The San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) recently celebrated the opening of “The Jameel Prize: Art Inspired by Islamic Tradition,” a special exhibition on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London.
Since announcing the exhibition, the museum has received a number of inquiries and complaints — all made before the exhibition opened to the public. Why should the museum display any “Islamic art” in the wake of the Boston bombings? Why is the Islamic tradition being given more significance at SAMA than other world religions, including Judaism? And why would the museum include a mosque tour in its programs?
It is not surprising that the word “Islamic” in the title of the exhibition has caused some confusion. To some, the word “Islam” can conjure up negative thoughts of extremism.
Yet the artists in the exhibition are not advancing an extremist ideology—or even making devotional art.
“This is not Islamic art,” as Tim Stanley, Senior Curator, Asia Department, V&A, said in his gallery talk at the exhibition opening. It is art inspired by Islamic tradition, which includes interpretive use of media such as mirrors, felt, cotton banners, and miniature painting.
One of my favorite works in the exhibition is “Bridge“ by Hazem El Mestikawy, which looks much like an architectural model, except that it is created of papier mâché using newsprint from both Western and Arabic newspapers.
The interlocking units that build the bridge resemble the letter “I”—possibly an exploration of how individual identities can be locked together to show us the power of a mutually-dependent, multicultural civilization.
The San Antonio Museum of Art is itself a bridge, embracing the exploration of all cultures—not only distant in time and space but increasingly the cultures of our neighbors.
Inaugurated at the V&A in London in 2009 in partnership with Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives – whose main initiative is to promote job creation for young Saudi men and women, the Jameel Prize competition was designed to explore the cultural dialogue between Islamic artistic tradition and contemporary artistic practice, and to invite a broader debate about contemporary Islamic culture.
The ten finalists from the second competition (2011) are included in the exhibition at SAMA. The artists use their gifts to celebrate the beauty of Islamic artistic traditions, as well as their varied histories and cultural origins, which include Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia.
Several of the works in the exhibition can be interpreted as a protest against the brutality of repressive regimes. In “Fashion Week,” Iranian-born, Houston-based artist Soody Sharifi contrasts the relative freedoms of women during the height of the Persian Empire with the experience of veiled women in many Islamic countries today.
The winning project, Rachid Koraïchi’s “Les Maîtres Invisibles” (“The Invisible Masters”) creates a world out of imaginary and conjured symbols that allude to celebrated Islamic mystics and writers from the Sufi tradition.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, indeed all museums, provide a safe place to explore ideas and emotions that are potentially controversial and polarizing. Artists, and the works of art they create, take us to new places of the imagination and empathy. The effect of transporting the visitor, through beauty, contradiction, or even jarring juxtapositions of traditions and ideas, is at the heart of the art in The Jameel Prize exhibition.
One of the most timely issues raised by The Jameel Prize is immigration. Most of the artists are immigrants from Islamic countries now living in the west and exploring the idea of cultural assimilation in their work. As a global museum, when we invite visitors to pass through our doors, we also invite them to learn about the world.
One reason for choosing any exhibition is to broaden our audience. At the opening, we were delighted to welcome the board of the Muslim Cultural Heritage Society, a non-political group in San Antonio that celebrates the diversity of Muslim culture. Many of them had never been in the museum before.
The programming SAMA offers in conjunction with this (and any) exhibition reflects our mission to broaden the understanding of the art — and by extension, the culture — on display. For The Jameel Prize, we have included lectures, movies, ballet, and a family art-making day with activities that explore some of the world’s major religions as they relate to SAMA’s collection, which includes many examples of Buddhist and Christian art (Judaism is not represented in this program, as we have few works of Judaica).
SAMA’s collection reflects the generosity and art interests of our benefactors and is consequently strong in Ancient Mediterranean, Latin American, and Asian art. As for the Mosque tour, which is also part of the programming, we consider this an extension of the exhibition, a way for non-Muslims to enrich their understanding of Islamic culture and traditions.
By hosting The Jameel Prize, SAMA is giving San Antonians a chance to experience an internationally regarded exhibition drawn from artists living around the world and organized by the V&A Museum in London, one of the most acclaimed museums of art and design in the world.
The Patron of the Jameel Prize is Zaha Hadid, widely regarded as one of the world’s most innovative architects. Prior to coming to San Antonio, the exhibition was on view at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Casa Árabe in Madrid, and the Cantor Center for the Arts at Stanford University. The San Antonio Museum of Art is its ﬁnal U.S. venue.
Katherine C. Luber, Ph.D., (who goes as Katie) is The Kelso Director of the San Antonio Museum of Art, and more importantly, a fifth-generation Texan. She received her M.A. from the University of Texas and her doctorate at Bryn Mawr College, both in the history of art. Before moving to San Antonio, she worked at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her area of scholarly expertise is the Renaissance. A special interest in the spice routes between Europe and the Levant led her to seek an M.B.A. from Johns Hopkins University and start a business delivering fresh spices to consumers.