Sabiha Al Khemir, the author, illustrator and art historian who created “Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture,” doesn’t entirely understand why fate brought her exhibition to the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University. “Life leads us to where we didn’t necessarily plan to go,” Al Khemir said, “and that in itself is a learning experience.”
Al Khemir said she thinks that the Museum of Art is the right place to launch “Beauty and Belief,” a collection of more than 250 Islamic art objects that will subsequently travel to major museums in Portland, Ore.; Indianapolis, Ind.; and Newark, N.J. She just doesn’t know quite why.
“Life led me to BYU because there was a reason for the exhibition to start at BYU,” Al Khemir said. “I didn’t plan it, but I certainly recognized it.”
Starting Friday and continuing through Sept. 29, “Beauty and Belief” will be hosted in the MOA’s main galleries, inviting local art patrons to experience a close encounter with the artistic culture of a faith that dominates much of the world religious landscape, but has only a very minor presence in Utah Valley.
Al Khemir said that, after the fact, she’s become aware of some of the reasons that BYU is a meaningful setting for “Beauty and Belief.” Starting out in a setting where a non-Islamic faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which owns BYU), is predominant, she said, “actually strengthens the message of the exhibition.” The idea, that is, that art can bridge the gap between different cultures.
There’s actually a strong scholarly interest in Islam at BYU — MOA director Mark Magleby said that the university has an ongoing project to translate and interpret historic Islamic manuscripts — and that made Al Khemir feel welcomed as well. “Here is a religious community that is actually inviting and accepting a different way of seeing the world,” she said, “presenting the art of a different culture.
“How powerful is that?”
What makes Islamic art Islamic?
On the other hand, “Beauty and Belief” is not necessarily about communicating the tenets of a world religion. “Islamic art is not a liturgy,” Al Khemir said. “It’s not religious art per se.”
Visitors to the exhibition, that is to say, won’t necessarily be taking a chapter-and-verse tour through the pages of the Quran. As Al Khemir put it, “You find that a particular way of seeing the world, a particular culture shaped these objects.”
Magleby said that, like art from any other religious culture, Islamic art is art first, and a reflection of personal faith second. “Ask a Mormon artist if he makes Mormon art,” Magleby said. “If you’re a Muslim, you make art. And your values and belief system are imbued into the piece anyway.”
Some of the pieces in the exhibition weren’t even crafted by adherents of Islam. “Christians and Jews contributed to the making of Islamic art,” Al Khemir said. Some Jewish and Christian communities thrived in the nations and cities where Islam arose, and the spread of Islam carried its influence to new lands.
A woodcarver in Egypt likely would have continued to follow his trade after the arrival of Islamic conquerors, Al Khemir said, but the nature of the work may have changed to reflect the new culture. “Islamic art is not Islamic because it was made by an Islamic artist,” she said. What makes it Islamic is that it was made within the scope of Islamic culture.
“Some pieces have no religious message whatsoever,” Al Khemir said, “but they are still Islamic.”
Bruce Guenther, a curator at the Portland Art Museum, where “Beauty and Belief” will eventually conclude its four-city U.S. tour in 2013, said that great Islamic art, like all great art, transcends its origins, whether religious or otherwise. An exhibit like “Beauty and Belief” can connect with even a “curious, questioning or obdurate viewer,” Guenther said. “There is a spark inside the work that speaks to human nature.”
Form vs. function
One interesting element of “Beauty and Belief” is that the pieces in the exhibition are all items whose first function is not necessarily to express an artistic ideal, or provide beauty for its own sake. They are objects made to be used in daily living that are artistic because of their craftsmanship.
“It’s kind of a fairly recent notion of art being separate from life,” Magleby said. “Even in the European tradition, some of the greatest works of art during a particular period could be functional and utilitarian.”
Al Khemir said that most Islamic art pieces are also functional. “Most of these objects that we call Islamic art were part of everyday life,” she said, “part of people’s surroundings on a daily basis, whether that was in a palace or in a humble home.”
Whether the objects have an obvious function, or something that’s been lost in the passage of time, however, they still have the power to communicate. “We need to forget a little bit about their immediate function,” Al Khemir said, “and look at a much higher function.”
A bowl inscribed with calligraphy to record bits of wisdom, she said, might have been made hundreds of years ago to hold food. Yet even if it no longer serves its original purpose, it still has value. “The bowl might have had the function of holding food,” Al Khemir said, “but it also had food for the soul, and that food for the soul is still relevant.”
Kathryn Haigh, a deputy director at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the next stop for “Beauty and Belief” after BYU, said that she hopes that even if the exhibition reaches only a few people, those people will spread its influence. “It’s the beginning of a dialogue,” she said, “of an education process.”
Visitors to the exhibition, whether at BYU or elsewhere, don’t even have to know the words for the dialogue to be successful. For example, Magleby said, “You don’t have to read Arabic to get the linear and the formal qualities of the beauty of calligraphy.” Sometimes it even helps to not be distracted from sheer elegance by something as pedestrian as meaning.
When he’s looking at some of the calligraphic texts, Magleby said, he doesn’t mind not knowing what they say: “I kind of like being a naive idiot.”