To combat the rise of Islamophobia in France, the government has organized 18 exhibitions of Islamic art across the country


Regarding the unifying power of art, the French government is rolling out a set of simultaneous exhibitions on Islamic art and culture as part of a larger effort to combat the rise of Islamophobic sentiment in the country . The exhibitions, which opened this week in 18 French cities and will run for four months, aim to showcase the diversity of Islamic culture.

Entitled “Islamic arts: a past for a present”, the government initiative is organized by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, and led by the director of the Department of Islamic Arts at the Louvre, Yannick Lintz. Some 210 works borrowed from national and regional museums are on display, including 60 masterpieces on loan from the Louvre.

“Retaining Islamic art today also means dealing with Islamism and Islamophobia,” Lintz told Artnet News. “It’s not just a French problem, but it’s a reality for every curator and director of Islamic art now in museums.”

Lintz added that after the September 11 attacks in New York, the recent terrorist attacks in France and the war in Syria, the word Islam often evokes associations with violence and terrorism. “I think it is important, as curators specializing in Islamic civilization and Islamic art, to give another message about what the historical reality of Islam is, through 13 centuries of art, of civilization and intellectual life.

Mosque lamp, Syria or Palestine 11th century. Inscription: “There is no god but God. (The only god is God). © RMN – Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Jean – Gilles Berizzi.

One of the stated aims of the exhibitions is to dismantle certain presumptions and clichés about Islamic culture and to highlight cultural and religious diversity in the Islamic world, demonstrating that Islamic culture goes beyond religious, is more varied than Arab civilization, and also includes the figurative. art and images of people, including some depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.

The latter subject is a particularly thorny subject in France, following the 2015 shootings at the headquarters of the satirical magazine. Charlie hebdo who published cartoons depicting the prophet, and the most recent beheading of a French schoolteacher who showed images of Muhammad during a free speech class.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who is due for re-election next April, first suggested the idea of ​​exhibitions in a speech last October, when he stressed that the government must encourage “another vision” of culture. Islamic rather than “radical Islam factionalism.” In his re-election bid, Macron will face not only Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, but also far-right political columnist and television presenter Eric Zemmour, who was convicted of inciting racial hatred against Muslims.

Portrait of Mahd-e Ulya, mother of Nasir Al Din Shah.  Iran 1850-1860.  © Louvre Museum, Dist.  RMN – Grand Palais / Claire Tabbagh / Digital Collections.

Portrait of Mahd-e Ulya, mother of Nasir Al Din Shah. Iran 1850-1860. © Louvre Museum, Dist. RMN – Grand Palais / Claire Tabbagh / Digital Collections.

“Of course, our project is not to provoke a negative reaction. We don’t play politics. We are not on social media. We are museums. We deal with masterpieces of art history and show them as they are, ”said Lintz. “We have not decided what is prohibited and what is not. These objects are in a way the ambassadors of history, of reality, of truth. These works of art show that at any time, in any region of the Islamic world, we could represent the prophet. And when we hear today that it is forbidden, these are only the ideas of certain people, of certain countries. It is not a historical reality of Islamic civilization.

Works from the Louvre include religious artefacts, such as an 11th-century lamp from a mosque in Jerusalem and a chandelier recounting the life of Jesus in the 12th-century time of Saladin by an artist from Mosul. The exhibits also include luxurious objects with precious stones from India that belonged to the King of France Louis XIV, and exceptional Iranian rugs from the 17th century.

Sa'adeg Raeda, Vide (2007).  49 Nord – 6 Est – FRAC Lorraine © R. Sa'adeh.

Sa’adeg Raeda, Empty (2007). 49 Nord – 6 Est – FRAC Lorraine © R. Sa’adeh.

There will also be a contemporary element in the exhibitions, with works by 19 artists from countries of the Islamic world, reflecting the relationship between their heritage and today’s society. This includes a video work by Palestinian artist Raeda Saadeh, showing her operating a vacuum cleaner on a desert mountain between Jericho and the Dead Sea, and that by Kurdish artist Hiwa K. 1 room apartment loaned by the FRAC Normandie, as well as an installation of a nomadic tent by the Franco-Turkish artist Nil Yalter.

The inclusion of contemporary art was important for the curator as the exhibitions are primarily aimed at young people. “It is important to tell them that this civilization is not just a golden age of the past, it is a history spanning 13 centuries without interruption, between the past and today,” said Lintz. “Some artists are very well known internationally, and through their work they are also ambassadors, saying… even though this legacy today can be violent for some people, can be difficult, can mean a lot of negative things, art can be a way to be positive and proud of it. Lintz added that visitors have so far responded positively to the shows.

“Islamic arts: a past for a present” is visible until March 27, 2022 in various spaces of Angoulême, Blois, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, Figeac, Reunion, Limoges, Mantes-la-Jolie, Marseille, Nancy, Nantes, Narbonne, Rennes, Rillieux-la-Pape (Rhône), Rouen, Saint-Denis, Toulouse and Tourcoing.

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