of Shi’i Islam. So, the mural helps us trace this religious positioning, including Sunni versus Shi’i, statements about political legitimacy, and, in many cases, the Prophet is used, or at least inspired certain discourses about legitimacy.

We have to also think about sectarianism, religion, politics, the state and how Muhammad is envisioned. And those envisions, including visual ones, change and evolve over the centuries. Muhammad is always imagined in the eye of his beholders and those imaginations change over time.

DTH: What do you hope people will gain from attending this lecture?

CG: I think that it’s important to speak in general about image making worldwide because today many agents don’t necessarily use words to communicate messages. They use images in our visual cultures, and it’s important for us to realize that in Islamic lands and in Muslim majority settings, images are quite pervasive, as well. We frequently hear that images of the Prophet are prohibited in Islamic traditions, but these have been produced, especially in Turkish and Persian milieus for centuries now, and this is simply the most recent image of the Prophet Muhammad. We can tell exactly through this image how a state like Iran tries to position itself, so I’m hoping that those who come to the lecture will gain a greater understanding of images of Muhammad in Islam, how those function in particular in the public domain within Iran, and how this is tied to more global systems of communication.


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