Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Islamic Art in the News

A few opening thoughts: If you're like me, when you think of Islamic art, you think of antiquities. I see no real reason to adjust that association just yet either. On a recent trip to Istanbul, I had hoped to get a sense of the contemporary scene there. New Museum curator Dan Cameron, who curated the last Istanbul Biennial, told me not to expect too much, and he was right. I scoured the city for emerging art and found next to nothing, save a few exhibitions in the lobbies of banks along Istiklal. Even the sporadic reports of the burgeoning art scene in post-Hussein Iraq leave me somewhat embarassed for them. Of course there are some notable exceptions (Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, etc.) and there are encouraging signs for the future of contemporary art in Central Asia (which is predominantly Islamic), but for the most part the news about Islamic Art in general is not so good. Here's a few stories making headlines:

1. Via we learn that 9/11 conspirator Mohammed Atta may have been selling Islamic art to fund his attack, according to a report in Der Spiegel:

Titled "Art As Financing for Terrorists?", the report states that Atta contacted a German art expert at Goettingen University during his time living in Hamburg in 2000 or early 2001, claiming that he had access to "ancient artifacts of considerable value" which he wanted to sell to raise funds for the purchase of an aircraft. The exact nature of the art objects is not known, but they are thought to have been cultural relics smuggled out of Afghanistan. The professor apparently recommended that Atta contact Sotheby’s.

Commenting on the story, Art Newspaper senior U.S. correspondent Jason Kaufman, who has reported extensively on the antiquities trade, stated, "Politicians have turned a deaf ear to archaeologists and scholars who complain that the illegal trade goes unchecked, but the revelation of the Al Queda link should give their cause greater traction with legislators." More on the story as it develops.

2. Also via is a story from the Wall Street Journal (gotta pay for it) about the crumbling market for Islamic art. The reason it's crumbling doesn't say much about why it was doing so well in the first place:

The Islamic art market took a major hit back in April, following the arrest in March of Sheik Saud al-Thani, 38, a member of the royal family of Qatar and one of the big buyers in the field. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, sales at the April Islamic art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London plunged 70 percent from the year before. At Sotheby’s, only a little more than one-third of the lots found buyers, a dramatically low rate of sell-through.

According to the report, al-Thani spent an estimated $26.4 million at the 2004 Islamic art sales, and is widely credited with helping triple the prices in the sector from 2001 to 2004. Al-Thani was in charge of buying art for five Islamic art museums being built in Qatar, the first of which opens in 2006. He is being investigated for misappropriating state funds.

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Al-Thani's replacement in Qatar's efforts will be "Mohamed Albdulraheem Kafoud, a professor of Arab literature and a former government minister." Perhaps after he gets up to speed, he'll help restore the market a bit.

3. OK, so there is one bit of good news for Islamic Art. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (or Walid bin Talal, depending on the source) donated $20 million to the Louvre to help build a new Islamic art wing.

At 43,000 square feet, the wing will quadruple the existing space for the Islamic art collection, Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres said Tuesday, in outlining plans for the project, which is slated for completion in 2009.
According to The New York Times, however,

Prince Walid is less well known in France as a benefactor of the arts than as a shrewd businessman. He has a 17 percent stake in EuroDisney, the company that runs the Disneyland Paris resort outside the city. And he is owner, through the Kingdom Holding Company, of several of the city's most luxurious hotels, including the George V, on the street of the same name.

Though his EuroDisney investment has been less fruitful, the prince gained a reputation for financial acumen by investing in Citicorp, a predecessor of the current Citigroup, when its stock was depressed in 1991. Today he is Citigroup's largest single shareholder, and his personal fortune is estimated at $23.7 billion.
Let's hope this will also restore the Islamic Art market (and that no scandal befalls Prince Walid before the Louvre cashes his check).

UPDATE: Tyler Green has news about an exhibition in New York of work by Iranian artists living in Iran, as opposed to Neshat and Hatoum*, who spend most of their time in the West now. From the exhibition's press release:
Curator/artist Farhad Moshiri asks us to consider what it is that makes a work ethnic, traditional or even contemporary for that matter. While his immediate point of departure is Iran, his exhibition raises questions as to labeling tendencies at large, finally destabilizing us, for we are all implicated in the reductionist games at hand. Within the bounds of the works on display, the lines between kitsch, art and craft are impossibly blurred.
Certainly sounds like it's within the mainstream contemporary dialog. Perhaps I'm just not looking hard enough. Thanks Tyler.

*Who's Palestinian, not Iranian, but who lives in London mostly.


Blogger bill said...


It's no mistake that one thinks about antiquities (or, perhaps, the applied arts) when one thinks of Islamic art--until very recently, there has been no widespread 'Western' tradition as such. Islamic societies have typically regarded the arts in a more Eastern way, in part (and, here, particularly in the more "pure" and conservative parts of the Islamic world) because of biases against the figure as some interpret the Hadith and the Quran.

This outlook affects the market for "new" works, not to mention the fact that the stunted Middle-Eastern economy has less capacity/demand to begin with (evidenced by your note that the departure of one member from Qatari royalty blows an hole in the market, here for traditional arts).

I'm mindful of the prospect of Orientalist criticism, but even the exhibition cited by Tyler [which focuses on artists in Iran proper] cannot escape the paradox of the Western eye: there's a quote from one of the editors of Bidoun--a very interesting publication, and a good one for tracking this world--that acknowledges that the more Western Middle-Eastern artists (such as the editors!) try to distance themselves from the "identity" artists: too much of the veil, repression, &c. I'm afraid that, in forging the contemporary Islamic arts, the West (and that means, for the time being, Middle Easterners who are educated here).

Bill Sebring

P.S. Note that Kyrgyz (and other central Asian) art isn't as burdened with Eastern outlooks: not only have they been Russofied to a modest extent, but Islam has been tempered with the nomadic tribal traditions--they will have a much easier time of it compared to, say, the Arab world.

8/04/2005 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Awesome comment Bill! Thanks for the insights and analyses (and the heads up about Bidoun).

You're right to suggest "applied arts" is what I think of, clearly killims and tiles, etc., of the highest quality are being made throughout the contemporary Islamic world.

I'm no fan of the sort of globalism in economics that I seem to be advocating in the art dialog, but, call it an occupational hazard, I do equate the ideas I'm interested in with the media I generally find them in, so it was a disappointment to find so few visual artists participating in that dialog in Turkey.

And you're spot on about the former Soviet Republics' remove from the cultural restraints of the Arabic world with regard to contemporary art. I'm seeing an increase in awareness of their Islamic roots from my friends in that part of the world, however, that suggests they might bridge that gap (so to speak) moving forward.

Again, thanks for a truly spectacular comment!


8/04/2005 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

Oops! Last sentenced clipped; intended to say that "the West... will play an important role."

For a glimpse at the pop-cultural side of the Islamic world, see this essay on my blog.

8/04/2005 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...


Just for the record, to follow up your note that the Islamic ex-soviet republics are removed from Arabic cultural restraint, those countries (Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkemnistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan) are all Turkic. Maybe you already knew that from having friends in the region, but I know it's not common knowledge for most folks.

8/04/2005 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Maybe you already knew that from having friends in the region

Yup...boyfriend's from Kyrgyzstan, and he brings it up regularly.

8/04/2005 03:58:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Great post Ed, congrats. And Bill great comment, congrats. And henry great point, congrats :)

8/04/2005 04:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

speaking of the adorable one...there's his Turkic self now!


8/04/2005 04:04:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Honestly I am so proud of what I heard abour Central Asian Pavilion in Venice, so dissapointed that didn't go this time. Hopefully next time.

8/04/2005 04:07:00 PM  

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