x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

New York gets a taste of Muslim culture

Organisers bring together ancient art, Sufi mysticism, modern music and films to show the diverse ways and traditions of Islam.

NEW YORK // Ladan Akbarnia, a curator of Islamic art, can only hope that Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world last week and a 10-day arts festival in New York called Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas will help to generate a wider interest in her lifelong passion. Ms Akbarnia, who received her doctorate in the history of Islamic art and architecture from Harvard University, selected the works on display at a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum called Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam.

The exhibition is part of the Muslim Voices festival, which encompasses art, dance, theatre, music, film and discussions at some of the city's major arts institutions starting this weekend, just days after the US president urged a new chapter in US-Muslim relations during his speech in Cairo. Mr Obama also spoke about the depth and breadth of Islamic culture, which "has given us majestic arches and soaring spires, timeless poetry and cherished music, elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation".

These sentiments are on show at the Sufi art exhibition, which was described by Ms Akbarnia as "small but a little gem" and should have a "wide appeal in these times". "The big challenge was defining Sufism so that it was not insulting to anyone but also opened the door to a wider appeal," she said. "Sufism can be called the mystical branch of Islam." She also said Sufism was more fluid and internal compared with mainstream Islam, which could be defined by more external forms of worship such as the pilgrimage to Mecca or the giving of alms.

About 25 works are on display, including illustrated manuscripts, glass, ceramics, metalwares, oil paintings and photographs from the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Highlights include a 14th century gilded mosque lamp from Egypt inscribed with the light verse from the Quran that starts "God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth". There is also a 16th century candlestick from Iran that is inscribed with the story of the moth that immolates itself in the flame, which represents the light of the beloved God, an important Sufi concept.

The Brooklyn Museum's Islamic galleries have been reinstalled, presenting works from the eighth century to the present. There is a focus on the Quran and histories of religious figures in Islam "that address the misconception that all figural imagery is prohibited in Islamic art", said the accompanying programme. Ms Akbarnia said Sufi art, particularly poetry, sometimes "straddles the line between the sacred and profane", but she was keen to show how Sufism coexisted with and drew from other cultures and religions across the Middle East and Asia.

The more than 300 artists represented in the Muslim Voices festival also originate from a wide geographical expanse and different traditions. The festival opened on Friday with a concert by Youssou N'Dour, the Senegalese pop star. There is also Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, an adaptation of the Shakespeare play showing a dictator's rise to power in an oil-rich kingdom by Sulayman al Bassam, a Kuwaiti director, that was performed in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain in March.

Films include the adventure story called Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta while the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an installation of Islamic calligraphy. The festival's organisers, who include Mustapha Tlili, the director of New York University's Center for Dialogues, said on their website that although there were approximately 600,000 Muslims in New York City, "many non-Muslim Americans have had only limited exposure to the faith, its civilisation, diverse cultures and traditions".

Debates will take place as part of a conference called Bridging the Divide between the United States and the Muslim World through Arts and Ideas: Possibilities and Limitations. Participants include Nashwa Alruwaini, who produces the Arabic television programme The Millions' Poet and is the former executive director of the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi. Most US residents knew next to nothing about Islam before the Iranian Revolution was thrust on to television screens in 1978 and the attacks of September 11 increased awareness but not always in an informed way, said an introductory paper for the conference written by NYU's Center for Dialogues.

"What is needed, and what Muslim Voices seeks to provide, is a clear demonstration that the creative leaders of Muslim societies throughout the world bear no similarity to the cave-dwelling preachers of jihad, whose slightest communiqué is erroneously treated by the news media as a fundamental expression of Islamic faith," the paper said. sdevi@thenational.ae