Excerpt from the February 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
From the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean to the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, the French Republic is organizing a national exhibition intended to save young people from the prejudices of their parents. It’s called “The Arts of Islam: A Past for a Present” (until March 27), and each of its 18 participating venues contains 10 works intended to challenge the image of joyless Islamic bigotry internalized by many. many French people – the polls agree – in the culture wars of recent years.
Rather, these installations show the flexibility of the Islamic civilization, its love of luxury, and the generally benign nature of its relationship with Christianity and Judaism. They also show the startling ability of a law-based society to selectively ignore restrictions on sex, alcohol, and human representation in art – to sin, in other words, without denying the essence or even the practice of faith.
Among the exhibits are a lacquered Iranian pencil case adorned with pale women with European-inspired cleavage, a 16th-century Turkish miniature of the Archangel Gabriel appearing to the Prophet Muhammad, and a lion statuette made in Fatimid Egypt and preserved for hundreds of years. years. in a church in Auvergne. What qualifies these seemingly unrelated pieces to be included in the same exhibition? The answer lies in modern France.
The last decade has seen Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan and the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, for showing his students caricatures of the Prophet. French troops fought French jihadists in the eastern Mediterranean and the Sahel. The nativists have rolled up their sleeves for the civilizational fight that Samuel Huntington promised America but which has found its natural place on the other side of the Atlantic. Assaulted first by Marine Le Pen and then by Éric Zemmour, the political regime, including the administration of Emmanuel Macron, swung to the right.
And now, as the President enters his re-election year campaigning against Muslim ‘separatism’, as he attacks religious homeschooling and foreign-trained imams, as poll after poll suggests that most voters view Islam as incompatible with French values, come these little shows with big ambitions.
It is the variety found within the various ensembles – their mixture of the sacred and the profane, the frivolous and the profoundly serious – that makes ‘The Arts of Islam’ potentially significant. At the facility in the riot-prone suburb of Saint-Denis (where the interior minister has just closed a mosque for six months), a 15th-century brass key to the Kaaba, the cube in the middle of the shrine in Mecca to which all Muslims turn in prayer, is near a slightly pornographic painting of an Iranian woman in a transparent blouse and a set of Hebrew house charms from the Jewish quarter of Fez in Morocco . This juxtaposition alone challenges the communal vision of faith peddled by Islamist ideologues in neighborhoods where the state fears treading the ground. It silences the dog whistles of the nativist right, which delights its supporters by portraying the history of Islam as a chronicle of bigotry and social control.
Yannick Lintz, the director of Islamic arts at the Louvre, brought the idea of simultaneous exhibitions to Prime Minister Jean Castex shortly after the assassination of Samuel Paty. curators and art historians across the country; mayors, imams and teachers; all of them mobilized in a common effort to adapt the places, select the pieces and prepare the public. France being feverish, we think a lot to avoid any misunderstanding. Not a gem-encrusted dagger went into a display case without the warning that it was never meant to be used – it was just to show off.
As befits any French bureaucratic effort, there is a model to follow. Whether it is a public library, a mansion or a medieval hospice, all 18 exhibition spaces have the same large screen (4m by 2.5m) showing the same looping sequence of historic Islamic cityscapes and flexible seating for up to 30 people (folding stools, sofas lightweights) to get them to take the weight off their Stan Smiths and analyze the art. Each work is accompanied by a panel explaining in intentionally simple French what it is, a map showing its place of origin and what Lintz calls an “image of contextualization”, a visual prompt to encourage teachers to riff – insofar as guardians of secularism are able to do it – on the joys of Islamic culture. Each visitor receives a brochure which briefly presents the Islamic civilization before giving information on the exhibits in the place in question. Free entry.
Each space features a work by a modern artist. Katia Kameli’s video piece takes as its subject a kiosk in Algiers where nostalgic photographs are exhibited and sold. The black-and-white shots of sunlit modernist buildings and smiling, trustworthy politicians and his interviews with fellow townspeople who try to tell him what’s in the kiosk and its wares that appeal to them, but don’t fail to put their finger on it, creating an atmosphere of historical recrimination and loss. Iraqi Kurdish photographer Hiwa K shows us a cinder block structure amid a parched Middle Eastern landscape, calling it 1 Room Apartment.
At the Tourcoing facility, near the Belgian border, schoolchildren can spend an hour stenciling tote bags with the silhouette of a mosque lamp or the hand that Shiites associate with one of their martyrs. And this is another characteristic of “The Arts of Islam”: the different currents of Islam – Sunni, Shia and Sufi – are mixed 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 that Yannick Lintz wants to convey to us.
Baby steps, of course, against years of prejudice and misinformation. Lintz and her colleagues have taken on an incredibly heavy burden, and however successful the exhibit – when I spoke to her in January, she told me she had received encouraging reports from conservative colleagues across the country. – it will count for little if the message is ‘t taken to schools, mosques and ordinary people’s homes; if the monopoly of knowledge that the bigots have arrogated to themselves is not called into question.
Lintz just changes his mind one by one. “When a young Frenchman of Muslim origin turns to his non-Muslim classmate in the exhibition and, pointing to a calligraphy, says: “I can read that”; when the friend looks at him with surprise and respect; then we know we are going somewhere.
Many of the 180 pieces on display are on loan from the Louvre, where the high-level Islamic department, 99 million euros of undulating glass and shimmering metal in the Visconti courtyard, was inaugurated amid a deluge of complacency in 2012 (before Lintz’s time). Among the most optimistic predictions that were heard was that, by honoring the achievements of Islam, the Louvre would help close the social break between the country’s increasingly alienated Muslims and the misunderstood others. But people don’t like to be looked down upon, certainly not from a palace.
Even then, the eminent art historian Rémi Labrusse was skeptical of the museum’s grand claim. He castigated him for colluding with stereotypes (sails, dunes, magic carpets) and for taking petrodollars from “certified tyrannies” such as Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan. The new department, he feared, would help not so much mutual understanding as “a pseudo-world of dreams harnessed to the past on the one hand, and a caricatured present on the other, inviting repulsion and to rejection”.
Labrusse is part of the scientific committee of the “Arts of Islam” – and the exclusion of the center of Paris from the list of places certainly responds to any suspicion of metropolitan sufficiency upholstered in velvet. No petrodollars either, no loans, just 180 coins acquired by the French state by the usual means, far from being irreproachable: war, trade, diplomacy, colonization. The cost of staging the 18 iterations of the exhibition amounts to just 4 million euros. The France represented in this exhibition is not a country that struts around for the world but a country that looks at itself and says enough is enough.
A book of short scientific articles accompanies the exhibition. As Nourane Ben Azzouna of the University of Strasbourg points out, while the Koran condemns polytheism and idolatry, and prohibits any representation of the divine, from the 13th century onwards images of Muhammad and other prophets began to appear next to devotional texts – at first his face visible and only later veiled from view. Lintz herself discusses recent archaeological discoveries in southern France – Muslim tombs, a kiln for making pottery in the Islamic style – which support the idea that significant Muslim communities lived there in the Middle Ages. There is a “French Islamic heritage deeply rooted in our history”.
In the same volume, the curator Ariane Dor recalls that alongside the age-old trade in carpets, ironwork and other luxury goods that floods Europe from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, another trade continues, that there to the glory of God. Privileging Egyptian rock crystal reliquaries – valued for its transparency and associated with purity and light – and Andalusian silk chasubles, the Catholic Church was a loyal customer of luxury goods from the Islamic world. All this between crusades, between denunciations of the impostor Muhammad.
The exhibition book can be read by a few. More important is the exhibition floor. And it should be noted that in the introduction of the brochure that each visitor receives are the same two images: one showing a haloed Muhammad preaching to his disciples and the other an Iranian Shah enjoying a moment of intimacy. with a page. That Islam hates artistic representations of the human form and is therefore implacably hostile to modern notions of the individual; that it is doomed by its own prescriptions to a hopeless and antiquated homophobia: here, in two images, the lies are exposed.
Although both pieces belong to France, neither is exhibited in “Les Arts de l’Islam” – perhaps out of fear of perishability, or the pervasive, though unspoken, fear of disfigurement. Whatever the truth, it is tempting to speculate that by giving a copy of these images to every person, young or old, Muslim or non-Muslim, who walks through the door, “The Arts of Islam” might achieve something. that the French temple of culture, its metal and glass Kaaba, could not.
Christophe de Bellaigue is the author of TIslamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason (Vintage). The Lion’s Housethe first of a trilogy on the life and court of Suleiman the Magnificent will be published in March.
Excerpt from the February 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.