SHARJAH // A panel of international experts gathered at the weekend to discuss the definition of Islamic art and its evolution in the world of contemporary practice. The debate was part of a month-long educational programme for adults hosted by the British Council at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation. The programme was initiated to mark the museum's latest exhibition, Jameel Prize 2009, a collection of modern artworks brought together by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to celebrate the Islamic tradition.
The panellists struggled to reach a conclusion as to the nature of what defines Islamic art. On the panel were Camille Zakharia, a photographer whose work is featured in the exhibition; Jochen Sokoly, a professor of art history at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar; and Salwa Mikdadi, who leads the arts and culture programme at the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi.Some of the speakers suggested art labelled as Islamic was being forced into that distinction.
Ms Mikdadi, who has worked as an art historian and curator for more than 30 years and is one of the founding members of the Association of Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, said the theoretical framework of Islamic art had been defined by the West. "The imposed categorisation of art in the region is new to me. In the 1970s they were all just Arab, then they were defined by their countries and then by their religion. I guess it is possible to be all three, but we need to take into account who is making the definitions.
"Auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's have more influence on what is Arab and Muslim art than any researcher because we don't have museums or art historians to provide other discourse." Dr Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College in Oxford, said it was important only to recognise the framework within which artists were working. In a globalised world, she said, art was taking on a more hybrid form. "Throughout history, art has taken elements from the different traditions it has encountered and we can choose how we define our artists as long as we always recognise the process it takes to get there."
Khalid al Jallaf, an Emirati artist and calligrapher, talked about the evolution of calligraphy in art. "It started as a documentation process and then moved on to different forms including buildings, textiles and glass. It is now often used in contemporary art. "It is the same with Islamic art in the Muslim world: we learnt from Persian, Byzantine and Egyptian art. These people converted to Islam, so it was not Muslim art to begin with. They mixed with other traditions and other arts."
Ms Mikdadi praised the benefits of competitions such as the Jameel Prize, won by Iran's Afruz Amighi.