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The West's Islamic Art Problem, By Abbas Rattani

The Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas, concluded its four-month exclusive exhibit entitled Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity in collaboration with the Museé des Arts Décoratifs, Paris with support from Maison Cartier. Before its opening, the exhibit received much high-profile coverage and, following its debut, received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In fact, it has been rather challenging to find any criticism of the exhibit—a marketing accomplishment that compelled a dozen or so fellow Muslim artists and me to visit the exhibit for ourselves. The exhibit enchanted—with many of my Muslim contemporaries also applauding it as a positive example of Islamic art. I found it unsettling. I left with two unresolved critical questions representing an ongoing trend in the contemporary presentation of Islamic art in the West. What iteration of “Islamic art” is being perpetuated? What is the reference to “modernity” intended to signal? In this essay, I explore how this seemingly innocuous exhibit attempting to offer a bridge of understanding ultimately contributes to the ongoing orientalization of Muslims and the Islamophobic secularization of contributions from Islamic civilizations. Through the example of the Cartier exhibit, I encourage museum-goers to critically consider how artwork from marginalized communities is curated, reinterpreted, and canonized to fit a Western-centric narrative.

“Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity” is described as an exhibition exploring the “origins of Islamic influence on Cartier through the cultural context of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries” and “how designers adapted forms and techniques from Islamic art, architecture, and jewelry, as well as materials from India, Iran, and the Arab lands, synthesizing them into a recognizable, modern stylistic language unique to the Maison Cartier.” In their official press release, the Dallas Museum of Art’s leadership and curatorial team heavily admire and do appropriately credit the several centuries-old Islamic art forms and techniques influencing the Cartier brand, stating that “Cartier and its designers have recognized and celebrated the inherent beauty and symbolic values found in Islamic art and architecture, weaving similar elements into their own designs.” However, the only discernible link to “modernity” is a vague mention of the impact of Islamic art on “the development of a new aesthetic called ‘style moderne’ at Cartier.”


The 1910 exhibition poster of “Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art” in Munich. These European exhibitions on Islamic art have been credited for exposing early 20th-century European designers and firms to Islamic art.


The exhibit is undoubtedly beautiful and mesmerizing, due mainly to the stunning Maison Cartier collection and the clever use of technology capturing the full attention of exhibit goers. There are short videos on Cartier’s dissection of classic geometric patterning to create opulent jewelry, display cases that turn opaque to project text and images, and well-organized zig-zagging rows of suspended ornaments. A goal of the exhibit was not to be an exhaustive representation of Islamic art but rather an exploration of what Louis Cartier saw in the Islamic art exhibitions he visited and the works he collected.

Omitted from their discussion is the recognition that Islamic art collections from wealthy Westerners like Louis Cartier represented an exotification and voyeurism of Islamic civilizations that transformed it into its own entity—the Orient. As art journalist Anita Hosseini observes, the Orient is transformed into an appropriated object “which through the power of imagination, through what was seen and remembered, was made into an image that in part still plays on our imagination today.” This process of othering has been very much part of the colonialist philosophy that led to the violent subjugation and conquering of non-Western peoples. Here the exhibit centers the legitimacy and value of Islamic art through a Eurocentric position—a subtle maneuver of many contemporary Islamic art installations.

The caption reads: “Female Tumbler. Early 19th-century. Iran. Oil on canvas.”


A deeper dive into the pieces from which Cartier drew his inspiration leaves you asking, “what is Islamic art?” “Whose Islamic art?” For example, projections between galleries depict how Cartier stripped the geometric patterns etched by hand into Muslim spiritual sanctuaries and turned them into bejeweled tiaras and necklaces. Among the most eye-catching displays is a silent schematic video of a mosque courtyard dome being stripped to create an opulent necklace. These mosque domes were often decorated by those who saw their literal craftsmanship as supplication and dedication to God.

The exhibit also features other artifacts stripped of their original meanings, including a bracelet inscribed with—what many Muslims consider among the most iconic ayat (verse) of the Qur’an—the Ayat-ul-Kursi. The exhibit’s caption reads: “Bracelet with 18th- to 19th-century engraved Iranian amulet with a surah from the Qur’an.” Stripped of any context, what is the significance of this ayat (not surah)? Why engrave it onto an amulet? Per the exhibit’s own objectives, what “symbolic values” are meant to be celebrated?

The caption incorrectly reads: “Bracelet with 18th- to 19th-century engraved Iranian amulet with a surah from the Qur’an.” No translation or significance of this notable ayat is provided.


Left with only a superficial understanding of its origins, motivations, and artistic philosophies—the most generous interpretation following this exhibit is that Islamic art is a mix of artwork and decorative items unearthed from centuries-old civilizations belonging to extinct peoples.

A classic feature of Islamic art exhibits across the West. Poetry with Arabic inscriptions, wherein the translation and its context are clearly absent—arguably obfuscated.


A dive into the academic Islamic art literature reveals the central role Islam plays in Islamic art creation—a central feature often absent from Islamic art exhibits. And when Islam is considered, it is situated as an expired relic of the past belonging in a museum that no longer has a role in the present or future—arguably insinuating Western secular triumphalism over Islam. Thus, revisiting the quintessential roots that define Islamic art’s “inherent beauty and symbolic values” can help to contextualize the work and its intended meaning. Artists often deliberately used verses from the revered Qur’an to elevate functional pieces. For instance, a Qur’anic reference seeking God to increase one’s knowledge inscribed on a pencil box, or a ruler adorned with a bracelet inscribed with a verse referencing God’s Throne watching over and commanding all, serve as poetic reminders of divine ever-presence. The surgically precise handiwork of engravers etching puzzling geometric patterns into mosque domes or mihrabs was a product of steering away from idolizing pictures of people in spaces where one’s devotion was to be focused on the divine.

Some have argued that the “sacred geometry” characteristic of many civilizations in the Muslim world were spiritual portals to purify and transform the soul. Additionally, certain precious stones or jewels have held religious significance in conferring spiritual protections or other meanings. It is clear that a deliberate philosophy informed the materials, styles, and techniques employed by Islamic artisans. Islam's theological and metaphysical elements that inspired much of Islamic art no longer remain in contemporary showcases. Thus, how Western non-Muslims have packaged Islamic art for Western non-Muslim audiences is designed to strip the religious aspects away from these creative works. Like the stripping of Islam from Islamic poetry for Western consumption (think Rumi and Hafez), a similar process is at work with Islamic art. Curators and art gatekeepers have reduced it to an areligious form acceptable for White consumption. Moreover, the absence of Islam from Islamic art is a product of an outside observer’s gaze (e.g., Maison Cartier)—absorbing and re-interpreting what they consume through their othering imaginations. Unfortunately, by reducing the creative works of Muslims and Muslim-adjacent artists, curators are depriving audiences of the full inspirational potential these works offer. How, then, can anyone meaningfully “celebrate” the intrinsic aspects of Islamic art that make it “inherently beautiful?”

The caption reads: “Last folio of a Qur’an. Mid-16th century. Possibly Shiraz, Iran. Work on paper.” No additional context, significance, or translation is provided. The subject matter is deliberately deemed irrelevant


As it has been amorphously articulated today, Islamic art is often defined as a broad catch-all term for any art (or potentially artistic things) created by Muslims or non-Muslims living within the confines of an Islamic civilization (governed by Muslim populations) between the 7th and 19th century. This extremely broad definition spanning hundreds of years and miles of geography capturing various genres, concepts, and traditions, is characteristic of the reductive terms used by Western colonizers and orientalists. The continuation of displaying Islamic art in this incoherent form with much of its initial meaning lost, further concretizes the “othering” framework by which White curators construct non-White art exhibits and the way museum-goers consume cultural content from other communities. As a result, museum-goers separate Islam and Muslims from “Islamic art,” creating a version of the latter without ever confronting their own prejudices toward a group of people they interact with regularly. There is a palpable irony in a seemingly celebratory Islamic art exhibit in two spaces with competing levels of anti-Muslim animus (i.e., France and Texas) that is only made possible by a White-palatable version of Islamic art devoid of any meaningful appreciation of Islam. A secondary effect is that Islam as a vast religious tradition is never revered or sought as an inspiratory force for beautiful works—despite the Cartier exhibit curators’ best efforts to stress the alternative narrative.

The caption reads: “Hindu Princess. From ‘The Legends Suite.’ 1919. Romain de Tirtoff, called Erté. Gouache on paper.” It is unclear how “Hindu” is in conversation with Islamic art. Both images highlight the European voyeurism, exotification, and orientalism of Muslims.


The Cartier exhibit is also problematically subtitled—“In Search of Modernity.” The framing of Muslims and Islamic civilizations needing to modernize is a relic of the 18th-century European Enlightenment era. As the Ottoman Empire’s prominence began to fall and the West finally began to prioritize science and rationality (both priorities of Islamic civilizations before Western colonialism)—the colonized were seen as backward. An internalized oppression began to rise as some Muslim intellectuals reconciled their theologies through a new Western lens of modernity. Around the late 20th century, this false narrative of a “Clash of Civilizations” was re-introduced in the American context by Islamophobic and orientalist academics Bernard Lewis (highly sought after by neo-conservatives and the Bush administration) and Samuel Huntington, who both infamously racialized Muslims and portrayed them as inferior to Whites. Thus, the Cartier exhibit’s title—“Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity”—plays on a popular Islamophobic trope of the backwardness of Muslims and Islam, insinuating that there is something old-fashioned about this tradition and rightfully belonging in a museum. Poorly done and lost on so many, however, the twist the exhibit reveals on a placard when you first enter is that Cartier was the one “in pursuit of modern innovation and contemporary trends” with Islamic art as his muse. Moreover, this generous reading is also meant to reinforce to the visitor that Islamic art merits appreciation partly because of Cartier’s admiration (where Cartier is a stand-in for European exceptionalism).

The exhibit is theoretically supposed to leave the visitor with the impression that “Islamic art”—with its sophisticated mathematical complex patterns and use of materials—was ahead of its time and Cartier’s appropriation of it was his attempt to compete with other European modernists. Instead, we are left with little understanding of what Islamic art is, what iteration of “modernity” is being sought, and an “artifact-ification” of an artistic movement still alive and evolving today. The insinuation of a mutual and respected artistic exchange between 19th Century Europeans and Islamic influences is a revisionist reading of Europe’s devastating colonialist, racist ideology. The newly emerging genre of Islamic art exhibits attempting to create connections downplays the effects of orientalism on the othering and historical marginalization of Muslims. A false “Islamic public diplomacy is created by such exhibits that give the illusion of validation of Islamic art forms without any meaningful explanation of the philosophies of Islamic art creation while also masking European colonialist contexts. As Dr. Raha Rafii precisely articulated in her essay “How the Contemporary Art World Repackages Orientalism,”

“Art institutions and critics utilize their authoritative status to reinforce a status quo built on colonialist frameworks that view non-Eurocentric cultures as inferior and worthy of subjugation. We must recognize the harm of how a focus on merely exchanging aesthetics of the “other” creates a false ‘both sides’ dynamic, rendering invisible the internationally unbalanced power dynamics that created colonial subjugation and inequalities in the first place. This whitewashing of orientalism and colonialism has no justification if art institutions and critics wish to claim to accurately depict historical context. Otherwise, it is clear that they refuse to meaningfully engage with the repercussions of Europe’s colonial past that persist to this day.”

Museum and gallery curators represent a form of cultural gatekeeping. While the representation of Muslim voices in the curatorial process is not a quintessential requirement for such an exhibit, the inherent elements and “symbolic values” that are included or discussed as part of “Islamic art” are often at the discretion of such curators favoring a more sanitized, revisionist, non-Islamic form of Islamic art. Very little curatorial power is given to those genuinely celebrating the Islam in Islamic art as this may threaten the white-washed version of colonialism and orientalism perpetuated by current art curators. As we see with the Cartier coverage, news and media outlets act as reinforcers of what constitutes worthwhile and legitimate examples of artwork from marginalized communities.

Among the many ways to remediate the problematic portrayal of Islamic Art in the West is to reinstate Islam as a creative inspiratory force for beauty. Enabling and amplifying Muslim creativity is one means of re-establishing Islam-as-inspiration in a way that does not reduce the art or the artist as a simple transmitter of culture or a non-creative being but rather as an individual capable of artistic expression. Furthermore, expanding the definition of Islamic art to include work created by contemporary Muslims will allow different examples of Islam’s influences on art creation. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of all contemporary and modern artists are highlighted in U.S. museums—furthering the marginalization of Muslim expression. What gets and who is represented (and how) are part of the concretization of real-time art history. Museums, galleries, and art organizations yield great power in resetting the balance and dismantling the current gatekeeping structures that have peddled a one-dimensional, reductionist view of a vast artistic and still-living movement.

Abbas Rattani is a process artist, ethicist, and founding director of MIPSTERZ—a Muslim arts and culture collective. He recently co-directed the exhibit entitled, “ALHAMDU | MUSLIM FUTURISM.”

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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