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Colonial Legacies & Orientalist Mindsets: Islamic Art in UK Museums & Galleries, Shaheen Kasmani

This early photo of the British Museum, taken by Roger Fenton in 1857


Colonial legacies and orientalist mindsets continue to impact how Islamic art is represented

Walk around most museums in London, and even most of the UK, and you will come across some objects or whole galleries of what is categorised as Islamic art. The collections themselves are huge and the objects are incredible, but as we know, they’ve mainly been looted from colonial occupation and exploitation; they didn’t end up in glass boxes on this island by chance. However, in the museum context, this story is of course, never told, and colonial legacies and orientalist mindsets continue to impact how Islamic art is represented. Objects that fall under the category of Islamic art, and especially those that have spiritual or sacred significance, such as Qurans and other manuscripts for example, are completely decontextualized, and described solely as examples of art, bookmaking, calligraphy, etc. We are told the region and time period they are from, possibly the patron, and the materials used, but not much else; no translation of the verses, no interpretation of their meaning, no context, and no links with the communities that relate the most to the objects. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that exhibitions are curated by those who aren’t Muslim, or have any connection to Muslim communities.

If a space is catering to all, shouldn’t there also be space for faith and belief within that?...

Some would argue that in a secular environment, this is the way things should be. However, if a space is catering to all, shouldn’t there also be space for faith and belief within that? It’s as if we have a severing from the purpose, and a divorce from the spiritual and sacred, making something so beautiful and functional into something that is generally cold, unfeeling and distant. But unfortunately that’s what most museums in the UK tend to be. We have a clear representation of Islamic art, but simultaneously little or no representation of the communities that this art historically comes from, even if they happen to live nearby! There is no interaction, and if there is then engagement it is often short lived and tokenistic. For example, the V&A has one of the best collections of Islamic art on display, but is unwilling to open a prayer room for visitors. It’s a case of objects being more important than people, which we see across a divided and inequitable society. Objects from Afghanistan or Iraq are welcomed more than people feeling violence from there are. As Sumaya Kassim writes, the colonial space uses colonial means to keep things in, and people out. [1]

Museums and galleries are not neutral spaces

Furthermore, despite the claims that many make, museums and galleries are not neutral spaces, and generally do not want to address how sacred objects are displayed in secular environments.[2] When displaying stolen loot from India, or Egypt, or Ghana, or any other former British colony, the institution sets the framework from which the object is viewed, and its frameworks are undoubtedly Eurocentric. This means that the spiritual or sacred significance of what’s on display is disregarded. Those who do have this knowledge, be they individuals or communities, are neither credited nor remunerated for the intellectual labour, nor offered employment to make significant changes.

Some will argue that were these objects not in the museum galleries and instead in private collections, we would not be able to see them, which is true. However, we need to question though whose gaze they are being presented? Who has set the parameters and narrative of the framing? When art is removed from its context and is secularised, does it lose its essence and revolutionary potential, especially if it sits within a Eurocentric and colonial epistemology? Whilst something that is sacred will always be so and transcend man made boundaries, perhaps simultaneously, real art can only exist beyond the sanitised framing of the museum, and its white ‘neutral’ walls.

Shaheen Kasmani is an educator, a curator, a producer, and an artist who specializes in Islamic art and pattern making. Shaheen co-curated The Past Is Now at the Birmingham Museum and has produced literature festivals and publications.

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