BY MARK ROBERT RAPACZ
A luxurious shawl hung in front of 40 San Jose high school students at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. At first glance, it was strikingly ornate with what looks to be gold beadwork intricately woven into cashmere fabric. However, like many of the pieces that were on display in the Jameel Prize: Art Inspired by Islamic Tradition exhibition at Stanford, an initial glance didn't tell the complete story.
As Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center docent Gail Walker led students around to view the backside of the shawl, a new tale began to emerge. The beads are revealed to be the heads of more than 300,000 three-inch needles pierced through the shawl, creating the appearance of a bed of nails and contrasting violently against the delicacy of the front.
Through a collaboration between Stanford’s Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and the Cantor Arts Center, the shawl, made by Pakistani artist Aisha Khalid, was among more than twenty Islamic inspired artworks on display at the Cantor Arts Center from December, 2012 through March, 2013.
The works are from 10 artists selected as finalists for the Jameel Prize, an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition.The exhibition marks the first U.S. Viewing of the exhibition, which is organized bi-annually by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives.
The exhibition featured compelling works from artists representing many countries around the world and proved to be a valuable learning opportunity for both Bay Area students and the Stanford community.
The Jameel Prize exhibition presented an ideal opportunity to showcase the beauty and complexity of contemporary Islamic art, and “made vital histories, traditions, and ideas accessible to the widest possible audience,” said Cantor Arts Center Director Connie Wolf.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a series of academic events were organized, engaging Stanford- and U.S.-based scholars in conversation with the general public about artistic, intellectual, and sociopolitical dimensions of Islamic art.
The exhibition and the public events were the culmination of a multi-year conversation between the Abbasi Program and the Cantor Arts Center affiliates about how to enhance Stanford faculty and students’ engagement with the history and contemporary practices of Islamic art.
“The Jameel Prize exhibition is quite unique within the field of Islamic art because of its internal variety and the focus on the contemporary period,” said the Abbasi Program Director Prof. Shahzad Bashir. “It engages Islamic studies with a very wide geographical and topical scope and also has public education as a significant part of its mandate.”
In addition to the numerous Stanford students who visited the exhibition with groups such as Stanford’s Islamic Society, Muslim Student Awareness Network, and Persian Student Association, over 100 Bay Area high school students came to the Cantor Arts Center to learn about Islamic culture.
“Through docent-guided tours, students were encouraged to examine the artwork and explore deeper meanings layered in the larger social, political, and spiritual themes and the artist’s personal experiences,” noted Rose Demir, Jameel Prize Project Curator at Cantor.
Political and social dynamics were the focus of Stanford students from History Professor Robert Crews’ class, Islamic Republics: Politics and Society in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were captivated by Bita Ghezelaygh’s Felt Memories, a series of traditionally made Iranian tunics decorated with symbols invoking ideas of sacrifice surrounding the Iran-Iraq War.
“We had tried to make sense of the experience of war in class,” said Crews, “but seeing the metal keys giving martyrs access to heaven and looking at the iconic figures established an emotional tie and, I think, a deeper appreciation of the power of these symbols.”
Though the exhibit centered on contemporary art in the Islamic world, each piece displayed a wide range and personal depth of the artists themselves. Visitors, young and old, found something that resonated with them personally.
For instance, Noor Ali Chagani’s brick installation, Life Line, touched one high-school student for its ability to take a typically hard material and represent it as being soft, almost comforting; Hadieh Shafie’s repetitive, circular, and vibrantly colored 22500 Pages attracted a young visitor for its intensity and repetition of shape; and Rachid Koraïchi’s embroidered cloth banners, Les Maîtres invisibles, which won the 2011 Jameel Prize, so intrigued a group of Stanford engineering students from the Persian Student Association that they translated parts of the banners for Cantor docent Penelope Midlock.
For Pescadero Middle-High School (PHS) art students, however, it was the sophistication, depth, and provocative imagery in the pieces that impressed them. They and other student groups were brought to the exhibition on field trips organized by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies in collaboration with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) and the Cantor Arts Center.
“I loved the symbolism behind the Islamic playing cards,” said one PHS student in regards to Hayv Kahrahman’s Waraq series, which were large wooden tableaus constructed to look like giant playing cards and provoked questions of cultural identity. “The one that got me most was the card with the girl hanging herself after being forced out of her house on one half, while the other showed her forcefully being hanged in her home country.”
The exhibit even stirred these aspiring artists to create tiles in an Arabesque style, partly inspired by Monir Farmanfarmaian mirrored mosaic, Birds of Paradise.
In contrast, the SJSUD group was primarily drawn to Khalid’s Kashmiri Shawl.
“It accurately depicts the beauty of Kashmir on one side and the violence that has ravaged that region for decades on the other,” said SJSUD teacher Arooj Syed.
This interest was apparent in her class as well.
“It touched me the most,” said student Isabella Paredes, “as it was created to represent the pain behind cashmere producers and the people of Kashmir.”
One of the goals of Khalid’s shawl, and the exhibition overall, was to bring broader awareness to the different perspectives of the Islamic world. For SJSUD, it was a learning experience that touched closer to home.
“Most of my students had never been to a museum before,” Syed added. “This was their first chance to have experienced art in a museum rather than graffiti on a street corner.”
Mark Robert Rapacz is the Communications Coordinator for Stanford’s Division of International, Comparative & Area Studies (ICA).