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Communicating Collections: Speculative Museology & Islamic Visual Culture, Nur Sobers-Khan

Nur Sobers-Khan is a curator and cultural heritage professional with expertise in Islamic art and manuscript collections from the Middle East and South Asia. She is currently the director of the Aga Khan Documentation Center, a research centre and archive for the study of art, visual culture, architecture and urbanism in Muslim societies.

Previously, she was the Lead Curator for South Asia collections at the British Library, with a curatorial specialisation in Islamic South Asia. Nur has led curatorial teams and curated exhibitions internationally. We talk to Nur about communicating collections, her thoughts on the representation and interpretation of Islamic art in archival and collecting institutions and the future of Islamic art and culture in museums.

You completed a BA in Oriental Studies in Arabic and Persian followed by a PhD in early modern Ottoman social history at the University of Cambridge. How and why did you choose to pursue a career in arts, culture and heritage?

Very early in my PhD, maybe my first or second year, I very quickly realised that academia was not for me and I preferred a career path that allowed for a greater range of activities and interactions. I love research and writing, but certainly don't enjoy the more restrictive aspects of academic research, such as the requirement to specialise very narrowly within only one historical period or geographical region. Curating a large collection of manuscripts or art, while you still have to specialise, you also have more of an opportunity to broaden your knowledge of the material and visual cultures of a range of time periods and geographical regions, and especially if you work with a large and complex collection. The result is that you are constantly learning and challenging your own sense of what you know. It really never gets old, and you are always humbled by the limits of your own knowledge as you explore your collection.

After completing your education, you went on to work in manuscript and Islamic art collections in the UK and the Middle East. Why curating?

Curating Islamic manuscripts and art is appealing because you are constantly learning, but also constantly communicating. Through tours, object handling sessions, writing, talks, podcasts - you have the chance to communicate the collection you are curating to a wide audience and make objects meaningful beyond their place in an institution (and beyond an elitist institutional or disciplinary discourse).

You have curated exhibitions while working at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, on manuscript production at the Safavid and Mughal courts and on the visual tropes of gender in the Qajar period, which resulted in a book-length study. What was this experience like and what was the most memorable part?

Yes, these were fun exhibitions, especially the one on the visual tropes of gender in the Qajar period, which I co-curated with my friend and colleague Dr. Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya at the Museum of Islamic Art. We did this exhibition in 2015, and at the time, Qajar-mania hadn't yet taken hold of Islamic art as a discipline. Since that exhibition, Qajar-era artworks have received a great deal more attention, both in terms of major exhibitions and scholarly research. I'm certainly not saying that our exhibition had anything to do with generating that wave of interest, just that we were slightly ahead of the trend! Much of Islamic art - as a discipline - situates the art of Muslims in a premodern temporality, whereas Qajar art doesn't allow for the relegation of Muslim art to the past. Qajar artistic production was an unmistakably modern creative output that drew influence from technologies such as photography and print culture. Definitely the most memorable part was collaborating with my colleague Mounia and with the conservation team on this exhibition - who were amazing - and also watching the surprise of the museum visitors when they would see mustachio'ed Qajar princesses for the first time.

You have written a number of essays related to the field of Islamic art, heritage and museology, can you tell us a bit more about your areas of research?

Sure, these days I'm very interested in the way that historical institutional practices have shaped the culture of research and display surrounding Islamic art in the UK. I'm particularly interested in the 1976 World of Islam festival, after my colleague at the British Library, Daniel Lowe, hosted a large event, together with Everyday Muslim and with my participation as well, about the history of this festival and the involvement of UK institutions with collections Islamic art and material culture. This festival was a watershed moment that defined how Islamic art is displayed in the UK and how it is studied and talked about, so I am interested in how the institutional structures and ideologies underpinning this event continue to play out today. I'm also working on the topic of lithograph production in South Asia and its visual and textual continuity - and discontinuity - with earlier manuscript production, with particular attention to treatises on talismans, and continue to work on Ottoman social and cultural history as well. I guess you could say that my overarching interest at the moment is the history of specific genres of manuscript and print and how they shaped the visual culture of devotional practices in the Middle East and South Asia and the diaspora, of course. I also have a longstanding interest in dream interpretation in Islamic intellectual and social history and in shrine culture but have yet to turn these interests into substantial research - they shall have to be projects for the future!

Image from 19th-century South Asian lithograph, Talisman


What are your thoughts on the representation and interpretation of Islamic art in archival and collecting institutions?

This is an excellent question and one that I think about and present about often. I'm not sure that something called 'Islamic art' exists outside of scholarly, institutional and colonial constructs. So - starting from that point, there is a great deal of interpretation and re-interpretation to do. The representation of 'Islam' in the large collections in the UK, which are primarily colonial in origin, present a reified and essentialising vision - and also very elitist and courtly focus - of what constitutes 'Islamic art', with a limited repertoire of objects, whose status as 'art' has been largely defined performatively by the scholars and institutions who deem them to be art; their presence in museums is determined largely by colonial collecting practices, which could be quite arbitrary. Much of Islamic art and its study in the West is really about the present-day reproduction of classist identities, and shoring up of class boundaries, within a white supremacist and capitalist society. So, this, for sure, needs to change and is indeed changing as a new generation of scholars and curators challenge some of the premises of the field.

Does more need to be done around contemporary collecting of Islamic art and culture?

Sure, although the term is definitely up for debate. I'm always in favour of showcasing Muslim modernity as historian and a curator, although I think need we need to be careful not to re-inscribe racialised categories on artists producing contemporary art.

With regards to current debates around repatriation, do you think museums should be looking to give objects back where possible?

Of course. This is a deeply political and complex issue, but museums and libraries need to have it on their radar and engage with the question authentically and sincerely rather than just giving it lip service. When I first started a career in curating ten years ago, this was a taboo topic that your institution would not allow you to broach in public as a curator, so it is heartening to see that some institutions are finally addressing the question head on and coming to the conclusion that objects can be returned where possible.

You are currently the head of the Aga Khan Documentation Center (AKDC), What do you find most enjoyable and rewarding about this role?

Working with the collections, especially the photographic collections, learning from my colleagues both in the Aga Khan Documentation Center and throughout the wider field of Islamic material and visual culture, and having the immense privilege of a career that allows me to do research on such rich collections and communicate this research beyond academia are all really enjoyable. My current role has a large digital component, which has been particularly useful during the pandemic - rather than in person, we are able to share our collections on-line, which is particularly rewarding.

Image from 19th-century South Asian lithograph, Sun