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Islam, belief, and secularism in the British Art Museum, Hassan Vawda at Tate and Goldmsiths

Hassan Vawda is a researcher and practitioner in culture change, participatory practice and fragmented histories in arts, culture and museum spaces. He has curated and produced projects for Tate, INIVA, Barbican amongst others, alongside working closely in non-institutionalised forms and community centred art practice. He is currently undertaking a doctoral research project with Tate and Goldmsiths, University of London on Muslims in Britain and the art museums in Britain'.

We talked to Hassan about Islam and Muslims in mainstream art gallery and museum spaces in Britain.

You are undertaking a PhD at Tate and Goldsmiths, looking at the role of religion, belief, and secularism in the British art museum? How did you embark on this journey and what are your hopes for the impact of this research?

I do not have a ‘traditional’ trajectory which has often been the journey for many who have done post-graduate or PhD studies with institutions like the Tate - often coming from art history backgrounds from established institutions of authority. My background is practice based - I come from navigating the art and museum space in Britain from outside the dominant culture - working in many roles across bands, and as a person of faith. The questions of the place of religion, belief and secularism arose as I navigated this space, particularly in public programming projects that included faith communities. I am grateful to the Aziz Foundation, who are a leading light in support Muslims in Britain to access further education, in which I was able to turn to academia to start framing my experiential observations.

Yet, I still did not embark on art history, in fact drawing on academic disciplines of anthropology and sociology of religion, which I know am applying to the museum in my PhD. This trajectory, of not following the traditional route into doing a PhD with the institution I think is relevant as I am not just approaching an under researched field in regard to British art museums and religion and secularism, but in fact looking at these spaces as organizations and institutions beyond how it frames art, but how it thinks about audiences, staff and other functional aspects as well as how it frames it collections and acquisitions. Just like at all levels, our museums, particularly art institutions, across the world, need wider experiences to be part of it at every level, and research is no different - too much has been limited by the tunnel vision of respecting art history and the institutions that hold its authority over other disciplines and trajectories of navigating these spaces.

With this PhD, I am realistic, I’m not going to change established professionalism, cannons of art history and institutional realities - but what I hope is that it is part of an emerging body of work that aims to re-emphasize the role of religion, but particularly that of secularism in the meaning making of museums. For the conversation and investment in research within the museum around these fields to increase - and ultimately increase the religious literacy both in a theoretical context for the art museum, but also a functional one.

Why are you interested in exploring participatory practice and fragmented histories in arts, culture and museum spaces?

In regards to fragmented histories - what I mean is how the canonised narratives that are present in our public art museums, that represent in many instances a cultural memory of the nation or society that it resides within, have excluded so much through an amnesia of not archiving. For instance within British art history, the narrative of artists outside of European dominion having space or feeling excluded almost the same 70 years ago than it is now. New generations of artists, curators and activists every decade aim to address canonised exclusions, yet those very experiences are not archived so the next generation starts again. It’s the system of knowledge production that decides what is important enough to be archived, remembered and framed for the future that needs to be addressed. I suppose I see participatory practice, by bringing in experiences that are far from holding positions or being represented in the knowledge production and value judgements in collaborative and equative partnerships within the art space, not just as participants but as part of the networks of programming, curatorial, interpretation and other meaning making functions, as a way to emphasise the exclusion in these spaces and highlight the knowledge, skills and experiences that should be valued but are not.

Is there a particular narrative surrounding Islam in major public art and cultural institutions? Is there a difference between contemporary Islam and historical Islam?

There is of course the explicit and professionalised museum category of ‘Islamic Art’ - often also coded to chronology, region or aesthetic. Islamic Art exhibits have a remarkable consistency in Britain (and across the world) since the early 20th century emergence to present day - in terms of material cultures and framing included. its a coded category which is always referenced either to hold material cultures or frame a certain art, or frame Muslim artists sometimes in relation to - i.e subverting or playing with the expected forms or principles of Islamic Art. I think before we want to unpack all the complexities that can be unwoven from Islam in the museum, we need to think about how religion and belief is present, transformed or euthanised by the museum. Maybe the question should not as of a difference between contemporary or historical Islam, but Islam in the museum and Islam as a practiced belief. A Quran that is read and a Quran that is on display behind a cabinet. How often are Muslim communities or even authorities of knowledge, scholars and Ulema, included in the meaning making or public programming of Museums around Islam?

Drawing from your research, do British Muslims feel a connection to contemporary art gallery spaces?

There is quite a confidence in contemporary art spaces that it is of huge importance to many in society in Britain - but the audience profile, and even more telling, membership profile of our art institutions are far from being reflective across societies experiences. Let alone the staffing demographics of these spaces. Muslims in Britain, a diverse collective of experiences, often are also crossed across many of the other demographics that are disconnected from the gallery – be it experiences of class or race. Whilst there are of course many Muslim experiences who navigate art and cultural spaces in Britain, in a broad observation, there is a huge distance between Muslim communities in Britain, particularly seen through the lack of partnerships between faith and civic organisations within Muslims in Britain and art galleries and museums. As a community around faith, it is not a consideration within any diversity drives in these spaces, and as art galleries being spaces of creativity and culture, they are not on the consideration of a space that can offer anything to communities. You only have to think of how many art galleries have invested in sustained and curatorial nuanced and equitable programming with mosques or other Islamic collectives in Britain.

Image: Equal Parts, an Eid-ul-Adha event at Tate Britain co-curated with Hassan Vawda. The image is taken during an Islamic Heritage Tour by Abdul Maalik Tailor.


How about British Muslim artists and creatives, is their work present in mainstream gallery spaces? Or do you find visibility is connected to specific funding allocation or inclusion/diversity agenda projects?

There is an interesting trend that you can see through this lens. Of course, there are Muslim experiences in Britain present as artists in our art institutions – our public collections, but in many ways artists who do enter collection end up detached from Muslim communities. For example, Rasheed Araeen, who now called himself a ‘Muslim artist’ – is an icon of British art history, known in all art spaces, but pretty much unfamiliar within Muslim spaces and networks across Britain. The influential artist Zarina Hashmi passed away in London last year, mourned by the art world, yet I don’t think any Muslim network in Britain acknowledge or was even aware of who they were.

This said, on the other hand, artists who are deeply rooted in Muslim community work as well as cultural production, often have the other consequence. The artist Ali Omar Ermes, who passed away earlier this year, was acknowledged in many Muslim networks – from the mosques to collective bodies memorializing his contribution to culture and life of Islam in Britain – yet, not a single publications or organization from the art space in UK acknowledged his passing in a similar way. Both of these examples of remembrance or unawareness emphasizes how detached art networks are to Muslim networks in Britain. I remember another example of the absurd detachment of Muslim communities and art spaces, when Chisenhale Gallery had a private view for Imran Perretta’s film ‘The Destructors’ which included and represented Muslim male trauma. Yet the after party for the exhibition was hosted in a local pub – very clear on whose experience was subject and who was consumer of experience. The art world obsession with alcohol is a whole another pseudo-sacred space. Another consequence of this, is that there is a rich creative and cultural presence, particularly over the last decade, in Muslims in Britain really flourishing in creative and cultural experiments and expression, yet the majority of this happens in spaces both isolated form the art museum or gallery, as well as the mosque.

Why do you think the exploration of faith is important in cultural spaces? Are there benefits to society as a consequence?

It's incredibly important as religion and secularism are key concepts in how art museums have emerged and created/create meaning. The institutionalized spaces of art and culture are still held by a confidence of secularization theory, that religions natural outcome of modernity is for it to fade into the background, into the individual or into categories alongside anything else. A concept even revised within Western disciplines of sociology of religion, yet still in many ways a sacralized attitude even if not explicitly discussed, within the arts space. A safe space for secularization theory. Waking it up to critically reflect on religion and secularism in its meaning making and institutionalization is only going to create an even richer conceptual terrain, but also open it up to wider networks – and be part of the continued decentering of certain dominant cultures in creative value in the arts.

Is there an example of a gallery or museum which works with Muslim communities and creatives particularly well?

There are many localized, or small scale initiatives and spaces which often are led by the communities and experiences they aim to serve which do amazing work in cultivating Muslim creativity. But they are often siloed from the mainstays of the artworld, from the resource and patronage that is there. They are often spaces run without sustainability. Our museums and galleries, particularly the large public institutions who have core resource and patronage, are complex webs of networks contradicting, coexisting, and continuing all alongside each other. Which is why you can find in a single art gallery, both radical acts of programming, curation or artistic expression challenging oppressive practice and dominant cultures of exclusion, yet at the same time co-existing, the worst practice of enshrining exclusions. It is then worth analyzing which networks have more significance in institutional decision making, resourcing etc. This means the answer to whether there are good examples, is that yes there can be many moments, events and activities that can be seen as exemplar, but they are often one offs or happen because of a certain individual or moment of collective voice. They are not part of the everyday necessity or functional priorities of the gallery or the museum. Galleries and Museums need to begin a deep invested reflection on how religion and secularism are conceptualized in their spaces, and really embed a way of working with faith as a living concept, as a practice, as a believe, as acts of prayer. In doing so it can open an avenue of real potential in not just including communities of faith but decentering the very meaning and knowledge mechanisms of these spaces. Maybe a world where clergy and curators have flourishing collaborations in both museums and places of worship?

For more information follow Hassan Vawda on Twitter

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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