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The invisibility of Islamic art in Australia

Khayamiya or Egyptian Tentmaker Applique provides a memorable introduction to Islamic art. Photo by Timothy Crutchett Charles Sturt University

The invisibility of Islamic art in Australia

Islamic art in Australia – regardless of the era – is inaccessible and largely overlooked. It is sparsely displayed in our public galleries, rarely taught as a dedicated subject in Australian universities, and almost never seen beyond state capitals. Why so?

In part, because it has a well-deserved reputation as an “unwieldy field”. Simply put, it’s just too vast – across distance, cultures and time. Even the term “Islamic Art” has been challenged by curators.

In 2011, galleries formerly named Islamic Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum were renamed – deep breath – the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. What was once a rarefied field for specialists became politically and socially charged after 9/11.

We have much to learn from this vast field of art practice.

For some Australians, Islamic art might evoke artworks and architecture designed within religious contexts. These are usually centuries old and not located in Australia. Yet this field can also be read within a broader social context, emphasising the cosmopolitan exchange of objects and ideas, and playing important roles in the formation and critique of identities.

The most recent contributions to this field include the extraordinary glitched carpets of Faig Ahmed of Azerbaijan, the feminist photography of Lalla Essaydi and Hassan Hajjaj from Morocco, and the complex mirrorwork of the Iranian sculptor Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, which was recently celebrated by a retrospective at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York. Imagining Islamic art only in terms of historic or religious contributions overlooks these critical contemporary innovations.

When seen from Australia, the contributions of Islamic artists, designers and poets can seem irrelevant. Most are located, like Star Wars, a long time ago in a place far, far away. If we look at Australia’s most distinctive contribution to the history of Islamic architecture – the vernacular mosques of the Afghan cameleers in Central Australia – we can see the main problem we face. Essentially, what have the Umayyads ever done for us?

A corrugated iron mosque used by the Afghan Cameleers in Bourke, NSW, built around 1890. Conollyb/Wikimedia Commons.

Many universities support Islamic studies, but only two Australian universities currently teach dedicated subjects in Islamic art for undergraduates. These are the ANU’s face-to-face Persian Art and my own distance education subject Introduction to Islamic Art and Design for Charles Sturt University.

Australian postgraduate research in this field is led by the Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Architecture (CAMEA) at the University of Adelaide.

Individuals such as the graphic designer Peter Gould, contemporary artist Abdul Abdullah and fashion designer Aheda Zanetti are creating vibrant Islamic work which engages with contemporary Australian realities. But such contemporary Australian innovations are not often acknowledged within Islamic art internationally.

The Dome of the Rock, an Umayyad architectural masterpiece, was completed in Jerusalem in 691. Kyle Taylor/Wikimedia Commons

The most distinctive Australian Islamic legacies are located in remote or regional Australia. By contrast, ambitious exhibitions of Islamic art in Australia – such as the The Arts of Islam in 2007 or Crescent Moon in 2006 – have been limited to major galleries in state capitals.

That’s one of the reasons I curated the touring exhibition Khayamiya: Khedival to Contemporary, shown at the HR Gallop Gallery in Wagga Wagga in 2013, and Albury in early 2015. It will open in Islamic Art Museum Malaysia in October this year.

Khayamiya, or Egyptian Tentmaker Applique, is a very approachable Islamic art form. These cotton textiles once served as huge celebratory pavilions. They evolved into artworks for interior display over a century of interaction with tourists visiting Egypt.

In 1921, Henri Matisse acquired a Khedival Khayamiya, which he also painted in 1948. Its solid blocks of carefully arranged colour were an important influence upon his subsequent paper cut-outs.

Anyone who has threaded a needle and sewn two pieces of fabric together will appreciate the skills required to create these intricate textiles. Due to exhibitions in craft contexts since 2007, many quilters and embroiderers worldwide are now familiar with the spectacular and endangered Khayamiya of the Tentmakers of Cairo.

Ekramy Hanafy – Contemporary Khayamiya, 2014. Hand-stitched cotton applique on canvas. Bowker Collection. Photograph courtesy of Timothy Crutchett

These brightly coloured quilt-like textiles introduce many aspects of Islamic art. To enjoy them, viewers don’t need to know about unfamiliar dynasties, or the location of distant places, or events that took place a thousand years ago. Through the work of the Australian filmmaker Kim Beamish, Khayamiya also helps international audiences engage with the political landscape of post-Revolution Egypt.

Contemporary Islamic art provides a valuable and engaging means to critique political perspectives. For Australians, it can help us find the familiar in the unfamiliar. In his book Orientalism (1978), Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said argued that western views of the Middle East were selective, inauthentic, imposed by external observers, and problematic. These ideas changed Islamic art’s scholarship, exhibition practice and the production of contemporary art.

Phillip George - Inshalla surfboard, 2008, fibre glass, carbon and digital decal. Image courtesy of the artist and the Islamic Museum of Australia

As with New York’s Metropolitan Museum, in recent years many galleries overseas have showcased their Islamic art collections in the context of long-term cultural exchanges and diverse forms of innovation.

This can be seen in the re-developed Islamic galleries of the Louvre, Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, among others. But establishing a collection on the scale of these museums may not help to solve this problem for Australians.

Collecting authentic artworks from centuries ago – with good provenance – is very expensive, and can result in collections that loiter in the shadows of major Islamic collections overseas, which have been developing for more than a century. In this respect, Australia’s claim to fame currently lies in the South East Asian textiles of the National Gallery of Australia.

If Australians are to engage with Islamic art internationally, we need to participate within the present. The Islamic Museum of Australia (in Thornbury, Melbourne), which opened in 2014, can play an important role in this process as a mediator between researchers in universities, objects in our galleries, and the Australian public.

Its emerging collection is noteworthy for the emphasis placed on contemporary Australian art. This is because contemporary Islamic art situates identity, politics and heritage in an international context. It’s also less expensive and easier to find around here.

Australians have been excluded from Islamic art by a combination of institutional reticence, distance and social antagonism.

Our universities and galleries can help Australians contribute to the international reevaluation of Islamic art, especially if we focus upon engaging with the contemporary edge of this rapidly changing sector.


Sam will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 10 and 11am AEST on Wednesday, July 29. Post your questions in the comments section below.