A British Museum exhibition challenges misconceptions about ‘Islamic art’

  • A new exhibition at the British Museum reveals the diverse experiences of a region that cannot be defined solely as “Islamic”
  • Beyond religion, artists in the collection narrate personal stories, highlight taboos, convey expressions of nostalgia and evoke exile 

LONDON: At first glance, the description of a new exhibition and accompanying book celebrating a decade of the British Museum collecting contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa appears unnecessarily cumbersome, if not evasive.

The exhibition “Reflections: Contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa,” writes Venetia Porter, the museum’s curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East art, is “about a collection of works in the British Museum … made by artists born in or connected to countries that include Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia, states that belong within the region known today as the Middle East and North Africa.”

In fact, far from being evasive, Porter is exercising precision, and mounting a challenge to what she sees as the frequently misused term “Islamic art,” and the perception in the West that there is only a single narrative at play in a region rich with a vast diversity of cultures, histories and current concerns.

Visitors are seen in the Great Court after the British Museum reopened in London on December 3, 2020 after England emerged from a month-long lockdown to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. (AFP/File Photo)

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what this material from the modern and contemporary era is,” said Porter as the museum put the finishing touches to an exhibition that was due to open on Feb. 11 but which, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, will now be launched only virtually.


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