At a time when Central Asia seems to have ominously emerged from obscurity into the western political consciousness as a “Middle East in Training,” it is worth considering how broader western audiences acquire information about Central Asia beyond the constructions of policy analysts and Borat. One enduring and traditional source is that of museums, whose explicit institutional intention is to put art and culture on display to create a specific narrative for consumption.
In this context, this month’s post begins a recurrent look at recent and ongoing museum exhibitions of Central Asian art and artifacts with the intention of initiating an ongoing conversation about how knowledge of Central Asia is produced for the general western public through visual representation, and how that knowledge interacts with prevailing political paradigms.
…As Islamic Art
Once chief arbiters of orientalism, several major international museums in recent years have made efforts to reframe their Islamic collections and actively combat the use of cultural representation of “the Other” as a means of dominance or authority. Rather than deriving its meaning from its comparison with that of the West, Islamic art is now presented as important and complex in its own right. Two examples of such attempts include the Musée du Louvre’s “new galleries of the Department of Islamic Art,” and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “new galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.”
As the cumbersome name of the latter suggests, the expansion of Islamic Art to include pieces from beyond the Arab world stresses the diversity of Muslim lands and cultures, challenging the notion of Islamic art as a monolithic system or style. As Peter Brown of Princeton University wrote in his 2011 review of the Met’s new galleries, the visual story told by the new galleries is one of a “long, slow parley by which many members…of the Christian and Zoroastrian communities of the region slowly but surely talked themselves into being Muslims, while bringing into Islam much of the richness of their own culture and worldview.” Daniel Waugh, University of Washington, Seattle, detects a similar approach at the Louvre. Such contemporary concerns about multiculturalism are further buttressed, he notes, by the exhibition catalogue as well as a supplemental video display which illustrates through works of art the multiplicity of religious traditions in the Islamic world.
The physical organization of the material in both museums perhaps serves the greatest blow to now passé constructs of “the Other.” Material that once might have been organized by chronology and geographical region in the Louvre is now grouped into thematic displays which explore techniques, elements of style, and subject matter which cut across time and space. Other displays and installations replicate wholesale how objects appeared in their original contexts. As Brown writes of the Met, “Like its original owners, we are invited to be engulfed in it.” In other words, the viewer is prompted to understand the objects as noteworthy art, not just as catalogued artifacts from distant lands and exotic peoples for a cabinet of curiosities.
Finally, both exhibitions expand not only the category of Islamic Art beyond the Arab world, but also the meaning of the qualifier Islamic itself to denote an entire cultural system rather than just a religion. During his perusal of the Louvre galleries, Waugh noticed a conscious avoidance of distinctions between secular and religious art, which he suggests is appropriate since so much of the material on display, and understood as Islamic, in fact has no explicit religious purpose. By representing Islam as a vast and varied culture, independently worthy of study and consideration, these museums function as a counterweight to contemporary politics and prejudices.
However productive or compelling this new narrative may be for contemporary Islam on the whole, it arguably still leaves Central Asia largely in obscurity, merely subsumed under some larger rubric. Despite the new, ponderous name of the Met’s galleries—from which the term Islamic has been stricken—they still fall under the “Department of Islamic Art.” Brown describes how the layout of the rooms at the Met stresses the diversity of the lands and cultures associated with Islam, yet shrinks distances between different regions and gives an impression of an extraordinary degree of mutual visibility. For the Met, this meets their curatorial purposes precisely, but for an audience who experiences this with scant foreknowledge of Central Asia, what kind of understanding of the region does this forge?
Does this representation of Central Asia mirror in the realm of culture what Sarah Kendzior of Washington University has called in the realm of politics “reverse orientalism?” While traditional orientalism purports that the Arab world is deemed significant for its difference from the West, Central Eurasia is now considered meaningful only by virtue of its similarity to the Arab world. “Much as the mainstream western press often fails to distinguish between individual Arab countries,” she writes “it also fails to distinguish between the Arab world and Central Asia, emphasizing broad, sweeping similarities–religion, resources, repression–while playing down the sharp differences in politics, social life, and history that determine the likelihood of political change.”
In the realm of art, the issue seems to be principally one of logistics. Objects from Central Asia in the permanent collections of both museums are simply outnumbered by those from the rest of the Islamic world. Furthermore, for a great deal of the story, even the pre-Islam part, a representation which highlights these objects as coming from a shared cultural horizon rather than as being tied to one specific political incarnation or another is a more enlightening one. In this instance, both the Louvre and the Met have achieved what large-scale exhibitions in major international museums set out to do. They have made sense, in Brown’s words, of an “entire galaxy of cultures touched by Islam, which spread from the Atlantic to South Asia and the borders of China, and which changed constantly over the course of a millennium.” The Islamic Frame fails to present a fuller story of Central Asian art and culture, but it does tell an essential part of it.