Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking MoMA, until May 22
11 W. 53rd St.
Once upon a time, the words “Islam” and “cartoons” were probably rarely heard in a sentence together. Now they are a signal of impending diatribe, loaded with vague and ominous references to a “clash of civilizations” and “Islamofascism,” as well as pious sloganeering about press freedom. Never mind that this is a historically inappropriate use of the term “fascism,” or that the idea of one single Islamic civilization is a bit goofy, considering there are millions of Muslims in places like China, Europe, and the U.S. At least this clash situation gives us a reason to start drinking French wine again—and lots of it.
Into this fray steps the MoMA. Its exhibit Without Boundary showcases the work of 17 contemporary artists with roots in the Islamic world, with the intention of questioning the way Islamic identity is assigned and understood. The thirty-odd works include photography, textiles, painting, drawing, sculpture and video, with a huge span of themes and subjects. Viewers will spot influences from Persian miniature painting to Jackson Pollock, displayed on LCD screens or crafted from human hair.
This variation can be a bit jarring, undermining a sense of cohesion or a feel for what the collection is “about”— but that’s the whole point. The juxtaposition of the wildly varying works is meant to question the unexamined impulse to apply the term “Islamic” based either on a piece’s content or what we know of its creator. The implied question — the one the exhibit is designed to provoke in the viewer — is “what is Islam?” or more to the point, “why am I using an idea about Islam to react to this painting/photograph/sculpture? Where did this idea come from?”
MoMA curator Fereshteh Daftari faced an obvious difficulty in putting this exhibit together: the enterprise itself preemptively stamps each of the works with a connection to Islam, and the inevitably limited slate of artists, geography and themes represented risks an implied definition of Islam, the “Islamic world” or “Islamic culture” that could never hope to be complete or accurate. At some point, an attempt to complicate and demystify can turn into a feel-good variety show, sliding right back into caricature and communicating nothing. To her credit, though, the overall effect is more one of posing questions than pretending solutions. The exhibit’s full title is Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, and the uniqueness of these 17 suggest there are many more.
A few pieces in Without Boundary pose a direct challenge to preconceptions. Emily Jacir’s video installation Ramallah/New York shows the artist going about daily tasks like getting a haircut in both of the aforementioned places. The trick is that Ramallah and New York look so much alike here that it’s impossible to resist scouring the frames for signs of which one is which —to distinguish “civilized” New York from the “anarchic” West Bank. Jananne Al-Ani’s mirror-image photographs of her family have a similar effect. They show the same women, but in varying arrangements of dress, from fully veiled to typically Western. A scan of the second photograph, which reveals the faces of the women who were veiled in the first, undermines and reveals assumptions about their ethnicity.
But the exhibit is free from the sort of crude political sermonizing you’ll see up the road at the Whitney Biennial: no “Fuck Bush” or “War Kills People” finger paintings here. Many of the works in Without Boundary do engage with controversial or explicitly political themes — but often it’s an internal dialogue, forcing the viewer to come closer rather than remain at the comfortable distance afforded by broad political truisms. One of the most arresting pieces is a large (about six feet by five feet) photograph by Shirin Neshat, from a 1996 series called Women of Allah. Titled Speechless, it is a close-up portrait of a woman’s face, her skin inscribed with delicate Farsi script. The words are from an Iranian eulogy to martyrdom, but the woman’s jewelry is the provocative element: she’s wearing the barrel of a gun for an earring. The stark metal tubes are centered in the picture, framed on one side by her bare face and on the other by the coarse weave of her veil. The photograph references revolution, free speech, suicide bombings and gender roles. For an American viewer, its revolutionary-girls-with-guns chic is even reminiscent of photos of the Black Panther women from the 1970s.
But in the context of Neshat’s native Iran, where she is not exactly welcomed by the conservative government, the image’s political meaning is connected to specific historical events, and it carries real consequences. It’s a reminder of distance, and the particular vision of the viewer.
Other works included in the exhibit forgo overtly political concerns and engage instead with traditions such as weaving or miniature painting. And Raqib Shaw’s painting, Garden of Earthly Delights III is inspired by the 16th-century Hieronymous Bosch triptych of the same name — but set underwater and minus the element of Christian punishment. For non-Bosch fans, Shaw’s send-up is best described as Noah’s Ark partying with Egyptian gods in a Little-Mermaid-on-acid setting. It’s both beautifully intricate and hilarious.
Without Boundary may have set itself an impossible task — that of complicating and de-exoticizing the monolithic idea of Islam that is consistently deployed in the Western press, while trying to escape the confines of that very dialogue. But even where it fails, it asks an important question: is it ever fair to demand of art (or its makers) that it “educate” viewers, or that it speak for something as huge and complicated as a major world religion?
This conundrum is probably impossible to resolve in this place and time. Even nominally secular cultures have their articles of faith, and in the U.S., the clash-of-civilizations formula is one of them. This refrain smacks of religion in a functional sense as well: in addition to its status as received wisdom, it is also a mantra — an incantation which, ritually repeated, brings on a state of trance, a soothing calmness, and a numbing effect on the mind.