Masterpieces of Islamic Art

The term ‘Islamic Art’ evokes images of flowing calligraphic bands, zellige-covered walls, carved wooden pulpits, Arabesque decoration, illustrated manuscripts, to the end of the long list of wonders and marvels produced from as far to the East as China and all the way to Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. Whether it is the Alhambra in Granada, the Sher Dor Madrasa in Samarkand or the Complex of Qalawun in Cairo, there seems to be a common storyline despite the profusion of styles. What is that storyline? What binds all these styles together across hundreds of years and tens of thousands of miles?

While many historians opt to the easy answer of ‘unity of faith’, the answer is not at all a straightforward one, and some other historians reject the term altogether. This should come as no surprise given the fact that most of the art history terms used today are relatively modern inventions. How can we define ‘Islamic Art’ then? What are the criteria and the parameters? Is it art produced by Muslim artists and artisans? Is it art commissioned by Muslim patrons? Is it art produced in territories subject to Muslim rule? Is it religious in nature? Secular? Both?

The term Islamic Art, in my opinion, is both reductionist and misleading, as it reduces the art of the Islamic World to only one of its cultural determinants: religion.
Most historians and critics tend to fall into the classical mistake of examining this art through a western lens/mentality, applying classical concepts to an entirely different realm. Abstraction, movement, horror vacui, density and intentional absence of naturalism are some of the most immediately recognizable characteristics of this art, while vegetal decoration, geometrical patterns and calligraphy are its three omnipresent elements.

Last Wednesday, I gave a lecture titled ‘Masterpieces of Islamic Art’, during which I presented 8 masterpieces, namely:

Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons
Miniature Painting
The Mughal Empire, India

The Ardabil Carpet
Textiles and Carpets
The Safavid Empire, Iran

The Blacas Ewer
Atabeg, Iraq

The Tughra of Suleyman the Magnificent
The Ottoman Empire, Turkey

The Corning Ewer
Cameo Glassware
Fatimid, Egypt

The Djenbereger Mosque
Earthen Architecture
The Empire of Mali, Mali

The Kutubiyya Minaret

Carved Wood / Carpentry
Almoravids, Morocco

The Pyxis of al-Mughira
Carved Ivory
Umayyad, Spain

From the Pre-Islamic civilizations and cultures in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant, the art of the newly-born Islamic world took some inspiration. Nevertheless, the strongest impact on Islamic Art during its early years was that of the Byzantines and the Persians, visible in Umayyad and Abbasid art respectively. Following this early phase, and as Islam expanded, a second phase followed that was characterized by an incredible profusion of styles that coincided with a golden age. This eventually gave way to the Three Empires Phase, in which the Safavids of Iran, the Ottomans of Asia Minor and the Mughals of India controlled vast areas of the Islamic World between the 16th and the 18th centuries.

My gratitude to the 20+ attendees that made this course worth all the effort.

Orientalist Art: The Marketplace of Sinbad the Sailor

From the Romanticism of Eugène Delacroix to the academic style of Jean-Léon Géröme, and from the photographic quality of Ludwig Desutsch to the almost impressionist style of Alphonse-Etienne (Nasreddine) Dinet, yesterday’s Orientalist Art Course took us to imagined communities where the Orient features as a carefully constructed geography.

It is not a style, not a school of art, not an artistic ideology. Orientalist Art was a current, a cultural phenomenon that swept across France and other parts of Europe throughout the 19th century in the wake of the European colonialism. Some argue that imperialism is the main motive behind Orientalism; some claim it was spontaneous and innocent…one thing holds true: it has, for over a century -and till our present day in some cases, shaped the way in which Europe has traditionally perceived the Orient.

Through the paintbrushes of Ingres, Fortuny, John Frederick Lewis and other Orientalists, the European audience could navigate a fantastic world of tiled walls, carpeted halls, Turkish hammams and exotic souqs to meet characters that seem to belong to a tale of One Thousand and One Nights: snake-charmers, harems and odalisques, muezzins and dervishes, warriors and slaves, merchants and street vendors selling everything under the sun.

The sensual feast is made complete through a soundscape dominated by the noise of the bazaars and the synchronized calls for prayer; light shines playfully on tanned skin, and one can almost smell the zesty oranges and the fragrant spices of the East. It is beautiful, definitely inspiring, yet anything but a spontaneous representation of these communities. One look at Jean-Léon Géröme’s Snake Charmer is enough to reveal the preplanned juxtaposition of exotic elements from different Eastern Cultures: Turkish, Egyptian and Indian, all in one and the same impossible setting.

Then came Dinet who learned Arabic and converted to Islam –becoming Nasreddine Dinet, fully integrating himself into the Berber communities of Algeria: an example on a more profound and honest reflection of the primitive lifestyle in the face of the sickening advance of French colonialism. Dinet was trying to capture the last glimpses of a ‘paradise lost’.

The last in focus was Ludwig Deutsch, whose attention to detail surpassed the skill of all his contemporaries, lending his artworks an almost ‘documentary’ value as he invites us to contemplate well-known Cairene neighbourhoods and alleys like al-Sanadqiyya and Atfet al-Hammam.

Finally, many thanks to all those that joined my course; see you all next year!

My Art Course in Cairo: Orientalist Art (20 Dec)

This is to announce my coming art course in Cairo:

Course Title
The Imagined Communities of Orientalist Art

Date & Time
Saturday, 20 December 2014, 20:00h

2.5 hours

33 A, al-Meqias Street, Roda, Manial. 4th floor, apt. 9

Course Description
The nineteenth century marked the height of orientalist art in Europe. While celebrity painters likes Jean-Léon Gérôme, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix all championed orientalist painting in France despite their very different aesthetic ideologies, other artists like John Frederick Lewis and Marià Fortuny spread the ‘obsession’ elsewhere in Europe. ‘Oriental’ became synonymous with everything exotic and wild, and successive generations of gifted artists left a legacy of artworks that present a unique and common heritage: the East through Western eye…the Orient romanticized by Europe.
This course introduces the participants to the historical and cultural contexts within which Orientalism flourished, with a special focus on leading artists and prominent masterpieces, and en emphasis on the characteristics of this art vis-à-vis other styles and schools of art that coincided with it.

EGP 200 / person
The fees include handouts/readings that will be distributed to the participants. They do not include hard or soft copies of the PowerPoint Presentation.
Voice / video recording not permitted.

Deadline for reservation / cancellation
30 November 2014 (or earlier, once the course is fully-booked)
Please reserve only if you are 100% sure you would attend.

Mohammed Elrazzaz is Professor of Tools for Managing Culture at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC), Barcelona, since 2010. He holds an MA in Arts & Cultural Management from the same university, and he has a vast experience in the field as founder-moderator of Pen Temple Pilots (2002-2012).

If you are offended by nudity in art, this course is not recommended for you.

Reservations & Further Inquiries:

Orientalist Art Poster

Mediterranean Art Presentation (10 June 2014) – Teaser

Next week, I will be giving a presentation on Mediterranean Art at my university, the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC). The presentation is centered on seven tales and seven masterpieces from Prehistory, Ancient Civilizations and Classical Antiquity, namely:

1. Michelangelo of the Cave (Magdalenian Culture, France & Spain)
Cave Paintings of Lascaux & Altamira

2. The Stone Idol (Saflieni Phase, Malta)
The Sleeping Lady of Malta

3. Beyond the Minotaur’s Labyrinth (Minoan, Greece)
The Bull-Leaping Frieze

4. Tragedy of the Horse-Tamers (Mycenaean, Greece)
The Mask of Agamemnon

5. Mystery of the Heretic King (Pharaonic, Egypt)
The Bust of Nefertiti

6. The Seafaring Purple Traders (Phoenician, Lebanon)
Ivory Panel with Lioness devouring African Boy

7. Till Death Do Us Apart (Etruscan, Italy)
Sarcophagus of the Spouses

Below are some questions to help you ‘warm up’ for the presentation:

– Which European cave is known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory? Why?
 – How did a queen & 80 women lay the foundation for Carthage?
 – Who were the Purple Traders that sailed the Mediterranean & founded Cádiz?
 – Who was Ancient Egypt’s Heretic King?
 – What Med. culture erected the world’s oldest freestanding stone structures?
 – Who were the Mediterranean Vikings?
 – Who were the Etruscans? Where did they originally come from?
 – Who were the Hippodamoi that were conquered by a horse?
 – How did the Trojan War start with Paris?
 – When and why did the Classical Antiquity come to an end?


My next lecture: Ancient Mediterranean Art (30 May 2014)

On 30 May, I will be giving a lecture titled ‘Mediterranean Art: An Expression of the Mediterranean Spirit’ at the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean in Barcelona (for the UfM staff). I am looking forward!

Art imitates life, and the Mediterranean region is the perfect example. From the abstraction of the prehistoric Venus Figurines in Malta and France to the hypnotizing naturalism of the Amarna Period in Egypt and the exquisite pottery of Classical Greece, this presentation is a tour-de-force of Mediterranean Art, a journey to the Ithaca of Odysseus, Alexandria of the Ptolemy Philadelphus, Knossos of the Minotaur, Tyre and Carthage of the Phoenicians, and many other Mediterranean corners whose legacy transcend time and place, and whose names have become synonymous with civilization and enlightenment.
We set sail on 30 May for a destination where all points of the compass meet: our Mediterranean.

Masterpieces of Mediterranean Art will serve as the pretext to tell wonderful stories of the Mediterranean’s vibrant history. Marvelous artworks and artifacts produced by the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Etruscans, Iberians and others will set the backdrop for a Mediterranean drama, woven around 7 tales and 7 masterpieces that perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the ancient times, and the genius loci of the Mediterranean port cities and towns. These are masterpieces that every Mediterranean citizen should know.

Given the broadness of the topic and the limited time, focus will be given to the art and culture of Prehistory, Ancient Civilizations and Classical Antiquity.

The Tides Return Forever (introduction)
Tales & Masterpieces (Storytelling & Art Appreciation)
The Power of Form (Slideshow & Music)
The Agora (Q&A’s)


My Art Course in Cairo: Renaissance Tales (25/12/2013)

On 25 December, I will hold a course on art history in Cairo, Egypt.
The course, titled ‘Renaissance Tales’, offers a journey through Renaissance Art, as we explore some of Renaissance’s most incredible stories and most celebrated masterpieces. The tales will take us ‘off the beaten track’ as well, as we learn about some of the least known masters and their artowrks. Tales of pain and passion, of saints and sinners, of humanism and barbarity, of artistic genius and intellectual curiosity…of the human condition at an age like no other age.
From the ‘founding fathers’ and all the way to ‘High Renaissance’, from the Gates of Heaven to the Bonfire of the Vanities, this is one journey you do not want to miss!

Wednesday, 25 December 2013
7:30 pm
2 hours
My place (33A Meqias El Roda St., Manial, Cairo)
Registration & inquiries: (email only please)
EGP 200
Fees include:
Course + Reading material and handouts
Deadline for registration:
30 November 2013 (or upon the reservation of 25 places)

PS.1 Voice and video recording are not allowed.
PS.2 If you are offended by nudity or by the representation of prophets and angels in art, then kindly be advised that the presentation includes images of both kinds.

Course Poster

The delusional calls to ‘recover’ al-Andalus

Following the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (which they would call al-Andalus) in 711 AD, the Andalusi society eventually featured a very interesting ethnic and cultural mosaic. Then came the Reconquista, the Christian armies started gaining back territory slowly but surely, and the social mosaic became even more sophisticated. A couple of days ago, while lecturing on al-Andalus at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, I explained some interesting ‘elements’ of the Andalusi society:
1- Muwallads (muladíes مولدون)
These were the sons and daughters of Muslim conquerors and native Christian women. The term also extended to describe natives who converted from Christianity to Islam.
2- Mozarabs (mozárabes مستعربون)
These native Christians maintained their religion under Muslim rule, but adopted many elements or the Arab culture and language.
Later on, two more elements would come into play:
3- Mudajjan (mudéjar مدجنون)
As the Christian armies took back several cities, several Muslim communities chose to stay and live under Christian rule, maintaining their religion.
4- Moriscos (moriscos موريسكيون)
Following the surrender of Granada and the introduction of the Inquisition courts, scores of Muslims had to convert to Christianity, becoming new Christians of Moorish origin, better known as moriscos. They were finally expulsed from Spain (some 300,000 moriscos) between 1609 and 1614 under Felipe III following a tragedy that extended for over one century. The Jews were forced to leave much earlier (Sephardim), and also scores of them had to convert.

Obviously, from the Arab-Islamic viewpoint, al-Andalus was ‘lost’, while from the Western standpoint, it was ‘liberated’. Such is the case with history always: it can never be read in a unilateral way or a linear form, or based on a single discourse.

Calls among some Arabs to ‘recover’ al-Andalus are more than just absurd: they are delusional! For one thing, al-Andalus no more exists; because it is a historical concept and should always be treated as such. It was occupied by the Arabs and Berbers, but was never their homeland or their native territory. Moreover, calls to ‘recover’ territory just because, hundreds of years ago, it was under Islamic rule, is closer to intellectual terrorism than it is to rational thinking that would foster intercultural dialogue. With all the Islamic and Arab countries around the world that are lagging behind culturally and scientifically, wouldn’t it be a better idea to start with themselves and alleviate the suffering of their own people than ‘yearn’ for a land that their modern feet never stepped?

I yearn for al-Andalus myself, not the land but rather the state-of-mid, not the territory but rather the cultural renaissance, not the traditional geography but rather the moral one… and I will end it here.

Boabdil handing the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs