It has been almost a year since the only Islamic art gallery of a major museum in Chicago, Gallery 50 of the Art Institute, was closed. While the Art Institute is frequently in the news — the unionization efforts of the staff, the renovation of the lions and the recent Cezanne exhibit — the shuttering of the Islamic art gallery was never reported.
Earlier this year, the museum did announce the opening of the “Life and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” exhibition, located in the space that was long occupied by Islamic art from the collection. As a longtime member, ally and collaborator of the Art Institute, I welcome every new addition to this beloved institution. As an educator and art historian, however, I find this decision problematic and disappointing.
As discussed by my colleague Xenia Gazi in the book “Deconstructing the Myths of Islamic Art,” the Art Institute’s Islamic art gallery was far from perfect. As a transition space used by staff to bring artworks to other galleries, its location was not ideal.
The rooms were dark, which is ironic since many cultures studied in Islamic art celebrate light in their built environments. The works represented — pottery, paper arts, architectural fragments and textiles — belong to different museum departments. Furthermore, no single curator was solely responsible for this gallery. Yet it was the only major gallery of Islamic art in the Chicago area and a great educational space for those of us teaching in the field.
I remember bringing my students to the gallery in 2014, shortly after its opening. It was wonderful to see the students’ excitement when they saw real artworks rather than digital reproductions on a screen. Now they could see the golden shine of a lusterware bowl; experience in person the scales, colors and techniques of actual metal and glass objects; look at human and animal figures in miniature paintings; and analyze geometric and organic painted tiles. I gave three public tours of this gallery. Each was packed with curious and excited visitors.
The new permanent exhibition that replaced the Islamic art gallery is the third major museum space in Chicago dedicated to the display of ancient Egyptian art and funerary practice. (The other two are housed in the Field Museum and the Oriental Insititute.) While the new space celebrates ancient Egypt, examples of Fatimid pottery and Mamluk textiles from “later” Egypt are now in storage.
Furthermore, locating a separate gallery of ancient Egypt just below the Greek and Roman art galleries (and separate from the arts of Africa) perpetuates a dated Eurocentric and colonialist view of the history of art evolving from ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian origins.
The museum decided in 2020 to house the Egyptian art collection under the arts of Africa. It is not clear how this new perspective will be communicated to visitors if the layout of the museum tells a different story. Actions speak louder than words, and spatial hierarchies transmit ideological hierarchies.
Art history, like many other major academic disciplines, primarily evolved in 19th century Europe when the main terminology and study areas of the field appeared, including the term “Islamic art.” Many of these terms may not be ideal today. Consider “Greek art,” for instance. As a new information panel at the museum declares, this name promotes a unified Greece, a modern construct obscuring the view of the rich and diverse ancient city-states of the region. Similarly, Islamic art studies 1,400 years of creativity, images, objects and spaces of historical and contemporary communities of North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South Asia and beyond. These include religious, as well as secular, examples. The makers, patrons and viewers of these case studies can be Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and others. This vast field is now divided into many subcategories with very productive scholarship in recent decades.
Representing this constantly evolving field is a major challenge, a challenge the Art Institute is aptly positioned to meet. At the Art Institute, museumgoers were able to marvel at the portraits of Mughal royals, learn about the material and color explorations of Ottoman artists inspired by Chinese porcelains, and discover the works of the Safavids, Ilkhanids and many other cultures and civilizations representing a rich and diverse history that integrated multiple practices and interpretations of Islam. Displaying samples of Islamic art in a public museum setting is essential since they address many persistent and polarizing myths perpetuated around the world.
Currently, however, only a fraction of the original Islamic art collection is available for public view in a small case located at the eastern end of the Asian art galleries and one book stand in the African art galleries. Through interdepartmental collaboration and the support of the city, this location can easily be converted into a decent-sized gallery with displays of book illuminations, textiles, architectural fragments and other examples of pottery, which are currently in storage. This new gallery could address some of the shortcomings of the original gallery.
Following the recent trends of curating Islamic art, the museum can name this new gallery “Art of MENASA” — the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia — or “Art of SWANA” — South West Asia and North Africa — especially if the goal is to create a label that is more consistent with the other galleries of the institution.
The Islamic art gallery served a critical educational role in Chicago. Bringing it back will align with the institute’s mission to “foster the exchange of ideas and inspire an expansive, inclusive understanding of human creativity.”
Onur Ozturk is an assistant professor of art history at Columbia College Chicago. He is also the primary editor of the book “Deconstructing the Myths of Islamic Art.”
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