A New Perspective on Islamic Cultures

Arts of Islam… a Past for a Present
Ottoman ceramic wall panels from Turkey around 16th-19th centuries on display in the Department of Islamic Arts – The Louvre Museum. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr)

There is always a strong reason to come and see the biggest and the most beautiful museum in the world, The Louvre. Formerly a palace for France’s royalty located in the heart of Paris, the museum allows for a journey across about ten thousand years of art history displayed in various collections.

The museum’s artifacts are stunning, with more than 600,000 items that speak of Western art since the Middle Ages until 1848, and the preceding ancient civilizations (Eastern, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman) which influenced these ages, in addition to Islamic and Christian arts.

Starting this November until March 2022, the Louvre museum organizes along with Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais, 18 concurrent exhibitions of Islamic arts across France.

Jean Castex, French Prime Minister

The French government is applying the idea of regionalization of culture which is firmly adopted by France. Fighting back centralization of culture requires tangible efforts to keep a coherent society against religious fanaticism. This arises from a belief that culture is a relentless fort of openness to others and resorting to the past to understand it in order to build a common future. From this perspective, the French Ministry of Culture called upon the Louvre and Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais to organize a national project that addresses a vast audience, and the youth in particular, so they can take a new look at Islamic arts and cultures.

In each exhibition, ten historical and contemporary works of art from the Louvre Museum – Department of Islamic Arts and national and regional collections are displayed to show rich Islamic cultures and their impact on France’s history since more than 1300 years ago. In a dialogue between past and present works, each exhibition displays a work of art by a contemporary artist from the Muslim world, which reflects the view of the present world and its relationship with the heritage.

More than 180 works in total will be presented to the public: an 11th-century mosque lamp from Jerusalem (Louvre Museum), a chandelier from the Saladin era signed by an artist from Mosul telling the life of Jesus (Louvre Museum) and others. The initiative also aims at spreading awareness among the public about the vast diversity of regions and peoples who are influenced by Islam.

Yannick Lintz, General Curator of Heritage, Director of the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre, and the general commissioner of the national project of “Arts of Islam… a Past for a Present”

 

Since its establishment in 2012, the Department of Islamic Arts in the Louvre has presented an opportunity to the public to dive into Islamic cultures from Spain to India, from the seventh to the 19th centuries. The department uncovers the importance of ancient, fruitful, and strong exchanges between France and the East. Artistic and historical testimonies reveal religious and cultural diversity inside the Muslim World for 13 centuries. These exchanges reflect the transmission of ideas and people, as well as the diverse heritage of France.

Islamic civilization is Moroccan, Turkish, Indian, Iranian, or Asian as much as it is Arab. The artworks displayed highlight a variety of artistic practices and sentiments and evoke scenes of life, nature, desire, and simple ornaments of a palace or a mosque.

The relationship between France and Islamic Arts

French Prime Minister Jean Castex has called for launching a national project, led by the Ministry of Culture, to promote Islamic arts, in order to raise awareness about the history of multi-cultural Islamic civilization, in a governmental move following the murder of the teacher Samuel Paty.

The Prime Minister appointed Yannick Lintz, Director of the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre, to oversee the project. The project takes the form of a series of exhibitions to be held simultaneously in 18 French cities for four months. La Réunion is the only overseas location to host one such exhibition of “Arts of Islam… a Past for a Present”.

Jean Castex evoked the relationship between France and the arts of Islam saying, “The exhibition is about the dialogue between cultures that enriched each other throughout more than 13 centuries.”

Door with starry decoration from Egypt, Cairo around 1380-1420, on display in the Department of Islamic Arts – The Louvre Museum. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr)

 

He went on to say, “The Exhibition “Arts of Islam… a Past for a Present” traces back a rich and sophisticated history that brought to us a precious heritage. In the drawings of funerals, lanterns of mosques, or other daily works of art: we are stunned by the impressive diversity of these treasures of the past (whether secular or sacred). Then we discover the intimate ties between our country and these arts of Islam as they enrich our life and culture. What’s prominent is the call for openness to others as a reflection of the permanent mutual fascination between the East and the West. From the arabesque that adorns some of our Cathedrals, to reading (One Thousand and One Nights) and use of some Persian letters, we can see that the dialogue is permanent.”

He added that by the strength of this artistic and cultural education, “the young people of our nation will be republicans capable of loving the country where they live and understand the world around them, thanks to the quality of the project implemented by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.”

The exhibition is designed according to an exceptional collaborative and participative framework, thanks to the participation of La Fondation de l’Islam de France and liaisons in hosting cities such as Rouen, Rillieux-la-Pape and Blois.

“ Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.’ said the poet Jalal ad-Dine Rumi. This exhibition which ‘raises the words’ is the direct response to the speech of hatred and temptations that causes concern. It reminds us that the dialogue between cultures has never ceased in our history and should inspire us in the present time. Thus it is indispensable to reach mutual understanding,” concluded the French Prime Minister.

Islamic Arts Curator Speaks to Majalla

Yannick Lintz is General Curator of Heritage, Director of the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre. She obtained her Ph.D. in history and is specialized in the history of Islamic art and the history of art collecting and Islamic museums dating back to the 19th century. Between 2000 and 2002, she worked as an advisor on museums and heritage for Jack Lang, when he was the Minister of National Education. In 2013, she was appointed director of the department of Islamic Arts. She is currently the general commissioner of the national project of “Arts of Islam… a Past for a Present”.

Majalla asked Yannick Lintz about the exhibition and the value of Islamic arts in the following interview.

Exhibition hall of the Islamic Arts department in the Louvre, ground floor level. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr)

Q. The Arts of Islam exhibition in the French lands is very huge, will it open horizons of better knowledge of Islamic culture? And how?

A. I hope that this operation will be stimulate and a new interest. The idea of showing some of these masterpieces of Islamic art in 18 places at the same time is to give 18 opportunities for discovery and initiation for young people, families, those who never come to exhibitions and museums, of objects which, in my opinion, become cultural ambassadors.

It probably also allows many people to see Islamic civilization through a different lens than that of terrorism and radicalism. In the exhibitions, there will be works of art that reflect the societies of these territories between Europe and China, their taste for beauty, luxury, decoration, and the various cultural uses to which they bear witness.

For example, there are magnificent Persian carpets, often more than 5 or 8 meters long, which show real gardens called ‘gardens of paradise’, in which figurative scenes abound and tell of the pleasures of living in these places. Women listen to music, talk together, drink tea and wine, sometimes with the men, who are also seen enjoying hunting in the abundant nature of trees, flowers, and animals.

How can we share the beauty, richness, and complexity of such a culture in today's France?

It is not an easy art to grasp. One is not always faced with images but rather with purely decorative forms. The best way to approach Islamic art is to tell its stories. Learning that a rock crystal piece in a French church today was sculpted in Cairo around the 11th century and that Muslim craftsmen went to Madagascar to find the precious material is a way of penetrating the fascination of these traveling objects!

The Islamic collections of the Louvre include about 20,000 objects; how did they arrive in France?

Islamic art has been in the Louvre since its creation in 1793. Among the most prestigious pieces are works that belonged to royal collections, such as the famous Treasure of Saint-Denis. These oriental objects fascinated the kings of France, such as Louis XIV, but also François I, who had relations with Soliman the Magnificent. The collection also includes 3,000 objects from a deposit of the Musée National des Arts Décoratifs, located on Rue de Rivoli in Paris. This collection was built up at the same time as ours, that is to say at the time when Paris had this passion for the Orient which took on the name of "orientalism" in the middle of the 19th century with the rise of the Universal Exhibitions which led to an intense circulation of objects and developed the market for Islamic art.

A QURAN SHEET: Maghreb or Muslim Spain 13th or 14th century (Supplied)

 

What does this artistic world represent for Muslims today?

This art can come indeed from the countries where Muslims were born or their families grew. In addition, it belongs to their religion and culture. Thus this art refers to their roots and is part of their heritage. I see the pride of North African young people when they find Moroccan, Algerian, or Tunisian items in the department of Islamic Arts in the Louvre. Whether these were a magnificent golden metal tea tray or an item from a mosque, they are proud to see their roots in a certain way. The source of their pride is not a religion in this case, but their feeling that they possess the cultural symbols to understand these works of art. The exotic discovery for these young people was Iranian, Egyptian, or Turkish art which they don’t know. The same applied to many Iranians living in France and elsewhere, who discover by sentiments their cultural heritage within a larger whole. These are witnesses to history which can be near or far to them. They can reweave their historical ties. I think of African Muslim young people who live in Aubervilliers and their origins are from Timbuktu, they came to the Islamic Arts department and didn’t find any Islamic treasures from their country, but they were touched by the items that remind them of their culture, the luxurious pieces, the wooden decorations, and Quranic ornaments.

How did you make the decision of presenting contemporary art in 18 venues?

International contemporary art has given 2 or 3 generations of creators from different Islamic countries: North Africa, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, India, and Pakistan. They have international tastes and production methods, such as video, installation. Meantime, the works we have chosen, most of which belong to FRAC (Regional Contemporary Art Fund), suit the culture and heritage of all these countries.

The works of those artists hailing from the Muslim world reveal their view of the modern world just as the 12th-century artists could do for their societies at the time. Also, almost half of the 18 artists are women.

Contemporary art lovers will recognize well-known personalities such as Hassan Sharif, but there are also young artists, such as Halida Boughri, with a video called Transit. In the video, she evokes a contemporary theme of migration and its dramas. The artist uses the metaphor of bird flights and her work will be presented in the same room as the Key to the Kaaba in Saint-Denis. The connection may seem a little strange at first glance, but the work may echo the pilgrimage to Mecca, considered in the Islamic holy books as the flight of a bird towards its destination. In Blois, a video by the French-Algerian artist Katia Kameli entitled Roman Algerian will be presented. It is a vision of the city of Algiers with its colonial heritage in the background, a past in the city of today.


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