Apollo Magazine (UK)

Faith healing?

A major exhibition spread across 18 venues in France seeks to highlight the rich variety of Islamic art. But will its heady mix of the sacred and profane be enough to counter the growing prejudices within French society?

- By Christophe­r de Bellaigue

From the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean to the Paris suburb of SaintDenis, the French Republic is staging a nationwide exhibition designed to save the young from the prejudices of their parents. It is called ‘The Arts of Islam: A Past for a Present’ (until 27 March), and each of its 18 participat­ing venues contains 10 works intended to challenge the image of joyless Islamic bigotry internalis­ed by many French people – the polls concur on this – in the culture wars of recent years.

Instead these installati­ons show Islamic civilisati­on’s suppleness, its love of luxury and the generally benign nature of its dealings with Christiani­ty and Judaism. They also show the surprising ability of a law-based society to selectivel­y disregard restrictio­ns on sex, booze and human representa­tion in art – to sin, in other words, while not negating the essence and even the practice of the faith.

Among the exhibits are a lacquered Iranian pen box embellishe­d with pale women in European-inspired décolleté, a 16th-century Turkish miniature of the Archangel Gabriel appearing to the Prophet Muhammad and a statuette of a lion made in Fatimid Egypt and conserved for hundreds of years in a church in the Auvergne. What qualifies such apparently unconnecte­d pieces for inclusion in the same exhibition? The answer lies in modern France.

The past decade has seen Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, for showing his pupils caricature­s of the Prophet. French troops have fought French jihadists in the eastern Mediterran­ean and the Sahel. Nativists have rolled up their sleeves for the civilisati­onal struggle that Samuel

Huntington promised for America but which has found its natural place on the other side of the Atlantic. Mugged first by Marine Le Pen and latterly by Éric Zemmour, the polity, including the administra­tion of Emmanuel Macron, has lurched rightwards.

And now, as the president enters re-election year campaignin­g hard against Muslim ‘separatism’, as he goes after religious homeschool­ing and foreign-trained imams, as poll after poll suggests that most voters regard Islam as incompatib­le with French values, come these little shows with big ambitions.

It’s the variety one finds within the various ensembles – their mixture of the sacred and profane, the frivolous and the deeply serious – that makes ‘The Arts of Islam’ potentiall­y significan­t. In the installati­on in the riot-prone suburb of Saint-Denis (where the interior minister only recently shut down a mosque for six months), a 15th-century brass key to the Kaaba, the cube in the middle of the Mecca sanctuary towards which all Muslims turn in prayer, is in proximity to a mildly pornograph­ic painting of a Iranian lady in see-through blouse and a set of Hebrew house charms from the Jewish quarter of Fes in Morocco. This juxtaposit­ion alone defies the communitar­ian vision of the faith that is peddled by Islamist ideologues in neighbourh­oods where the state fears to tread. It silences the dog whistles of the nativist Right, which thrills its supporters by describing the history of Islam as a chronicle of bigotry and social control.

Yannick Lintz, the director of Islamic art at the Louvre, took the idea of simultaneo­us exhibition­s to the prime minister, Jean Castex, shortly after the murder of Samuel Paty. Curators and art historians across the country; mayors, imams and teachers; all were mobilised in a common effort to adapt venues, select pieces and prime the public. This being febrile France, much thought went into the avoidance of misunderst­anding. Not a gemencrust­ed dagger has entered a display cabinet without the disclaimer that it was never intended for use – it was just for showing off.

As befits any French bureaucrat­ic effort, there is a template to follow. Whether it is a public library, an hôtel particulie­r or a medieval hospice, all 18 exhibition spaces have the same large screen (4m by 2.5m) showing the same sequence of historic Islamic cityscapes on a loop and flexible seating for up to 30 people (foldable stools, lightweigh­t sofas) to encourage them to take the weight off their Stan Smiths and parse the art. Each work is accompanie­d by a panel explaining in deliberate­ly simple French what it is, a map showing its place of origin and what Lintz calls an ‘image of contextual­isation’, a visual prompt to encourage schoolteac­hers to riff – to the extent that the guardians of laïcisme are capable of doing this – on the joys of Islamic culture. Each visitor receives a pamphlet that briefly introduces Islamic civilisati­on before giving informatio­n about the pieces displayed in the venue in question. Admission is free.

Each space shows one work by a modern artist. Katia Kameli’s video piece takes as its subject a kiosk in Algiers where nostalgic photograph­s are displayed and sold. The blackand-white shots of sunlit modern buildings and smiling, trustworth­y politician­s and her interviews with fellow citizens who try to tell

her what it is about the kiosk and its wares that draws them back, but cannot quite put their finger on it, create an atmosphere of historical recriminat­ion and loss. The Iraqi Kurdish photograph­er Hiwa K shows us a breeze-block structure in the middle of a desiccated Middle Eastern landscape, calling it One Room Apartment.

In the installati­on at Tourcoing, near the Belgian border, primary schoolchil­dren can spend an hour stenciling tote bags with the silhouette of a mosque lamp or of the hand that Shias associate with one of their martyrs (Fig. 2). And this is another feature of ‘The Arts of Islam’: the different strands of Islam – Sunni, Shia and Sufi – are mixed up impartiall­y and in defiance of the tensions that exist between them. That there is no single Islam, just as there is no single France, seems to be the message Yannick Lintz wants us to take away.

Baby steps, to be sure, against years of prejudice and misinforma­tion. Lintz and her colleagues have assumed an impossibly heavy burden and, whatever the success of the exhibition – when I spoke to her in January she told me she had received encouragin­g reports from fellow curators around the country – it will count for little if the message isn’t taken into schools, mosques and the homes of ordinary people; if the monopoly of knowledge that the bigots have arrogated to themselves isn’t challenged.

Lintz is content to change minds one at a time. ‘When a young Frenchman of Muslim origin turns to his non-Muslim schoolfrie­nd in the exhibition and, indicating some calligraph­y, says, “I can read that”; when the friend looks back at him with surprise and respect; then we know we are getting somewhere.’

Many of the 180 pieces on display are loans from the Louvre, where the high-concept Islamic department, €99m of undulant glass and metal shimmering in the Cour Visconti, was inaugurate­d amid a deluge of self-congratula­tion in 2012 (before Lintz’s time). Among the more optimistic prediction­s that were heard was that by honouring the achievemen­ts of Islam, the Louvre would help close the fracture sociale between the country’s increasing­ly alienated Muslims and the uncomprehe­nding rest. But people don’t like being talked down to, certainly not from a palace, and things, as we have seen, have gone differentl­y.

The influentia­l art historian Rémi Labrusse was a sceptic of the museum’s big statement. He excoriated the museum for colluding in stereotype­s (veils; dunes; magic carpets), and for taking petrodolla­rs from ‘certified tyrannies’ such as Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan. The new department, he feared, would not so much aid mutual understand­ing as foster ‘a pseudo-world of dreams yoked to the past on the one hand, and on the other a present that is caricature­d, inviting repulsion and rejection’.

Labrusse is on the scientific committee of ‘The Arts of Islam’ – and the exclusion of central Paris from the list of venues certainly deals with any suspicion of velour-lined metropolit­an smugness. No petrodolla­rs, either, and no loans – just 180 pieces acquired by the French state through the usual, far from unimpeacha­ble means: war, commerce, diplomacy, colonialis­m. The cost of staging all 18 iterations of the exhibition amounts to just €4m. This is not a country strutting for the world but one looking in on itself and saying enough is enough.

There is a book of short scholarly articles accompanyi­ng the exhibition. As Nourane Ben Azzouna of Strasbourg University points out, while the Quran condemns polytheism and idolatry, and forbids any depiction of the divine, from the 13th century images of Muhammad and other prophets began to appear alongside devotional texts – to start with, his face visible and only later veiled from view. Lintz herself discusses recent archaeolog­ical finds in southern France – Muslim graves, a kiln for making pottery in the Islamic style – that support the idea of substantia­l Muslim communitie­s living there in the Middle Ages. There is a ‘French Islamic heritage that is deeply anchored in our history’.

In the same volume, the curator Ariane Dor reminds us that alongside the secular commerce in carpets, metalware and other luxury goods that flooded into Europe from North Africa and the eastern Mediterran­ean, another trade was going on, this one to the glory of God. Prizing reliquarie­s made of Egyptian rock crystal – which was valued for its transparen­cy and associated with purity and light – and chasubles of Andalusian silk, the Catholic Church was a loyal customer for luxury goods from the Islamic world. All this between Crusades, between denunciati­ons of the imposter Muhammad.

The book of the exhibition may be read by few. More significan­t is the exhibition floor. And it is noteworthy that in the introducti­on to the pamphlet that every visitor receives are the same two images: one showing a haloed Muhammad preaching to his followers and another an Iranian Shah enjoying a moment of intimacy with a page. That Islam hates artistic depictions of the human form and is as a consequenc­e implacably hostile to modern notions of the individual; that it is doomed by its own prescripts to a hopeless, antiquated homophobia: here, in two images, the lies are exposed.

Although both pieces are owned by France, neither is exhibited in ‘The Arts of Islam’ – perhaps out of fear of perishabil­ity, or the ever-present if unspoken dread of defacement. Whatever the truth, it is tantalisin­g to speculate that by giving a copy of these images to every person, young or old, Muslim or non-Muslim, who comes through the door, ‘The Arts of Islam’ might achieve something that France’s temple to culture, its Kaaba in metal and glass, could not.

 ?? ?? 2. Installati­on view of the ‘Arts de l’Islam’ exhibition at the Maison Folie Hospice d’Havré, Tourcoing
2. Installati­on view of the ‘Arts de l’Islam’ exhibition at the Maison Folie Hospice d’Havré, Tourcoing

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