What is “Islamic” About Islamic Art?

A new museum exhibition explores the variety of expression under Islam

Iran (Saveh), Seljuk period (1038- c.1194). Bowl with Courtly Scene, c. 1180–1220 CE. Stonepaste with overglaze-painted polychromy and gold, Mina’i ware. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 32.32.7

By Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers

What is “Islamic” about Islamic art? Is there even such a thing as Islamic art? These questions are increasingly debated in the museum world and in academia. But they are not merely academic.

Starting on September 2, the Minneapolis Institute of Art is opening two new “Islamic art” galleries on the museum’s second floor. One gallery has been completely reinstalled (G243); the other is entirely new (G242). For visitors to the museum — adherents to Islām and non-Muslims alike — these questions about the nature of Islamic art invite a new and thoughtful appreciation of the work.

The word “Islamic” is usually meant in a cultural rather than religious sense. Indeed, historic “Islamic art” includes both religious and secular works. Contemporary art adds an additional layer of complexity, as these works could be considered “Islamic” because of artists’ self-identity — if they draw on Islām-centric subjects like religion and calligraphy — or because the art comes from Muslim-majority countries, irrespective of the subject.

The single term “Islamic” ultimately risks obliterating the incredible variety of cultures that have always existed and continue to exist under the umbrella of Islām. While there are certain similarities among the visual arts in Islamic lands, such as calligraphy and geometry as ornamental elements, the styles of expression often reflect local traditions, aesthetic codes, and tastes.

The new galleries at Mia celebrate this pluralism in unity. They focus on artworks dating from the 900s to the 21st century, and span the historic and contemporary Islamic worlds, from Iran and China in the east to Senegal and Spain in the west. Curators Pujan Gandhi and myself call them “Art of Islamic Cultures, Asia” and “Art of Islamic Cultures, Africa,” respectively.

The names were crafted in collaboration with a Muslim Advisory Council, whose members were Fahimeh Ghorbani, Fatima Lawson, and Nahid Khan. All three had worked with Mia before: Fahimeh as an intern conducting research for Gandhi and myself, Fatima as one of the storytellers featured in the “Khatt Islāmi: Sacred Scripts from Islamic Africa” exhibition, and Nahid as a long-term guide at the museum.

The curators met with the advisors over several months via Zoom; their comments on objects, labels, and terminology were instructive and inspiring. For instance, how to summarize what is shared by all Muslims without relying on the tenets of one persuasion in particular? How to respectfully address the mystic tradition within Islām without resorting to loaded terms that evoke magic and superstition? Is it necessary to add “Peace Be Upon Him” after each mention of the Prophet Muhammad in the labels? (Turns out, it isn’t.)

The purpose of the new galleries is to offer non-Muslims a chance to discover the diversity of arts from Islamic cultures, and to allow Muslims to connect with works that are relevant to them and speak to their lived experiences. They are a place of welcome, starting with the four spectacular textiles from Islamic Africa in the Marvin and Betty Borman Gallery (G240 Hallway) just outside the entrance, artful signage inviting visitors into the new galleries.

Images above, left to right: (1) Somali artist, Somalia; Bottle with stopper, first half of 20th century; Wood, leather, plant fibers; Gift of Charles and Blanche Derby in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts 2014.135. (2) Khaled Ben Slimane (Tunesian, born 1951); White Vase, 2016; Glazed ceramic; Gift of funds from Tamara and Michael Root and the Norman Gabrick Endowment for African Art 2018.7. (3) Hausa artist, Nigeria; Trousers, mid-20th century; Cotton, wool; The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund 98.161.

Images below, left to right: (1) Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Iranian, 1923–2019; Fourth Family Octagon, 2013; Mirror mosaic, reverse glass painting, glue and plaster on wood; The William Hood Dunwoody Fund and gift of funds from Mary and Bob Mersky 2021.35.2. (2) Uzbekistan (Bukhara), Shaybanid dynasty (1428–99); Manuscript of the Baharistan (Spring Garden), 1551, Mir Husain al-Husaini, calligrapher, Mahmud al-Muzahhib (Mahmud “the gilder”), painter; Tooled and gilded leather, ink, colors, and gold on paper; The Katherine Kitteredge McMillan Memorial Fund 52.13. (3) Jean-Léon Gérôme, French, 1824–1904; The Carpet Merchant, c. 1887; Oil on canvas, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 70.40.




From Monet to Matisse, Asian to African, ancient to contemporary, Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is a world-renowned art museum that welcomes everyone.

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Minneapolis Institute of Art

Minneapolis Institute of Art

From Monet to Matisse, Asian to African, ancient to contemporary, Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is a world-renowned art museum that welcomes everyone.

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