‘Reflections on Islamic Art’: Reinvigorating the Discourse on Islam, and Art

From my review in Al Masry Al Youm / Egypt Independent:

“Reflections on Islamic Art,” edited by Ahdaf Soueif, appears at a time when Islamic art is surging back into fashion.

Soueif’s collection, published in November 2011, pairs art from Doha’s monumental Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) with creative writing from twenty-seven internationally acclaimed authors.

The MIA is a recent contribution to the world of Islamic art, having opened its doors in 2008. But it is not the newest addition: In November 2011, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a new permanent installation, the awkwardly but inclusively titled, “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.”

To coincide with its re-vamped collection of Islamic art, the Met also issued a new book of images and essays: “Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

The two publications — “Masterpieces” and “Reflections” — come at roughly the same time, both inspired by work in major museums. But the two projects are markedly different. “Masterpieces” is a coffee-table book, with beautiful images and “informative essays” about the history of Islamic art. Critic Maymanah Farhat, who reviewed the Met’s new installation for Jadaliyya, writes that the installation itself uses the old language of Orientalism, taking “great care to describe the ‘lavish,’ ‘sumptuous,’ and ‘superb’ qualities of these objects.”

The project of “Reflections,” on the other hand, is to shake off this language. The collection won’t give readers a crash course in Islamic art history. But it does offer poems, stories and essays that re-invigorate our understanding of Islamic art, Islam and art.

In her introduction, Soueif explains the idea behind “Reflections” through the email she sent to potential contributors: “‘The Museum,’ I wrote, ‘lends itself particularly well to the idea of this book — that there will be one piece that speaks to you, or a group of pieces that sets of a train of thought/feeling — and that out of this will come a response in words or images…Does this appeal?’” Go on; keep reading.