Unsettling Notions of “Islamic Art” and the “Other”: Representations of Islamic Cultures in Contemporary Art in North America and the Middle East

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Bakhsh, Rawaa
Islamic , art , middle east , saudi arabia , contemporary art , islamic culture , culture , appropriation , orientalism , shirin neshat , cultural appropriation
Islamic art is a diverse field, but it is commonly miscategorized and undervalued as a result of Western bias in both historical and contemporary contexts. As a response to this limitation in the scholarly study of Islamic Art, the following study analyzes the impacts of the history of Orientalism on museum spaces and contemporary artists, the propensity for culturally appropriating and self-appropriating trends among insider/outsider Islamicate artists, and the ways in which artists utilize and challenge Orientalist ideologies, and it further explores artistic responsibility in relation to cultural representation. This study unsettles the legacies of imperialism and Islamophobia that have propagated one-dimensional readings of Islamic art(s). It challenges inapplicable distinctions of “secular” and “religious,” probing the field’s 1,400-year history and exploring historical Islamic art and architecture, focusing on overlapping religious and cultural aspects and the incorporation of traditions from pre-Islamic, Indigenous, prior, and neighbouring cultures. Utilizing Edward Said’s Orientalism, it discusses Orientalist tropes represented in 19th and 20th century Orientalist paintings and explores how those ideologies have evolved into Islamophobic representations in modern Western popular culture and news media. Then, the overview of museum spaces and the imperialist legacies that underpin them connects the role of the museum space as gatekeeper to the art world with the motivation for artists to culturally appropriate or self-appropriate Islamic cultures to gain access to the art world. Through archival data analysis and fieldwork, the study compares case studies of artists Sandow Birk, M.C. Escher, Abdulnasser Gharem, Shirin Neshat, Jamelie Hassan, Sarah Al Abdali, Colleen Wolstenholme, Ajlan Gharem, Moath Alofi, and Nasser Al Salem. Ultimately, then I argue, cultural appropriation and self-appropriation of Islamic cultures are used by Islamic- context artists and non-Islamic context artists alike. Moreover, artists do capitalize on Orientalist expressions, but they also utilize opportunities to challenge these Western-biased representations and develop innovative ways to represent Islamic cultures. Throughout this study, I also draw on my own experiences as a female, Saudi, Muslim artist, and as such, this study is also a decolonial project. These conclusions lay the groundwork for future research on decolonization, issues of cultural appropriation in art, and further definition and interpretation of Islamic art as a valuable, influential field in its own right.
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