Although Americans’ relationship with Islam is often fraught with fear and suspicion, a small but highly engaging exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art offers multiple points of positive contact, from the sheer beauty of historical works to the abhorrence of violence expressed in contemporary pieces.
Called “Echoes: Islamic Art and Contemporary Artists,” the exhibit brings the culture of Islam to life with stellar objects, striking pairings, moving images and music.
Kimberly Masteller, the museum’s curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, has ingeniously crafted a cohesive whole from works spanning 13 centuries and three continents.
And that’s no small feat: In addition to paintings, sculpture, ceramics, animation, photography and textiles, the exhibit includes a truck.
Parked outside the Bloch Building, Kansas City artist Asheer Akram’s transformation of a 1952 Chevy grain truck into an ornately decorated Pakistani cargo truck serves as a beacon for the show, which was designed to appeal to visitors from all cultures.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, diverse visitors enjoyed the artworks and watched several of the show’s contemporary artists speak on video.
Masteller points out that Kansas City has a longstanding connection to Islamic art through the distinctive architecture and ornamentation of the Country Club Plaza. The lattice screens and other designs were inspired by Kansas City’s Spanish sister city Seville, which was part of the Moorish Islamic empire from the eighth to the 13th century.
Moreover, Masteller notes, Islamic art has been part of the museum’s collection since its founding, when trustees such as Plaza developer J.C. Nichols bought some works for the collection on trips to New York.
Masteller has chosen one of the museum’s early Islamic treasures to head up the show.
A 17th-century Persian mosaic arch, once part of a Persian period room at the museum, was in 10 pieces in storage, she said, and each was weighted with 6 inches of modern plaster from the earlier installation.
Conservator Paul Benson spent a year grinding the plaster down to 2 inches and attaching the pieces to lightweight aluminum honeycomb panels. They are now mounted in a painted wood and plaster structure at the exhibit’s entrance in the Bloch Building Project Space, where the arch is being displayed for the first time in three decades.
The show’s unifying element is Arabic calligraphy, gorgeously introduced by a pair of folios from a Qur’an created more than 1,000 years ago. The elegant Kufic script, written in ink and gold on vellum, is perfectly proportioned, with the height and shape of the letters based on the width of the calligrapher’s pen.
The curving vines that form the decoration exemplify the Islamic arabesque. It recurs throughout this show, in works such as a 13th-century footed bowl with an arabesque decoration from Iran that features a design of scrolling vines with split leaves against a background of cobalt blue. The bowl shares a case at the exhibit’s entrance with another Seljuk dynasty bowl, this one adorned with an image of doll-like courtiers.
Nearby, a minimalist wall relief by Saudi Arabian artist Nasser Al-Salem was inspired by a verse from the Qur’an. The artist translated the letters used in the work’s title, “And Whoever Obeys Allah — He Will Make for Him a Way Out,” into a maze-like configuration constructed from blue Corian.
The exhibit moves effortlessly from past to present through intelligent pairings that reinvigorate the historical works and give context and a sense of continuity to the contemporary works.
Paper plates made of crisscrossing paper strips by Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas echo the geometric design of a late 12th-century Iranian bowl displayed next to them.
While the contemporary plates borrow visual cues from the past, their spirit is intentionally secular. In a video screened in the show, Abbas notes that her use of geometric designs “no longer combine(s) the social and cultural norms with theological ideas as it did in the past.”
Abbas focuses on utility, printing the words “please get served” on the strips of her plates.
The exhibit’s most striking pairing begins with a long vista seen through the mosaic arch of a 17th-century Persian rug on a platform. A framed piece on the wall behind it looks like a watery reflection of a traditional carpet.
Moving closer, one discovers that the framed carpet is in fact a gridded expanse of tiny photographs. The rich reds that appear so alluringly beautiful from a distance derive from scenes taken at halal slaughterhouses in Lahore, Pakistan.
In a video interview, Pakistani artist Rashid Rana relates his discovery that photographing these scenes worked to mitigate his distress at their violence and that “photographs cause me less emotional problem than seeing the actual act.”
He compares his own process of distancing to the desensitization that occurs when we see violence on television. “Seeing the actual is different,” he said.
Rana’s carpet of carnage is part of a grouping of animal-themed works that includes “Birds and Beasts in a Flowery Landscape,” created by the renowned Persian master Muhammad Siyah Qalam.
The charming ink on paper drawing of monkeys and geese, lions, gazelles and bears “is in the top five searched objects in our collection through Google Art,” Masteller said.
The historical works are drawn largely from the museum’s collection; the contemporary pieces are on loan from artists, galleries and collectors. Bill and Christy Gautreaux of Kansas City lent Rana’s photographic carpet and Shirin Neshat’s 1994 photograph “Stories of Martyrdom” from the series titled “Women of Allah.”
Neshat left Iran for the U.S. prior to the Iranian revolution. She made the series, Masteller said, in an attempt to understand the women who fought in it and later found their freedom restricted under the new Islamic regime.
Her image zeros in on a female fighter’s hands, which she has covered with text in Farsi from a novel by a feminist author, Moniro Ravanipour. Laid across her forearms is an American Remington rifle.
“It’s a hint,” Masteller said, “that she’s looking from the West back to Iran.”
Neshat’s image is one of a number of contemporary works that address war and violence.
Iranian artist Gohar Dashti grew up in the shadow of the thousands who lost their lives in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Masteller has paired Dashti’s staged photograph of a young man and woman seated in a field littered with soldiers’ helmets with the idyllic scene portrayed in a 15th-century Persian miniature, “Couple Standing Among Flowering Trees.”
South Asian miniature painting had all but died out before Pakistani artist Bashir Ahmed led a revival of the tradition.
“He found the last surviving miniature painters trained in Mughal tradition and apprenticed for eight years,” Masteller said.
The exhibit features Ahmed’s meticulously rendered “Waiting for a Lover” (c. 1990), from the collection of Khalid and Marcella Sirhandi of Kansas City.
Renowned Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander was the first student to major in the program Ahmed established at the National College of Art in Lahore, and this exhibit documents her evolution, from static paintings like “Mirrat 2” (1988-90), to an animation composed from multiple miniatures that explores her country’s colonialist past.
But Sikander’s piece de resistance is a large calligraphic abstraction that combines text from a poem about unrequited love with musical notations and floral imagery. The music is the taps bugle call; the text plays with the phrase, “I am also not my own enemy.”
The exhibit continues into a neighboring modern and contemporary art gallery, where Iraqi-born Hayv Kahraman has turned a 20-sided wood polyhedron into an airy and lacelike sculpture by piercing it with multiple cutouts. Their amorphous shapes are based on cross sections of her body, taken from a full body scan.
Science, like art and literature, has long been an important part of Islamic culture. The use of medical technology recurs in a diptych by Saudi artist Ahmed Mater that combines elements of traditional book illumination with X-ray photographs of human figures.
“He’s really one of the top artists from the Arab world right now,” Masteller said. “This is from the body of work that made him famous. The two prints from the X-rays face each other, almost like they’re having a conversation you can’t hear.”
Mater’s large-scale works went on view earlier this week in gallery 203 of the Nelson building, where they are accompanied by examples of traditional manuscript illumination.
Although “Echoes” is a relatively small show of 28 works, its impact and ideas are big. Masteller shows us the progressive side of Islam, in a much needed counter to the mass media focus on terrorist extremists and the Taliban.