The Problem with Shangri-La

Two new exhibitions explore the difference between art and artifacts in the context of Islamic art

Return of the Mecca catalog, image courtesy of Sohail Daulatzai

Try to picture “Shangri-La” and your mind might conjure up an Orientalist fantasy, a syncretic world, folding all the cultural distinctions that characterize diverse nations into a single category. In theShangri-La, a Hawaii-based center for the arts in the former home of American heiress Doris Duke, this is the resplendent world that spectators are drawn into, one that takes artifacts from India, Turkey, Iran, Morocco, and beyond and neatly bundles them under the banner of Islamic Arts. Ornate wooden furniture from Iran, colorful wall rugs from Uzbekistan, and painted earthenware from Spain—the items on display evoke vaguely exotic but decidedly distant lands.

19th Century mirror from Northern India, on display at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery. Photo courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

A selection of Doris Duke’s carefully curated possessions, collected from all over the Middle East, North Africa, and the Asian subcontinent have been packaged into a traveling exhibit that began showing in Los Angeles this past weekend. But the exhibition arrived with a companion show, located right across the hall from Shangri-La. Titled “Shangri La: Imagined Cities” and overseen by Iraqi art curator Rijin Sahakian, the exhibit represents a stark contrast to Doris Duke’s exoticist, depoliticized visions of the Orient. Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji’s To My Brother features inkless etchings of his brother’s wedding photos. An Israeli sniper killed Batniji’s brother just two years after the happy photos were taken. In another room, George Awde’s photos of Syrian workers in Lebanon explore themes of masculinity and manual labor. Presented alongside Doris Duke’s extravagant furniture and curiosities, these pieces flesh out historical narratives that are considerably more nuanced and politically charged.

Wedding dresses and clothes from 19th century Turkey on display at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery. Photo by Tasbeeh Herwees

Both the Doris Duke exhibit and Imagined Cities were funded through the LA/Islam Arts Initiative, a citywide program that fosters cross-cultural understanding by bringing art from majority-Muslim countries to Los Angeles. Iran-born artist Amitis Motevalli is the director of the initiative, recruiting organizations and institutions all around the city to present work that falls within this category. When she was brought on to help present the Doris Duke exhibition in L.A., Motevalli enlisted the skills of Sahakian, who is currently based in Beirut. Together, the two have helmed a jam-packed, season-long program that challenges the very notion of Islamic arts—or, at least, broadens the category to a point where the antiquated concept’s irrelevance becomes clear. The dichotomous presentation of the combined Shangri-La exhibits is part of an effort to problematize Islamic Arts as a formal classification. “[We need to question] what people call ‘Islamic art.’ Many of the people who fall under the umbrella of Islamic art a lot of the times are not even Muslim,” says Motevalli.

For the next two months, the LA/Islam Arts Initiative will be holding events at art and culture institutions all across the city, showcasing multidisciplinary arts from all over the world. Film students at Cal State Long Beach have been hosting a film series that included Rola Nashef’s Detroit Unleaded, about an Arab-American-owned gas station in Detroit. Early next month, the Chinese American Museum will host a dinner of Chinese Islamic cuisine, a lamb-heavy variety of Chinese food that is quite different from the fare you might get at your usual take-out spot. These exhibitions are defined not by Islam itself, but by the experiences of Muslims or people from Muslim-majority countries. But they all invoke histories that are otherwise excluded from other exhibitions of Islamic art.

“We need to be able to do away with these definitions when they don’t make sense anymore,” says Sahakian.

Return of the Mecca exhibit at the William Grant Still Art Center in Los Angeles. Photo by Tasbeeh Herwees

Ultimately, this kind of outmoded, simplistic cultural labeling reduces the artist to a mere channel for transmitting culture, rather than as a person capable of individualized expression. It places aesthetic value on an ambiguous “otherness” or “difference” that is assumed by seeing diverse traditions through limiting styles of art. “When we’re talking about contemporary art, looking at different artists, I don’t know that you can use a religious terminology to [label them],” says Sahakian.

Coined by Western art historians, the term “Islamic art” may be defined as the corpus of art produced in or by people from Muslim-majority countries from the 7th century to the present. This definition would technically encompass art from societies in the Far East as well as diaspora communities in the West. But in the popular imagination, Islamic art has different, far narrower conations. The label is more often attached to works of calligraphy, ceramic art, carpetwork or other “crafts.” These works evoke tradition rather than the complicated, multifaceted world of what Islamic art is today. Sohail Daulatzai, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California in Irvine and a curator for one of the Initiative’s shows, says these limited notions of Islamic art are related to racist perceptions of Muslims as non-creative beings.

Mos Def; photo by Cognito

“The idea of Islamic art is a deeply Orientalist conception,” says Daulatzai, “It can’t conceive of Muslims in the here and now creating art that is of the moment—outside of traditional art. It’s a loaded category or term but I think Amitis [Motevalli] and the LA/Islam Arts movement did a really good job of complicating it.”

Daulatzai curates Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip Hop, an exhibit at the William Grant Still Art Center in LA’s historic West Adams neighborhood. When Western art historians use the term, “Islamic art,” they aren’t thinking of Chuck D or Mos Def or A Tribe Called Quest. But the art form these artists are known for—hip hop—is one that has been tightly intertwined with Islam’s history in the United States. “It’s a history that’s been in this country since its inception, since the first black people were brought here as slaves, Islam has been here,“ says Daulatzai. “It’s taken different forms. Hip hop is just the biggest platform for it.”

Return of the Mecca exhibit display at the William Grant Still Art Center; Photo by Tasbeeh Herwees

Daulatzai was born near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and grew up in Los Angeles, where as an adolescent he was exposed to the hip hop of the 1980s—including the early compositions of Rakim and Nas. “My worldview was shaped by this golden era of hip hop. It was very overtly politically-conscious, it was deeply influenced by Islam, in all it’s different shapes—the Gods and Earths, the Five-Percenters, the Nation of Islam, and ‘orthodox’ Sunni Islam as well,” says Daulatzai.

For the exhibit, Daulatzai created a 120-page catalog that includes images from the exhibit, album covers, newspaper clippings, an interview with Mos Def, and an essay by Chuck D. In a room of the exhibit, a series of old music videos plays on a loop—on one afternoon, it’s playing Peachfuzz, a track by the early 1990s group KMD. In the video, the young boys wear Islamic skullcaps and rap about their aversion to pork (among other things). These are representations of Muslims and Islam that are no longer as prevalent in mainstream media; they’ve been replaced by images of angry, violent Arabs and veiled women.

This is part of what makes L.A. the perfect place for this kind of initiative; it’s also home to Hollywood, one of the largest image-making entities on the planet. “We have a film industry here in Los Angeles which is projecting to the entire world images of what people may think Muslims are,” says Motevalli. “And what we want to present is not just what Hollywood is putting out.”