…or my failed attempt to get some alone time in New York City.
One thing that I just don’t get about New Yorkers is how they can live with so many people all the time. I found it taxing to constantly be in a sea of people, having to find myself thrust into their conversations and life stories when all I might need and want so badly is quite alone time, like a quite commute home. But the subway and the streets are not quite spaces. In fact the bathroom probably was the most quietest space I found and it was claustrophobic.
My Union experience with MLP had been going awesome (read here), except three days in, with constant socializing and conversation making, I found myself feeling antsy and curmudgeonly. I needed wide open space, where I could be left alone, and not have to socialize for a block of time.
I went looking for that elusive New York space and thought I found it in Central Park. Boy, was I wrong! But i guess I am a west coaster like that, where the premium isn’t on real estate, we have so much of it that we don’t have to be economical in how it is utilized, we turn millions of acres of mountains and rolling hills into National Forests and inundate entire valleys with water for hydroelectric plants. This sort of attitude changes the way Westerners not only relate to land, but what we expect from it. Unlike in New York City where its a premium, land is used and related to in a very different way. Those wide open spaces leave us with a lot of land to disperse across, and thats something I take for granted.
The Marvelous MET
After seeing how horribly crowded every nook and cranny of the northern portion of Central Park was, I resolved to spend the allotted reflection time we had in the MLP program on pursuing other sorts of intimate moments. There’s nothing more intimate then art. Art, good art for me, drags you into it and lets you be lost in it. And the MET had a lot of art, in particular, it had a sizable collection of Islamic art.
The Museum’s collection ranges in date from the seventh to the nineteenth century. Its nearly twelve thousand objects reflect the great diversity of Islam. Incredible works can trace the development of art and culture from Spain in the west to Central Asia and India to the east. Not just religious works but also everyday objects like wash basins and seals, the collection reveals the mutual influence of artistic practices such as calligraphy, floral ornamentation, and the intricate complicated geometric compositions. This was stuff I could pleasurably get lost in without even thinking about the huddled masses around me staring and banally discussing the pieces.
Like the beautiful folio illustration called “Yusuf freed from the well” which was on display in the galleries. This amazing piece, with an intricately marbled border, depicted my favorite Prophetic story about Yusuf, or Joseph. This miniature, which I pulled off the MET website below, is from Turkey and had this superb composition that reminded me of postage stamps.
The galleries went under massive renovation in 2003, and now represent some of the most striking pieces in Islamic art and the exhibition challenges the stereotypes held about Muslim cultures. Sheila Canby, the curator in charge, acknowledged that showcasing the galleries’ objects provided an alternative to the predominant political narrative while discussing a new the MET. She told NPR news, “After things like Sept. 11, after things like the destruction of ancient sites in northern Iraq and Syria, museums serve as a place where people can come to this idea of Islam through the material culture, not just through what they’re being told all the time.”
I love art because of the culture it expresses and creates. In art history, identity, emotions, and life are wrapped up into a very human expression of it. Art, some could say is an exercise of the divine, but for me its an expression of creating and channelling the divine. Art is so much for me, yet, I spent a long long time thinking that I could only consume it. I was the facilitator, the organizer, the activists, never the artist. That shit got called out by my peers at the Union MLP program.
I Love Art
While it may be hard to catch all 15 galleries, its true that the art challenges these stereotypes, as well as challenged my own conservative perceptions of Islam and the cultures that grew out it.
For Met curator Navina Haidar this is certainly true. She put together the brilliant Sultans of Deccan India: From Opulence to Fantasy, a special exhibition. I couldn’t visit all of the fifteen galleries in the four hours I had, and this exhibit made it even less likely. The fact is, this particular exihibit hit close to home. As a Pakistani Muslim, there was much here that touched on my South Asian Muslim heritage.
I came to a place where I accepted this conservative perspective on art. I was most challenged by what I saw at the Met. I found myself internally conflicted as in the same breath I was whispering condemnation for the things I saw and at the same time wondering how I became so closed off to alternative interpretations. I love Islamic art, but I never thought of it being more then the geometric and floral and calligraphic stuff. But Haidar told the NPR that, “ [t]he interesting thing about the arts of the Islamic world and courts is that there is always a wonderful tension between … the stark[ness] of beauty of [the most austere traditions] contrasted with a kind of opulence and a love for color, for texture; an imagination, a feeling for romance and beauty;… So, you know, you have both ends of the spectrum and to somehow be inclusive in one’s thinking is the best way to go.”
I was challenged and inspired by what I saw at the Met. I felt a wholeness I hadn’t experienced for some time. Part of it is that with activism, work, and academics I haven’t fed my creativity. The reason I love adventuring in the wilderness is because it inspires me to reflect on God’s creation. But I need to take the next step, to be a participant in creating, thats what has been missing. I was able to identify this because of my MLP experience.
So the question I left with was what next? With all this legacy what do we Muslims have now? The debates about radicalization and jihad and the advent of globalization bringing in a world culture largely influenced on [North] American popular culture. Those are the sorts of things that set up this sad reality of art having to deconstruct stereotypes. The formal idea of Islamic art stops in the 19th century at the Met, but the reality is that we [Muslims] need art more then ever now.