Rachel Winter is Assistant Curator, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. Here sh shares her thoughts, perspective and insights on The World of Islam Festival, which took place in London in 1976.
John Webb (photographer)
Installation view, The Arts of Islam
Hayward Gallery (London), 8 April – 4 July, 1976
Image courtesy of John Webb FRPS and the Hayward Gallery Art Library
From April to June 1976, London was the site of the World of Islam Festival, a three-month long event held at numerous cultural institutions throughout greater London. The festival’s goal was to inspire unity between Muslims and Christians in Britain amidst heightened social tensions. The idea was that educating British Christians, the festival’s target audience, would promote mutual understanding, and reduce conflict. Private individuals interested in Islam organized the festival with fiscal support from Middle Eastern governments, but not the British government.
The festival’s exhibitions and programs showcased what organizers defined as a comprehensive view of Islamic civilization. For them, this term encompassed a geographic expanse from North Africa to West Asia where Islam was the dominant religion and way of life between the 7th and 19th centuries. Topics included carpets from Persia, science and technology in Islam, Isfahan, music, the Qur’an, Islamic metalwork, Muslim India, the Bedouin, and more, displayed at venues like the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum of Mankind, the Science Museum, and the Horniman Museum. This multi-faceted project uncovered Islam as an all-encompassing way of life.
I found the World of Islam Festival by accident after reading American art critic Amy Goldin’s review “Islam Goes to England” (1977). Goldin was no stranger to Islamic art from visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and following the Pattern and Decoration movement in the US. Yet I wondered: how has this grandiose event been overlooked in histories of Britain and Islamic art? And what is the relevance of the festival today?
The exhibition anchoring the World of Islam Festival was The Arts of Islam. Held at the Hayward Gallery, The Arts of Islam presented over 600 objects of all types, including ceramics, building fragments, rugs, manuscripts, and more, dating from c. 650-1850 CE. These items were not displayed chronologically or geographically. Rather, their trans-media, trans-temporal approach aimed to reveal what organizers defined as the essential characteristics of Islamic art: the arabesque, the figure, calligraphy, and geometry. These four features shaped a distinct visual identity for Islamic art, which visitors saw in the exhibition as something utilized across time and space by different people. Repeating visual features united a broad swathe of cultural production, implying a united Islamic civilization.
Beyond aesthetics, organizers also believed Islamic art had the capacity to educate audiences about the history and tenets of Islam. This was not achieved through didactics. Rather, objects of visual and material culture were considered autonomous, and conceived of as having the capacity to reveal a visual and theological system. Islamic art thus carried the weight of educating audiences, and inspiring social unity.
Archival material related to the festival delineates the processes by which the exhibition and festival came to fruition, and the ways individuals constructed the idea of Islamic art in 1970s Britain. By attending to its visual features, organizers believed they were showing Islamic art from what they called an Islamic point of view, or on its own terms, as they defined it. This ideology was never fully delineated, but it was positioned as counter to academic views of decontextualized objects, and historical overviews of stylistic evolution. By articulating an Islamic point of view, organizers believed in the objectivity of their efforts.
The Arts of Islam points towards the 20th century history of Europe’s interest in Islamic art, but also represents Islamic art as something with the capacity to act. In other words, Islamic art transforms from something passive that is seen into an active agent in the contemporary world. In 1976, this meant that the formal characteristics of Islamic art not only educated audiences about history, but also revealed the tenets of a religion and aspects of a culture in order to ease social tensions. Islamic art intervened in the aftermath of the 1973 OPEC oil crisis where people from the Arab world, including those in diaspora in Britain, faced xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Yet when considering the goal of and framework for the exhibition, a new contradiction emerges. What was presented as an objective view of Islam was a subjective understanding based on personal research and study. Subjectivity was put forth as objectivity. What organizers claimed was the correct way of seeing and thinking was their personal way of knowing, a tension which emerged in press at the time where other Muslims questioned the festival’s framework. Here, Europe “objectively” defined and depicted the Middle East and Islam in an act foretelling what Edward Said outlined as Orientalism two years later.
In this process, efforts to be inclusive by displaying Islamic art and arguing for social unity echoed the practices of exclusion that the festival opposed. If Muslims in 1970s Britain were on the margins of society, then the festival continued these practices by not creating an opportunity for diasporic populations to contribute to the festival. Like the tenets of Orientalism, the “Orient” could not represent itself; it must be represented.
These exclusionary practices remained throughout the festival. In The Arts of Islam, ethnic and religious minorities were excluded, obscuring the complex socio-cultural mosaic of the so-called Islamic civilization. During the planning process, Middle Eastern governments who contributed funding, as well as allowed objects never before seen in London to be borrowed, were not given an opportunity to participate in crafting the narrative. At the festival, Muslims in Britain were not a target audience, meaning half of the unified social contract the festival aimed to negotiate was not invited to participate in its making. Orientalism’s over-simplification of people and denial of their agency was entangled with the festival’s formation.
Despite its shortcomings, the importance of the World of Islam Festival and The Arts of Islam transcends histories of displaying Islamic art. On one hand, it illuminates a new aspect of the history of Muslims in Britain and their social representation, one where individuals were continually present in and contributors to British society, often amidst turbulent social conditions, yet continually marginalized. It also speaks to the ways art and culture from the Middle East are frequently employed in response to sociopolitical happenings. The role of Islamic art as a social mediator in 1976 is now one expected of contemporary art from the Middle East in the wake of 9/11. In both instances, visual and material culture are expected to build mutual understanding between populations.
As the World of Islam Festival becomes the subject of serious scholarly inquiry, both by myself and scholars like Dr. Nur Sobers-Khan, as referenced in her recent entry for this site, we might utilize the festival as a case study for fashioning a new, community-based museology that attends to the multiplicities of Islamic art. This approach welcomes different lived experiences shaping the interpretation and reception of Islamic art, recognizes its fluid nature, and acknowledges the people who made up the sociocultural mosaic shaping Islamic art as we know it today.
For more information follow Rachel Winter on Twitter https://twitter.com/rachelelise7750
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