ART OF IS­LAM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

vre’s depart­ment of Is­lamic art, in el­e­gantly ac­cented English. “The orig­i­nal idea of the mu­seum, how­ever — to house Mus­lim art on an equal foot­ing with West­ern art, dis­play­ing both as a sin­gle ‘ open univer­sal cul­ture’ — is even more im­per­a­tive to­day.”

When the gal­leries opened, they were fas­ci­nat­ing in their scope. The ob­jects were a mix of the beau­ti­ful, the in­ter­est­ing and the sur­pris­ing. Mul­ti­me­dia dis­plays show­ing the ebb and flow of Arab, Per­sian and Euro­pean con­quest were ab­sorb­ing and ed­i­fy­ing.

Feed­back from the pub­lic, how­ever, showed vis­i­tors of­ten felt the gal­leries didn’t ex­plain clearly enough what ac­tu­ally con­sti­tutes Is­lamic cul­ture. A through-nar­ra­tive was re­quired.

“Be­cause our col­lec­tions are pre­sented as mas­ter­pieces of art, it was dif­fi­cult for our vis­i­tors to un­der­stand who are the hu­mans be­hind these ob­jects, who were the crafts­men, what are the cul­tural ex­changes vis­i­ble through these ob­jects,” Lintz says. “We re­alised we needed more sto­ry­telling.”

As the times be­came more trou­bled, that was more than a muse­o­log­i­cal is­sue. It be­came po­lit­i­cally ur­gent.

A sec­ond change was to set aside a space within the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion for two or three tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions a year. Last year a com­pre­hen­sive show of Moroc­can cul­ture was mounted, draw­ing in many French peo­ple of Moroc­can her­itage who might not other­wise have vis­ited the mu­seum. From there, many went on to ex­am­ine the Is­lamic gal­leries and, per­haps, the rest of the Lou­vre too, Lintz says.

“Of course these changes will not be enough to solve the so­cial prob­lem we have in France with Is­lam to­day,” she says rue­fully. “We try to be am­bi­tious, but to stay re­al­is­tic and mod­est.”

Lintz is also be­gin­ning mod­est col­lab­o­ra­tions with schools and com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions. Since Septem­ber, the Lou­vre has been work­ing with dis­af­fected young peo­ple from the sub­urbs — the French word, ban­lieues, has a un­easy, dis­parag­ing over­tone to­day — that have been the sites of un­rest, in­clud­ing ri­ots, in re­cent years. Chil­dren aged be­tween 14 and 16 have been cho­sen to work with the mu­seum on doc­u­ment­ing ob­jects. The project runs through the French aca­demic year, from Septem­ber to June.

“They have to choose an ob­ject, then dis­cover where it was made — some­times dur­ing me­dieval times, some­times much later in the 16th or 17th cen­tury,” Litz ex­plains.

“Then they see how this ob­ject ar­rived in the Lou­vre from where it was made, in Iran or Cen­tral Asia or Egypt.”

It is a way for the young peo­ple to grasp the his­tor­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion of civil­i­sa­tions and to gain pride in their own her­itage. They have been given the run of the Lou­vre’s stor­age ar­eas and are be­ing helped to make a video of their work, which will be shown next month. They will spend that even­ing in the gal­leries, work­ing as guides to the pub­lic, ex­plain­ing the ob­jects of their study.

“It will not change hu­man­ity. It will not change France. But I think it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to use this depart­ment to have such con­ver­sa­tions,” Lintz says.

Makar­iou agrees. For her, the Lou­vre’s Is­lamic gal­leries re­main an oa­sis of hope. “It’s a place to go to calm one’s anger; a place to go to re­fresh the idea that beauty has been a strong mes­sage of this world too,” Makar­iou says. “I hope beauty will tri­umph. I do still hope it will.”

France isn’t the only Euro­pean coun­try mar­shalling its cul­tural re­sources to bridge the civil­i­sa­tional clash. The Perg­a­mon Mu­seum in Ber­lin has a branch called the Mu­seum of Is­lamic Art, one of the old­est of its kind, estab­lished in 1904. A largely govern­ment-funded pro­gram of Ara­bic-lan­guage tours for young peo­ple, aimed at re­cent refugee ar­rivals, takes in the Perg­a­mon’s gal­leries of Is­lamic and of an- cient Near East art as well as the Ger­man His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum and the Bode Mu­seum of Byzan­tine art.

The Ger­man plan is man­i­fold: to wel­come new ar­rivals, to in­tro­duce them to mu­seum spa­ces, to open up cul­tural dia­logue. “Some­times peo­ple say: ‘The Ger­mans have all our her­itage! They stole it!’ ” one of the guides, Razan Nassred­dine, told The New York Times, adding that peo­ple also of­ten ad­mit the art is prob­a­bly safer in Ber­lin than in Syria.

Some­times peo­ple cry. When Ka­mal Al­ra­mad­hani, a 25-year-old Iraqi eco­nom­ics stu­dent, saw the beau­ti­fully re­con­structed Ishtar Gate, once the en­trance to Baby­lon, at the Perg­a­mon, he got goose­bumps, he told the Times re­porter, Rachel Dona­dio. Dona­dio con­tin­ues the anec­dote: “It’s from Iraq,” he added qui­etly, through an Ara­bic trans­la­tor. “My coun­try.”

Fun­da­men­tal­ist at­tacks on the cul­tural pat­ri­mony of the Mid­dle East — on the grounds that main­tain­ing pre-Is­lamic arte­facts amounts to apos­tasy — have re­ver­ber­ated around the world. The Tal­iban’s de­struc­tion of 6th-cen­tury stat­ues of Bud­dha in the Bamiyan val­ley, the de­struc­tion of Tim­buktu’s Sufi shrines and an­cient manuscripts and Is­lamic State’s at­tacks on the Tem­ple of Bel in Palmyra and on Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, have been at­tacks on the cul­tural his­tory of hu­man­ity. Many of the tar­gets were UNESCO-pro­tected World Her­itage sites, for what that was worth to the de­stroy­ers. Lintz says the Lou­vre was “very anx­ious” af­ter the de­struc­tion of the Assyr­ian bulls in Nim­rud, 30km south of Mo­sul in Iraq, last year. The Lou­vre owns a mag­nif­i­cent set: the orig­i­nal source of many Western­ers’ fas­ci­na­tion with the an­cient civil­i­sa­tion. “I am not a spe­cial­ist in ter­ror­ism, and Is­lamic art de­part­ments can be a tar­get, of course,” she says, “but peo­ple who do spe­cialise in ter­ror­ist psy­chol­ogy and strat­egy ex­plain that sites in the Mid­dle East are tar­gets be­cause it is a mes­sage to West­ern coun­tries about their power — and it is also a way for [the ter­ror­ists] to or­gan­ise il­licit traf­fic [in stolen an­tiq­ui­ties].” It makes more sense to tar­get West­ern cul- Baby­lon’s Ishtar Gate at the Perg­a­mon Mu­seum in Ber­lin, left; Palmyra’s mur­dered head of an­tiq­ui­ties Khaled al-Asaad, above; the Lou­vre’s Is­lamic art depart­ment, bot­tom; and the 14th-cen­tury Bap­tis­tere de Saint Louis, from Egypt or Syria, at the Lou­vre, in­set ture in the West, Lintz points out — “de­gen­er­ate” events such as the pop mu­sic concert at the Bat­a­clan — than dis­plays of Is­lamic art. “We never know, of course, we never know ...” she adds, trail­ing off

The de­struc­tion of pre-Is­lamic art — and art from the wrong de­nom­i­na­tions of Is­lam, in­clud­ing Su­fism — in the Mid­dle East has gal­vanised the mu­seum world. Lintz is among an in­ter­na­tional group of mu­seum cu­ra­tors who are work­ing against the clock to “pre­serve the mem­ory”, a chill­ing phrase, of the re­gion’s great art and ar­chi­tec­ture.

Her in­ter­na­tional con­tacts are good. Be­fore tak­ing over the Is­lamic wing from Makar­iou in Novem­ber 2013, Lintz had worked along­side Loyrette, run­ning a small team that looked af­ter the tens of thousands of ob­jects the Lou­vre has on long-term loan in 25 coun­ties. Her doc­tor­ate was on Ira­nian cul­ture.

“We are col­lect­ing sci­en­tific ar­chives,” she says. “Re­searchers in cul­tural her­itage and the his­tory of art have al­ways taken a lot of photos, and there are a lot of other doc­u­ments.”

She says the group re­alised the ur­gency of this work only re­cently. “I’m sure that all my col­leagues were very shocked. But when the me­dia came to speak to us, we could only say, ‘It’s aw­ful.’

“But this year, un­der­stand­ing it will be a very long-term sit­u­a­tion — we re­alised that we cu­ra­tors are in charge of cul­tural her­itage, and we must pre­pare for the fu­ture.

“We have to cre­ate a mem­ory. But also, af­ter the war we could also be re­build­ing, and to re­build we will need doc­u­ments.”

Many Syr­ian arche­ol­o­gists and art his­to­ri­ans have fled to France or Ger­many. As well as run­ning the day-to-day risks of all Syr­i­ans, they are sym­bolic tar­gets. Last Au­gust, when Is­lamic State was busy de­stroy­ing Palmyra, it also be­headed the 82-year-old scholar Khaled alAsaad, who over­saw an­tiq­ui­ties there, and strung up his body in the main square.

Lintz says the ex­iles are work­ing with the archival project. Its or­gan­is­ers are also in touch with the di­rec­tor of an­tiq­ui­ties in Syria, Maamoun Ab­dulka­rim, which is com­pli­cated. He works for the Bashar al-As­sad regime, so is un­likely to say that the Syr­ian army is de­stroy­ing the coun­try’s ma­te­rial cul­ture. “But he is still a se­ri­ous pro­fes­sional,” Lintz de­murs. He swore to re­build the de­stroyed an­tiq­ui­ties of Palmyra when Syr­ian govern­ment forces re­took the be­lea­guered city in March.

Se­cu­rity in Paris has been high for many years. Vis­i­tors to the Lou­vre know the or­deal of en­ter­ing through its glam­orous IM Pei­designed glass pyra­mid in the cen­tral court­yard. Af­ter the Charlie Hebdo at­tack, how­ever, se­cu­rity in France was stepped up fur­ther and, af­ter the Novem­ber mass shoot­ings, a state of emer­gency was de­clared across the na­tion, which re­mains in place. The Lou­vre has pro­gres­sively tight­ened se­cu­rity mea­sures to pro­tect its col­lec­tions as well as its peo­ple. Lintz’s guarded op­ti­mism sur­faces again. “In­shal­lah, as we say, I feel pro­tected in­side the gallery.”

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