Islamic art exhibit looks at an old culture in a new place

Kurt Shaw
Breaking down cultural barriers has never been easy, but a new exhibit at Michael Berger Gallery on the South Side is attempting to do just that. "Dis[Locating] Culture" focuses on contemporary Islamic art as a conduit for changes in understanding Islamic culture.

The exhibit features the works of nine artists, many of whom are of Middle Eastern heritage but live in this country. It was co-curated by gallery owner Michael Berger and Islamic-art scholar Reem Alalusi of Washington, D.C.

Alalusi says that when asking an average person about Islamic art, a perplexed stare or even smirk may not be uncommon.

"Islam and art don't seem to go into the same sentence, if we believe lots of things we see on the television," she says. "If the person is a bit more knowledgeable, then they may recount the lovely tiles they saw in Morocco or beautiful fretwork in Egypt. However, these artists are, pure and simply, operating under the rubric of the contemporary project. Although they quote various references to other histories or places."

Pointing to the works of Amir Fallah -- "Crystal Mountain" and "On Bended Knee" -- for example, she says, "His works may recall the Persian miniature, (but) they make pointed reference to other subcultures within the American art scene, whilst making incisive political statements."

Fallah, who lives in Los Angeles, is a one-time graffiti artist and the founder and publisher of "beautiful/decay," an independent art, fashion, culture and design journal that focuses on underground and up-and-coming artists. He takes digital images and creates hand-painted "forts," or visual structures, that are built of many small pieces and elements. His work has a strong political and cultural reference to the modern Middle East, such as the piece "On Bended Knee," which is a collage of images of al-Qaida fighters and U.S. military, among other things, framed in an unusual border.

Alalusi says the title, "On Bended Knee" refers to a Boyz II Men song, but the composition retains its broken border as a nod to the miniature. "Ultimately, his works recalls all of those things that might be 'anathema' to the American art establishment: drug paraphernalia, sweet-looking flowers and Middle Eastern elements," she says. "He is an example of what I consider an update on a traditional form: the miniature, with a distinctly political, even anarchical, edge."

Like Fallah's pieces, Detroit-based Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi's "Oil Barrel #7" makes reference to Persian miniatures, yet is full of socioeconomic commentary. A gold-painted oil barrel that sits in the middle of the gallery, it is covered in traditional stylistic symbols that make reference to Persian miniature art. It melds Iran's two greatest exports -- Persian miniatures and oil -- while combining Islamic mythology with modern political themes. For example, look closely, and you will see a bullet hole has gone through the middle of the barrel, making reference to the wars in the modern Middle East.

Feminist issues as they relate to Islamic culture are the subject of the work of Negar Ahkami, who was born in Tehran and raised in New York City. Known for her brightly colored canvases filled with figures cavorting among multipatterned backgrounds, Ahkami's work broaches Expressionism while breaking down stereotypes with humor and whimsy. Her piece "Salome," with its larger-than-life central figure inspired by the young women in MTV's "Jersey Shore," is a perfect example.

"Her commentary tends to be on gender roles and perceptions between the West and Muslim societies, and she seeks to do away with the tropes of both the oppressed Muslim woman and the exotic, lascivious 'Oriental,' " Alalusi says. "In order to somewhat lessen the pain of what she considers the negative, yet pervasive, stereotypes -- each at one end of an extreme -- that of the somber Iranian woman in full-blown chador, juxtaposed to the Orientalist fantasy of the harem girl.

"Each is incorrect and outdated in its own way, and Ahkami reacts to them by quoting a certain 'Iranian rage and flamboyance' in her Jersey-shore inspired 'Salome.' "

The exhibit comes on the heels of another local Islamic-themed exhibit, "The Word of God: Sandow Birk's American Qur'an" at The Andy Warhol Museum, which closed May 1. A small area at the Michael Berger Gallery contains several of Birk's "American Qur'an" pieces for those who missed the larger show. AQlthough he professes no faith, the Los Angeles-based artist was interested in the Qur'an because of the pervasive media stereotyping about Islam and Muslims in the post-9/11 world.

"His thought process was that the Qur'an and the Bible are both ancient, Middle Eastern books, yet one is at the core of all that it means to be American, and one is considered its antithesis," Alalusi says. The pieces on display here present a melding of the two, so the viewer is pressed to draw his or her own conclusions.

In similar fashion so does New York City-based Shoja Azari's video "Day of the Last Judgment." It combines the old -- in this case a famous painting of the same title by Mohammad Modabber from 1897 -- with superimposed YouTube clips of Hezbollah rallies, Iraq War battle footage and widely disseminated pictures of Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England.

According to Alalusi, the works in this show "bridge the gap of intercultural perception and understanding perfectly from the standpoint of showcasing the diversity of works included under the banner of contemporary Islamic art."

However, much of what is intended may be lost in the obvious cultural disconnect that still pervades our society. Ultimately, the messages contained within this pertinent exhibit will be lingering ones. And, although some of the questions will be left unanswered, visitors will be forced to reflect and take away their own interpretations.

May 08, 2011, TribLive

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