Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Beauty is not enough

Sensual, romantic, ecstatic; these are the traditions of Muslim art. What, asks Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, does this mean in today's great clash of civilisations?
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The Independent Online

Last November, I joined a panel debate on the controversial withdrawal by Tate Britain of John Latham's God is Great (1990) from a retrospective of the artist's work at the gallery. The thin and intense Latham (now passed away) was livid: "Tate Britain has shown cowardice over this... It isn't even a gesture as strong as censorship, just a loss of nerve." They took the action, explained the Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar, "because of a particular social and political resonance."

To me and other Muslims, the work appears devout. Three Abrahamic texts shot through clear glass suggest that revealed religions can become rule-bound when real faith lies beyond words and images, pure and reflective as glass. Yet it was assumed by the gallery that Muslims are all volatile and unable to understand such art. The Muslim obscurantists who destroy our peace were given succour. Why no concern that fundamentalist Jews and Christians too might object to the "desecration" of their texts?

Fast-forward to today, and Tate Britain is poised to be embroiled in another kind of controversy. An "intervention" titled "East-West: objects between cultures" has been curated by the Renaissance supremo Lisa Jardine with Matthew Birchwood and Matthew Dimmock, both academic experts on historical Islamic ideas. Nice concept. A teeny accompanying booklet explains: "The variety of objects on display provides an insight into the relationship between societies sometimes considered distinct... Many of these artefacts have been formed and transformed between cultures."

The gallery tried to find curators who come from that space between cultures, but say they were unable to. One British Muslim writer dropped out due to work pressures. Shame, that. In the 21st century, British Muslims should have more real influence in the arts world.

That is perhaps a petty gripe. It is the display that is more dismaying. Spread across several rooms, objects and texts are placed as if for a children's treasure trail, only they stay lost. One example: a small painting of a reclining, apparently post-coital Iranian lady languidly looking at a dog drinking wine from a bowl. It supposedly connects with similar female images painted by Pre-Raphaelites. I don't get the point, I told Deuchar (someone I rate highly). The impact is slight, the timidity underwhelming. He enthusiastically defended the project for its "boldness" and "lightness of touch", and saw it as an amuse-bouche leading temptingly to the big British Orientalist exhibition scheduled for 2008.

Some Muslims, like Deuchar, find the intervention delightful, among them the academic Yahya Birt, the convert son of John Birt. A Muslim intern helping me to research this piece, the Oxford undergraduate Nussaibah Younis, went to see for herself. "The choice of objects was truly bizarre and without any coherent sense of continuation, progression or unity," she said. "The effect is one of jarring fragmentation. Rather than proving a sense of East meeting and complimenting the West, the very layout emphasised the chasm between them."

There have been successful (admittedly more ambitious) exhibitions on East-West encounters and on Islamic aesthetics that have charmed the public and overturned perceptions. The recent Word into Art at the British Museum showcased contemporary Middle Eastern artists who work creatively with the written word, some with transformative calligraphy and derivations, others who dare to go beyond the purely beautiful and turn ink on paper into protest.

The V&A did itself proud with Encounters: the meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, and this museum now houses the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, a magical space paid for by an Arab businessman to project the entrancing face of our faith, he says. It is already doing much more than that.

Never has it been more important to open up the rivers of words, ideas, knowledge and beauty that have criss-crossed for centuries between the notional East and West. In his book Islam in Britain; 1558-1685, Nabil Matar wrote: "Muslims, through their Arab-Islamic legacy, were part of the religious, commercial and military self-definition of England." Not any longer, now that a new deadly global crusade is upon us. Many in the liberal intelligentsia have enlisted to fight for occidental values they feel are threatened by hoards of uncivilised Muslims. Last month, Martin Amis added yet another such elegant tirade about September 11 and his precious civilisation.

As the skies darken, some of us hope the arts can make the hard lines dissolve. Be wary, though, warns the writer Philip Hensher, of the paradigm of cultural wars and the emerging "redemptive narrative"; that "the sort of Islamic culture that ends in twisted metal and blood splattered across London façades is cancelled out by its ancestral beauty". Muslim art is not an apology, bail money, an excuse and an escape from the dreadful realities swirling around the world and our own heads. The game of compensatory politics is as perilous - Western policies may kill Muslims, but our politicians still admire their ancient mosques and intriguing, labyrinthine cities.

Yet, when zealots on both shores can only visualise a dehumanised them and enlightened us, Muslims, cowering between the armies of brutal obduracy, do seek solace in beauty. I was at the Jameel gallery on the very day of the aircraft bomb plot alert in August. Many other Muslims were there, too. Saul Bellow once said: "Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the middle of chaos." On that panicky Thursday, we sought that stillness. And hope. This is who we were, will be again.

The Spanish poet and dramatist Lorca said of the Moors: "An admirable civilisation with a delicacy unique in the world." Look at us today. Iran and Iraq were centres of Islamic arts and culture until vandals of the East and West destroyed both. Islamic countries are so cruel and chaotic that past glories can no longer waken the spirit there. They have extraordinary artists, but they are individual seekers of light in societies lost in pessimism and hungry for kitsch. In our own Muslim ghettos, philistinism and ignorance prevail. Navid Akhtar, a British Muslim architect and television producer, once explained why: "People when they moved here became disconnected from their living arts. Life was hard. They had little time or money left over. For young people like myself, carpets and various antique objects made by Muslims were for white purveyors at Liberty, not for us." Ironically, as the sense of doom descends over the future, many more Britons, both Muslims and non- Muslims, are engaging with Islamic high culture, past and present.

Talibanised Muslims want to burn the West. In that hated West, or because of it, a Muslim renaissance is breaking through, and has been for some time. (When the men in black turbans arrive they will come for us first - the writers and painters, singers and dancers who give Islam a good name.) To acknowledge this flowering and the intricate connections between Islam and Britain is almost a moral obligation for those of us who fear the consequences of an escalating war between us.

The Prince of Wales recently spoke of "the huge debt we in the West owe Islam, and I think it is a debt too often ignored and forgotten today". The debt goes the other way too, and is as easily forgotten.

The pity of it all is that the current UK-wide Festival of Muslim Cultures, which aims to remedy that, has been ignored by our media too busy chasing bearded, homicidal, fanatic Muslims. The last such Muslim cultural festival was in 1976. Then, the West was embroiled in the oil crisis and all Muslims were thought to be greedy sheikhs in menacing sunglasses.

The director of the current festival, the art critic Isabel Carlisle, passionately believes that "art is the last freedom, it is open and fluid, it is a world in which we can all connect. We want to foster a greater understanding of the Muslim world and open the cultural milieu to young Muslims." Laudable aims though they are - and they truly are - we need more profound, spiky conversations that dare to go beyond easy celebration.

I am uneasy about artistic diplomacy that insists that all art and cultural artefacts from Muslim cultures must be declared "excellent". Some is dross. Muslim art has never been as "pure" as some imagine. In 1908, Egypt opened a school of modern art. Surrealism, abstract expressionism and Cubism were embraced from Beirut to Tehran. One of my favourite paintings is Mother and Child by the Algerian Mohammed Issiakhem - a tribute to European images of the Madonna.

Ask the brilliant Saleem Arif Quadri who feeds his artistic soul, and he names Picasso, Matisse, Damien Hirst (whose work he once bought). Quadri painted 500 pieces inspired by Dante's "Inferno" (40 were bought for the government * * collection). Razia Malik (not her real name), a talented young artist who secretly paints convoluted nudes ("Don't tell my dad"), says she is totally inspired by Lucian Freud and Leonardo da Vinci.

The influences of the East on Europe are as strong. Edward Said's Orientalism saw only colonial exploitation, but Venice and Florence are filled with domes and squares, an infinite blue palette and other palpable influences of the Ottomans and Moors. Rembrandt collected and copied Mughal miniatures; Matisse studied them as he developed his own Modernist ideas. William Morris worshipped the old Ardabil Carpet now on show at the Jameel. Victorian potters copied Arabic and Persian designs in such quantities that they became a mark of quintessential Englishness. When and why was the East-West narrative shaped to fit Kipling's pessimistic proclamation that "never the twain shall meet"?

The art curator Hammas Nasser gets very impatient with rigid boundaries and the "them and us" discourse, which he says is "simplistic and tyrannical. Human beings generally, and artists most certainly, occupy more than one position, many identities. I don't think the Islamic/Western binary is useful."

The exclusion of this cross-fertilisation and of non-white sensibilities from the master narrative continues long after the colonialism that necessitated it. Understanding these complexities deepens appreciation. Rashid Rana is a remarkable artist, one of the contemporary Pakistani artists showing at the Manchester Gallery and at Asia House in London this month. In Rana's Three Veils, you gaze upon images of shrouded female faces in burqas, all beige but subtly different. That is from a distance; the composition is made up of tiny pictures, a modern version of a laborious old Persian technique of using thin brushes to build up an effect, later to become the pointillism perfected by Georges Seurat and others. The pictures, though, are pornographic images, symbolising parallel realities.

Rana is a man of as many identities as his work. "We live in a world in which there is a lot of interaction and exchange of information," he says. "But Western artists need to understand the context from which artists from the East are coming. In Pakistan, we study the context of Western artists. In art history books, there is restricted information about other cultures."

Sixteen years ago, the avant-garde artist Rasheed Araeen curated The Other Story for the Hayward Gallery. He asked then: "Is not the history of art still being written according to the Hegelian historical framework in which only the Western subject is privileged? And is not this privilege achieved by arbitrary removal of other cultures/peoples from the dynamics of cultural continuity?... [Art history] is the only discourse (unlike the discourse of literature and science) which protects its Western territory so rigidly that we find hardly any exceptions to its Eurocentric views."

Overstated and bombastic, yes, and times have changed - but not nearly as much as the art establishment likes to believe. Deuchar agrees that there have been "ruthless, subjective editings of the past" and that Tate Britain, displaying the official story of Britain, has tried to inject questions, to trip up the grand narrative. Looked at that way, the unobtrusive intervention of the East-West show makes absolute sense.

Britishness is expanding and shrinking at the same time. Just when you think you can describe its nature, it changes direction, turns hot or cold, closed or open, easy or confrontational. Gatekeepers are not nimble people at the best of times, but the present landscape of shifting shapes is making many nervous and uncomfortable. Yet they have the power to make or bury an artist. Muslim artists are embraced if they dissent from their traditions, or conform to the romantic fragrances and images of the East. As the art of those who have an Islamic connection becomes bolder, angrier, more political, yet never totally "Westernised", the lack of a parallel critical class becomes more evident and scandalous.

Talented artists in or of the Muslim world subvert conventions even when they appear to be conforming. Ali Omar Ermes is a great calligraphic painter whose work is often cutting. One triptych I love has three words, "No", "Yes" and "But" - his observations on the chicanery of leaders. Discontent creates an edgy spirit and art.

Vaseem Mohammed, from the East End of London, paints in a style that is both Modernist and Islamic. His pictures are broody, moonlit, still, promising danger round the corner. Suad Al-Attar, the British Iraqi painter, has moved from fabulous mythical dreams of old Babylon through ghostly memorials to her dead sister (killed when Clinton arranged for a few bombs to drop on Baghdad), to enormous canvases burning for Iraq.

Quadri, a Sufi, painted pictures of September 11 titled Sensual Songs of Sacred Spaces. Black skies filled with the ashes floating quietly down. The pictures never sold. This artist makes contemplative works pregnant with ideas, and plays with geometry and his take on gravity. These artists resist labels and boxes, confuse the art world.

The younger generation use their traditions to set up new vibrations. Mohammed Imran Qureshi, for example, paints in the style and size of Mughal miniatures - technically exact - but instead of doe-eyed queens he paints an effete young man in pink bell-bottoms, his pose suggesting ambiguous sexuality.

Hamara Abbas, born in Kuwait, has created an installation, a big floor-collage in Islamic geometric design made of paper notices warning "Please do not step". She says: "These are images of war, occupation and territory, saying don't enter our land." Asked if faith is embodied in her work, she replies: "I am quite religious, it is a part of me and informs my artwork." Rana reiterates the sentiments: "Religion is one part of my personality, yes, but my personality is made up of lots of different elements. I borrow from my cultural tradition and that has been influenced by religion. Religion is ingrained in my culture."

Raficq Abdullah, chair of the Festival of Muslim Cultures, believes this is the great divide: "We have forgotten the notion of sacredness in the Western world - with consumerism, globalisation and the secular state. Whereas in the Muslim world a sense of sacredness permeates all areas of the arts."

I have sat with Muslim artists drinking tea or illicit wine as they ponder whether that is true. And if so, why and when did Western art move from the soul to the senses? Is narcissistic art the only destination? Why can a Muslim artist not be judged as just an artist? And is there a place in the West for art for God's sake? Can European custodians of art ever really understand such work? The emerging renaissance of Muslim thought and art, like the European Renaissance, is porous and receptive, a precious thing when arms and men seem hell-bent on destroying all that connects us.

FIVE MASTERPIECES

THE ARDABIL CARPET

The carpet, 34ft by 17ft, was made in Persia in 1539. William Morris said it was of "singular perfection", and so it is; a floral centrepiece, symmetrical and vibrant, bursts out to scatter flowers and branches towards corners and borders that hold in the exuberance before it spills out. V&A, Jameel Gallery

OTTOMAN FOOTBATH

On this decorated footbath, dating from about 1545 and possibly used for washing the feet of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, lotus flowers with slender stems curl around the bowl in cobalt blue, turquoise and pale green - the soul colours of the art of the Middle East and Turkey. British Museum

JADE TERRAPIN

Made for the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 17th century, and carved out of a single piece of jade. The terrapin is life-size and realistic, yet also watery and divine. Sunderland Museum (on loan from British Museum)

SULTAN BAYBAR'S QU'RAN

Commissioned by a court official in Cairo in 1304, the Koran is written entirely in gold, with beautiful geometric frontispieces. It is quintessentially Islamic devout art. The ecstasy it brings on is, for me, both religious and aesthetic. British Library

PERSIAN COUPLE

A sensuous painting of a man and a woman in luxurious clothes, sharing a glass of wine in Persia (1900). This is figurative art, worldly and exuding rebellion. It is up for auction next week; I intend to bid.

Additional reporting by Nussaibah Younis

East-West: Objects Between Cultures, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8008), to 18 February

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