Spiritual Affects Against a Secularist Grid: Rethinking Modernism and Islam/ic Art

Hassan Vawda reviews ‘Spiritual Affects Against a Secularist Grid: Rethinking Modernism and Islam/ic Art’, which reflected on the space between ‘Islam’ and ‘Art’ across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Vawda is a doctoral researcher at Tate whose research grapples with the in-betweens of religion, secularism and Islam. Taking place on 10 and 11 February 2023, the seminar was held in the SubTropen Conference Room at Tropenmuseum, with the second day’s conversation at the Eye Filmmuseum, both in Amsterdam. The event was organised by Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational and the Research Center for Material Culture, Leiden.

In the SubTropen Room, a chapel in one of Europe’s cathedrals of colonial ethnography, Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, artists, curators, art historians and social historians gathered to share perspectives on the relationships between abstraction, secularism and spirituality in Islam/ic art and museology. Hosted at the Tropenmuseum and convened in collaboration with curators at Tate Modern, the conference took its title from Wendy M.K. Shaw’s 2022 text, in which she traces the articulation of geometric meaning in Islamic discourses and visual practices.1 Investigating the tensions between secular and spiritual communication by questioning how geometry is interpreted across different contexts, Shaw offers alternative pathways of thinking through and experiencing art. This is an idea that Rasheed Araeen has also brought forward in his recent musings published as ‘Islam & Modernism’.2 Each proposes a decentring from formalist discourses of modernism by engaging histories of abstraction through both the realms of art history and the visual and intellectual genealogies of Islam. For example, in his text 'From the Cube of Ka’ba to Cubism’, Araeen pulls abstraction away from the black square of modern art to the devotional cube of the Holy Ka’aba in Makkah.

Left to right: Nur Sobers Khan, Alex Dika Seggerman and Nabila Abdel Nabi, as part of Spiritual Affects againt a Secularist Grid: Rethinking Modernism and Islam/ic Art at Tropenmuseum, 10 February 2023.

© Pascal Giese

The issue of geographical and chronological categorisations echoed across speakers and discussions. In most museum departments of Islamic art, the geographical and chronological are often still conflated. The ‘secular grid’ referenced in the seminar’s title started becoming visible through these lines. Mirjam Shatanawi spoke about the geographical boundaries in categorisations of Islam in museums, demonstrated through the erasure of Indonesia, the state with the largest population of Muslims in the world today, in everything from museum displays to record keeping. Alex Dika Seggerman, in linking modernism and Islam within art history, contested the dominant form of ‘Islamic Art’ displays in major museums. Foregrounding the omission of any meaningful place for post-twentieth-century art of Islam in them, her paper explored this through the work of Egyptian painter Abdel Hadi El Gazzar (1925-1966), whose work, according to Seggerman, holds relevance across the fields of modernism and Islam, yet is still afforded little space within the analytical frameworks of the field of Islamic Art today.

Perhaps ‘Islamic Art’ is an art historical and museological field trapped in the lines that shape the secular grid; the grid of colonially drawn national borders and the monster of time to decide what needs civility. On the second day, the event continued with Saodat Ismailova in conversation alongside 18,000 Worlds, a major retrospective of her work at the Eye Filmmuseum. What was my name? 2020 is an artwork of neon Arabic script, in Uzbek language and partially veiled in horsehair. It is a question that is enough to short-circuit any Islamic Art museum display and shock it out of its geographical or chronological comfort zone. It also speaks to the more radical call that started this seminar off, discussed further below. Ismailova’s artwork tests the limits of exhibition display. Can an art gallery or museum hold space for faith in ways that give respect, resonance and truth too?

Leeza Ahmady opened the seminar with a lament of art ecosystems’ quietening of religion, belief and spirituality. Speaking from her perspective as a curator and Director of Programs at the Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts, she speculated on what a ‘missing language’ might be like: ‘a lexicon that speaks to cultural institutions in a way where spirits can roam’. She speculated that this lexicon be pitched at two levels. Firstly, a functional address to how policies, practice and institutional cultures can begin to speak with nuance about religion as a practiced experience. Secondly, a challenge to the conceptual and creative boundaries of what a safe space for secularisation can inhibit.

This devotional boundary was the next schism between the ‘spiritual affect’ and the ‘secular grid’ that was drawn upon in the seminar. Nur Sobers-Khan’s paper zoomed in on sets of devotional manuscripts held in collections, from liturgical materials from Ottoman courtly contexts to nineteenth-century South Asian talismanic lithographs. She presented these manuscripts as ‘shared technologies of devotion’, exploring the ways they were used for prayer, ritual and unruly belief that do not fit into the neat cartographies of how Islamic Art and visual cultures are held in the ‘secular grid’. The subject echoed the seminar’s opening remarks invoking Wendy Shaw’s proposition to learn from materials in this context, rather than learning about them. The manuscripts referenced by Sobers-Khan are held in archives of preservation but warped in the process – preserved as memories of colonial order, on the fringes of the purview of ‘Islamic Art’, their existence as ‘shared technologies’ broken up by the confidence of museums and colonial institutions in their own ordering systems.

This ‘museumification’ (the process by which cultural and natural heritage is transformed into museum objects) of Islamic devotional materials, memories and sites was also a focus of Mollie Arbuthnot’s paper. She described how museums were instrumentalised in the Soviet context of digesting and transforming various regional Islamicates within its vista. This brought a different ecosystem of Islam into the museum context, with ‘Islamic Art’ not officially a category within Soviet art histories, yet with those material histories subject to the same consequence; here a more explicit and politically directed aim of severing sacredness through ‘museumification’. Arbuthnot outlined a scale of ‘museumification’, from converting heritage at one end, to the extreme end of ‘desecration in preservation’. Citing the Zangiota Mausoleum Sufi shrine near Tashkent in Uzbekistan, the preservation of which as a site of heritage has established control of its devotional use. Perhaps this reframing of material cultures and sites of preservation as ‘technologies of devotion’ is where the ‘new lexicon’ in the museum allows ‘spirits to roam’, at least in the museums of objects and artefacts.

For spirits to roam, however, for ‘Muslimness’ to emerge outside of the frames of geography and chronology of the ‘secular grid’, or the stifling of devotion in museums – there was an early comment in the first Q&A discussion that Islam, or just belief itself, had to be brought into artistic practice by ‘stealth’ within the current structures. The comment was specifically referencing contemporary art practices and was expanded through the concluding proceedings of the first day – a performance lecture by Slavs and Tartars titled ‘Al-Isnad or Chains We Can Believe In’. It explored the curious case of the Dia Art Foundation, alluding to links between the artworks commissioned and collected by the foundation and the spiritual journey of the foundation’s patron. Philippa de Menil, of the wealthy and significant art patrons, the de Menil family, became Shaykha Fariha Fatima al-Jerrahi. The performance narrated a story of mysticism within modernity, or a ‘spiritual grid’ and a ‘secular affect’ – leaving the entire discussion in a positive sense of confusion.

While the location at a colonial ethnography museum, the cross-disciplinarity of speakers, and the sheer scale of the topic posed were highly unlikely to result in coherent conclusions in just two days, the seminar offered a vital space for speakers to reflect on the limitations, contradictions and tensions involved in working in or adjacent to Islam/Muslimness/Islamicate contexts in museums and art spaces. The omission of any Islamic scholars from traditional Islamic sciences, ulema, was notable. Perhaps the ‘secular grid’ is where the seminar itself sits – a place for those familiarised with the SubTropen climate and critically engaged inside museums and art worlds. Secularism by stealth. A reflective roundtable on the talks and performances led to three points of focus for speculative future sessions.

The first was defining secularism. The seminar was framed in the springboard of the ‘secular grid’ – and as a term, the secular was evoked in papers and discussions – but was it ever defined? What makes the ‘secular’ in the ‘secular grid’? Is it the exclusion of religion or the enchantment of disbelief? Or the idea of secularisation, the principle of modernity equalling the retreat of belief? Or is secularism being evoked as just another step in a Christian-orientated worldview? The nuance of the ‘spiritual affects’ in the discussions were rich throughout the seminar which gave instant imbalance to the fuzziness of the grid we were all trying to speak against/to.

We were re-thinking modernism and Islam/ic art in the SubTropen room while Friday prayers were congregating in mosques nearby; from invoking Muslim communities in museum participation in shaping collections, to the idea of lived experiences of Muslims in relation to museumification, how were we defining ‘Muslim communities’? The second point of focus that arose was just this: What was the ummah (community) in these discussions? The third and final speculative point addressed how despite different expertise being shared across disciplines, there was no space to hold the specific differences between the museums, archives and galleries that were being referenced. The difference between the material cultures and contemporary art practice was another texture that just did not have time to surface. The Tropenmuseum is a very different ecosystem to the space of Tate Modern for instance.

Ultimately, the seminar was a deeply resonating touchpoint in a field that is deeply lacking in institutional investment. There is a barren landscape for meaningful and nuanced conversations on rethinking religion in museums and contemporary art spaces, but even rarer are formal spaces that specifically put secularism under a critical lens. I pray that this is the first of a series of formalised seminars, conversations and research investments between the ‘spiritual affects’ and ‘secular grids’ of the institutions involved.