DIA Opens Islamic Art Section

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adil James, MMNS

As Muslims we always have great appreciation when our religion and the various expressions of our religion garner positive recognition and interest from respected non-Muslim institutions—sometimes in fact we take more pleasure from their taking notice than we do from recognition from our own Muslim institutions.  And so we Muslims take great pleasure in the recent exhibition at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA), called the “Gallery of Islamic Art,” which was opened in a very exclusive event this past Saturday at the DIA at 5200 Woodward Ave. in Detroit.  This event was by invitation, with valet parking and a $250 fee for dinner, a black tie event attended by ambassadors and museum officials, and important and well-connected people from Detroit’s Muslim community.

The Islamic gallery itself is very interesting, and important as an expression of respect for Islam, however it is somewhat small, with about 1,000 square feet devoted to Islamic art—another slight detraction is that it seems to be a smorgasbord of Islamic art rather than an exhaustive or even organized look at Islamic art.  There is one large Persian rug, many examples of pottery and ceramics, several copies of Qur`an, and some collections of ahadith, but surprisingly without translations, and a video demonstrating the art of Islamic calligraphy.  There is perhaps as much space given to Christian and Jewish scripture (included as examples of Muslim tolerance, since they were made by Arabic speaking Jews and Christians living under Muslim rule) as there is to Muslim scripture in the exhibit.

There was some modern art which focused on Muslim themes, for example one painting by a modern Iranian painter on Sayyidinal Khadr (as)—who is mentioned in Qur`an.  Modern art on Muslim themes, however, is not strictly Islamic art.

There is nothing in the exhibit on Qur`anic recitation, which is a vital Islamic art.  There was to my noticing nothing from east Asia, or from central Asia, or from Africa.  There were no modern devotional musical forms represented.  There was to my noticing no poetry—one page of Rumi’s poetry in the original text would have been beautiful.  There was not clothing either—the entire exhibit could have been on Muslim turbans of various kinds and their meaning.  Or on kufis from around the world.  Or on any of many rich and different clothing  traditions from around the Muslim world.

There is very minimal calligraphy, which by itself could fill the entire museum with many different and beautiful forms of expression, from Chinese to Arabic to Turkish and even Japanese forms. In fact, likely 1,000 square feet would not be enough space to do a thorough exhibit of any one of several Islamic art forms, such as calligraphy, carpets, architecture, or pottery. 

But on the positive side, as a general approach the exhibit does show a long range of historical works up to the present, covering the past 600 years (including a Qur`an from the 1400s).  And the exhibit does show materials from several countries, although perhaps it centers on Iran a little bit more heavily than elsewhere.
The striking thing about this exhibit is first that Islamic art is in reality something that is in use in daily life, not something that Muslims hide from daily view, from the prayer carpets Muslims use, to the recitation they perform at specified intervals, to the buildings they live in and gardens they nurture, and the clothing they create.  And the natural and intrinsic beauty of this is different at a fundamental level from the concept of art as an icon that is produced and then ensconced in a museum for occasional admiration.

And, perhaps, another lesson from the exhibit is that Islamic art is something best demonstrated by Muslims themselves.  Still, the DIA has done something very gracious and important by devoting a substantial and expensive portion of its real estate to opening the world of Islamic art to museum visitors.

The DIA also opened itself to Muslims from around Detroit, including TMO, which is a very important gesture–when we as Muslims still face tremendous pressure from prejudice and ignorance–it is an enlightened act to show an Islamic art exhibit in this time.

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