Islamic Art in Context

Putting Islamic art in context with its neighbours was the aim of the workshop “Islamic Art: Reception Processes in the Middle Ages and Modern Times,” which took place on November 4th at the University of Zurich, organized by Katrin Kaufmann, Helena Lahoz Kopiske, and Elika Palenzona-Djalili. It covered an extensive period, with speakers and students focusing on medieval, modern, and even contemporary times. They emphasized that Islamic art is not only a matter of the past, but also affects the present.

Laura Castro Royo

When retrospectively considering Islamic Art, there is a tendency to isolate it as its own chapter of art history, which may be an easier way for scholars to acknowledge and study it. But not contextualizing it can lead to serious mistakes in research. Limiting Islamic art to certain characteristics and conditions apart from particular historical contexts obscures issues such as cultural exchanges with other types of art or with different societies.

The first speaker was Magdalena Valor (University of Sevilla), who presented a paper about the transformation of religious buildings after the Christian conquest in the Iberian medieval context. According to Valor, there were many steps involved in adjusting former mosques for Christian use. Some could take hours or days to perform, whereas others could require even longer. None was devoid of meaning, and, as Valor pointed out, they demonstrated the cultural exchange at the time between Muslim and Christian societies. Christian elites knew exactly what to erase and what to preserve from the mosques in order to make the new religious rites happen.

Next, Yuka Kadoi (University of Edinburgh) spoke about the transfer of images and objects in the Mongol Empire, which profoundly influenced the arts of the book in Persia, where the Ilkhanate of the Mongols was established. Starting from textiles, which provided an easier way to transport images and decorative motifs, the Mongol conquest strengthened an already existent bridge of commerce and cultural exchange. The most representative consequence is the beginning of illustration on Persian manuscripts (e.g., the Shahnameh form Ferdowsi), with shapes similar to Chinese and Mongolian landscapes, faces, and buildings. It was a turning point for art history, since illumination appeared and afterwards became almost a sign of identity in Persia.

Maximilian Hartmuth (University of Vienna) presented the last paper about a particular Neo-Islamic building in Bosnia under the rule of the Habsburg. Hartmuth questioned the intentions behind this construction and how Islamic exteriors influenced nineteenth century society, as well as took into account other buildings with the same aesthetic in neighbouring countries. The selection of Islamic decoration for adorning civil constructions is a matter of increasing scholarly interest, providing important avenues for understanding orientalism and colonialism alike.

While the speakers pointed to the import of transculturality and gave examples of its role in the cultural exchanges through which Islamic art achieved definition (e.g., Persian paintings under the rule of the Ilkhanids; influence from Chinese artists; turning mosques into Christian sanctuaries), students were able to share their own research and the difficulties they have encountered in it.

The day ended with an open discussion where everybody could participate and comment on the topics that had been addressed. It was pointed out that caution is required when using certain concepts, since they could wrongly lead to generalisation. It would be interesting to combine both cases and common points when studying processes that need to be sequenced: appropriation, spread, imitation … always bearing in mind that in history nothing is exactly the same, no matter the high similarity two different moments could present. Another attention-grabbing matter was the discussion of originality inside a transcultural process. Could it be claimed that, after a transfer, innovation is over? Some thought that imitating basically means copying. Nevertheless, others noted that copies could answer to some interests, and they were never exact reproductions of previous works. Imitation is an important part of the process, because afterwards something new is always created.

Although it was only a single day, the workshop provided a general vision of the revisions required in studies of Islamic Art, especially studies of transculturality and exchange, since these historical processes were not isolated from nearby circumstances. A space for dialogue and discussion was provided to students and professors at the same time, pointing out the importance of these encounters not only for the historical and artistic discussions, but also for the communicative atmosphere they represent and that is so required inside academia.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, p. 29)