(I started writing this post in response to last week’s readings, and ran out of time…but there seem to be a few relevant threads to connect it to this week’s topic, so I’m resurrecting it.)
Gell and his interlocutors draw on Hinduism in their attempts to think through idols; a number of the accounts we read last week implied a contrast between Hinduism and the more ‘iconoclastic’ Abrahamic traditions, often singling out Islam as the iconoclastic faith par excellence. This juxtaposition obscures the extent to which popular Islamic practice has made use of a wide range of images– from photographs of the Ka’aba pasted inside the roofs of shared-taxis to more fantastical and representative forms of art (consider Pinney’s marvellous chromolithograph of Burak-ul-nabi, p. 170 of last week’s reading). Even if we shrug these off as popular practices at odds with ‘official’ religious doctrine, we’re still left with a wealth of officially-sanctioned imagery–not just the intricate patterns and motifs common in mosque architecture and interior decoration, but also of visual art based around the materialization of the (divine) word. Miller refers to an essay by Bill Maurer in the Materiality volume that considers Qur’anic inscriptions on coins–“utilized to give the words themselves (as calligraphy) a role in objectification.” (Introduction, 23). Keane, too, in both this week’s reading and his contribution to the Border Fetishisms collection, touches on the materiality of words, especially in the context of religious practice (199).
This tangent is basically an excuse to share some images from one of the most remarkable exhibitions I’ve ever seen, the British Library’s 2006 show “Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East.” A number of works are visible at the online exhibition here (and I have a book I can bring to class if anyone’s interested). ‘Word into Art’ presented a wide range of art indexes, to use Gell’s term, by contemporary artists from the Middle East (many, though not all, of Muslim background). As its title suggests, the exhibition is primarily concerned with the transmutation of the written word into (visual) art, and many of the works draw heavily on Islamicate traditions of calligraphy and book arts–sacred texts, official documents, poetry, and so forth. In this context, reproduction of a text can be both an act of “creation” and a devotional practice. The materiality of these words is also a fraught one–for all the care lavished upon written versions of Qur’anic texts, in strict doctrinal terms it is the spoken word that is most important–the holy book was revealed as speech, hence the importance on memorization and recitation. Kristina Nelson’s The Art of Reciting the Qur’an and Brinkley Messick’s The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society are both fascinating ethnographic explorations of some of these issues–Messick’s in particular explores the interplay of textual and vocal authority, and considers the visual layout of ‘spiral texts’ at length. (See also: Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; here’s a clip of him reading the passage of the novel that deals with Salman the Persian’s deliberate mis-transcription of Mahound’s holy text, one of the passages that led to the fatwa declared 20 years ago last week: “It was his word against mine.”)
Anyway, a few images from “Word into Art”–
Calligrapher and poet Samir al-Sayegh’s “Allah” looks like a pretty good example of Gell’s “demonic flypaper” at first glance–but the pattern is also text, a highly stylized inscription of the word “Allah”, turned into repeating geometric shapes:
Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli’s “Heech in a Cage” is a three-dimensional rendering of the Farsi work heech (meaning “nothing”; in Turkish the same word is hiç) half-imprisoned in a bronze cage:
Many more here. At least one work (by Dia al-Azzawi) from that exhibit is also included in the excellent “Modernism and Iraq”, currently showing at the Wallach Gallery on the 8th floor of Schermerhorn.