Exploring Islam's Artistic Legacy

At a time when misunderstanding among cultures seems endemic, the Katonah Museum of Art’s new exhibition might be the perfect antidote to antipathy. According to the show’s curator, Elizabeth Rooklidge, Long, Winding Journeys: Contemporary Art and the Islamic Tradition is no less than a watershed moment in the artistic history of Westchester.

“This show includes over 50 works of art and is more than twice the size of any exhibition that has been related to this subject held in the United States to date,” says Rooklidge. “It exemplifies how an organization can spark interesting conversations in its community while tapping into dialogues that are important on a national scale.”

Before going forward, the museum received a helping hand in faithfully representing Islamic culture from Muslim individuals and organizations within the local community. The Upper Westchester Muslim Society in particular aided Rooklidge and the KMA in conceiving an exhibition that was both respectful and accurate in its portrayal of the culture.

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Running from February 25 to June 17, the exhibition should not simply be seen as a collection of Islamic artwork. “The term ‘Islamic art’ was invented by Western art historians and has been used to designate work that’s been produced over the last 1,400 years, as far west as Spain and as far east as India,” says Rooklidge. “Art historians have tried to label an astonishing array of artwork with this single term, so it needs to be expanded and revised.”

Rather, Long, Winding Journeys presents a focused look at a group of artists whose work engages Islamic visual traditions in some manner. “Many of the artists do not feel they are producing Islamic art, and not all are practicing Muslims,” notes Rooklidge. “I chose to focus on a selection of artists who were of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, some living abroad and some here in the US, who are all from Muslim-majority countries. They have that direct experience with this culture, even if it is somewhat more tangential.”

Afruz Amighi, Warrior’s Headdress, 2017. Steel, fiberglass mesh, chain, light; 38 x 44 x 14 inches

One such artist is Afruz Amighi, who recently wrapped a particularly well-received show at the Sophia Contemporary in London. Born in Tehran, Amighi moved to America at the age of 3 and now lives in Brooklyn. Institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s V&A Museum have collected
her work.

“Afruz Amighi was a valuable conversation partner at the very beginning of the exhibition’s development,” says Rooklidge. “Her sculptures in Long, Winding Journeys meld historical Islamic architecture, ornamentation, and adornment with a variety of other sources, such as Medieval European and Native American culture. She incorporates these multiple cultural references with great sensitivity and exemplifies the ways in which tradition crosses seeming divides.”

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According to Amighi, the wide-ranging appeal of her art may be due to the fact that it investigates many of the same concepts as Western art. “I feel that artists have been drawing from the same epic themes of life for thousands of years, and it is all about how you go about expressing or materializing those ideas,” says Amighi. “For me, it has always been by using very banal materials that are associated with the city’s infrastructure.”

Amighi uses steel and netting to create sculptures with airy, abstracted physical forms that seem as if they are about to lift from gallery walls and take flight. “The works that are going to be shown at Katonah are my more figurative pieces, and one of them is pretty close to my heart because it is the nearest I have ever come to making a self-portrait” says Amighi. “It is a piece called Fool’s Headdress, and it’s a self-portrait in the sense that I feel I’m following in the tradition of artists like Cindy Sherman, who would take photographs of herself dressed up like a clown.”

Faig Ahmed, Impossible Viscosity, 2012. Handmade woolen carpet, 98 1/2 x 39 1/4 inches

This piece, as well two others included in the show, reference medieval courts and how they serve as a mirror to the contemporary art scene. “The work is adding to the commentary of the artist feeling like a jester in a court — the court being that strata of society that is engaged in buying and selling artwork and patronizing the arts.”

Exhibiting artist Shahzia Sikander similarly investigates the role of the creator within her work. “Sikander’s work includes a series of four etchings,” says Rooklidge. “The work also includes a text by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, and they both meditate on the story of the Miraj, which comes from the Koran and narrates a night journey that the prophet Muhammad takes up through the heavens to meet God. The work speaks to this narrative and what it might mean for Muslim artists.”

Above all, Rooklidge hopes that the exhibit acts as a kind of bridge connecting modern American traditions to that of the Middle East and South Asia. “Traditions are relevant to our everyday lives since they help us process history and our contemporary experience,” she says. “I hope this exhibition sparks people to really mull over whatever traditions they come from and how they can help them better understand themselves, the community, and the world around them.”

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