Phoenix Art Museum Brings Together Centuries of Islamic Art

Unknown, Portrait of Alhaji Shehu Muhammad Kangiwa with Olive Leaf Wreaths, Burkina Faso, late 20th century. Factory printed cotton.
Unknown, Portrait of Alhaji Shehu Muhammad Kangiwa with Olive Leaf Wreaths, Burkina Faso, late 20th century. Factory printed cotton. Courtesy of Newark Museum, Gift of Jo M. Sullivan, 2014
I have a hard time getting excited by pottery and textiles. I can respect the craftsmanship and work that goes into sculpting them and weaving together their intricate patterns, but it just doesn’t hook my attention the way that paintings or installations do. A large part of that is probably just plain ignorance: When I look at these kind of crafts, I don’t know what I should be paying attention to.

That’s why I often give the Art of Asia galleries at the Phoenix Art Museum short shrift. I try to pop my head in whenever I visit, but if I’m pressed for time and have to skip a gallery or two, Art of Asia is always the first to get cut. It’s not that the work on display is unimpressive: There’s always something beautiful on view there. But so much of it often falls into the categories of functional/wearable art. I can only look at it all for so long before I get the urge to drift away and admire something else.

At no point while viewing the new Art of Asia exhibition "Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam Through Time & Place" did I feel that urge to shrug and walk away. A touring show organized by the Newark Museum, "Wondrous Worlds" brings together a range of Islamic art both secular and sacred made between the ninth century and 2016.

The pieces come from every corner of the globe, and they’re organized across the gallery in clusters devoted to one of the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahada (declaration of faith), Salat (five daily prayers), Zakat (charity), Sawm (fasting for Ramadan), and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

The exhibition’s biggest strength is offering up extensive context for what’s on view. Someone with absolutely no knowledge at all of Islam could walk into that exhibit and come out with a basic grasp of the subject. The fact that the curators are able to convey all this information about centuries worth of theology, culture, and history without oversimplifying it or alienating viewers is pretty remarkable.

click to enlarge Unknown, Inscribed in Thuluth Script, Hand of Fatima Charm with Six-Pointed Star, Algeria/Morocco, before 1928. Brass. - COURTESY OF NEWARK MUSEUM
Unknown, Inscribed in Thuluth Script, Hand of Fatima Charm with Six-Pointed Star, Algeria/Morocco, before 1928. Brass.
Courtesy of Newark Museum
There is a fair amount of earthenware and textiles on display at "Wondrous Worlds": Iranian turquoise pottery (a gorgeous mix of mint green and chlorine blue colors), Sufi alms bowls, Burkina Faso cotton textile patterns of white crescent moons and stars veined with red lines like the blood vessels in eyes. There’s a massive bright green quilt covering one of the walls, with mosques rendered on its squares in a bright tangerine color. There’s also swords and blunderbusses with jeweled handles, an intricately carved hand of Fatima, royal court board games, and a Sarinda (a musical instument made out of bone and skin and strung with gut).

While a lot of these objects are pleasing to look at it, the real stars of the exhibition are the more modern pieces. The biggest discovery for me was the contemporary artist Hassan Massoudy. A few of his calligraphic watercolor pieces lined one of the walls of the gallery. Rendering old poetry in bright blue whorls of color, Massoudy crafted these pieces by oscillating paint-dipped wooden boards on top of paper.

The thick lettering and lines on pieces like Oh friend don’t go the flower garden the flower garden is within you flow with the grace of cursive and the fatness of graffiti letters. The wood boards leave grooves in Massoudy’s strokes, etching thin curved lines into his images to give them the texture of a vinyl record. They’re abstract and powerful pictures that almost have an occult power, like you’re looking at some kind of glyph or charm.

Another highlight is the assemblages of Victor Ekpuk. Taking Islamic prayer boards and adding acrylics and copper to the pieces to turn them, Ekpuk turns them into these Keith Haring-esque looking paddles covered in squiggly lines and characters.

And then there’s Afruz Amighi’s striking 2016 sculpture, When Minarets Grew From Roman Arches. A hanging series of strands made out of aluminum and rhodium plating, Amighi weaves them together to look like stretched out bird cages. The shadows cast by these hanging forms create silhouettes that look like minarets, the towers from which a muezzin calls Muslims to pray five times a day.

click to enlarge Unknown, Interior of the Taj Mahal (1631-48) in Agra. - COURTESY OF NEWARK MUSEUM
Unknown, Interior of the Taj Mahal (1631-48) in Agra.
Courtesy of Newark Museum
As a crash course in Islamic history and aesthetics, "Wondrous Worlds" is absolutely worth experiencing. It’s a testament to Islam’s vast influence on world history, affecting everything from the board games we play to the clothes we wear. As an art exhibition, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. While I appreciated the deep dive into history, I would have loved to have seen more examples of contemporary Islamic artwork. The most engrossing pieces on view (like Massoudy and Amighi’s) were from this century, and I wished more of "Wondrous Worlds" was devoted to highlighting this kind of work.

Near the end of the exhibit, there’s a piece of video art: a slideshow of photos people have taken of mosques around the world. One of the most fascinating bits of context offered by "Wondrous Worlds" is how architecture in Islamic cultures can often intentionally reflect the ideals of Islam: Like how the domes of a mosque can represent the firmament of heaven, or how a fountain in a home’s courtyard can serve as a reminder of the need for ritual cleanliness. For the layperson, a water garden is just a pretty piece of manufactured nature; to the devout, it can be a daily reminder of what awaits them in Paradise.

Some of us just see a bird; others see a bird of paradise. The nice thing about "Wondrous Worlds" is that it gives us some pointers to help us tell which is which.

"Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam Through Time and Place." Through Sunday, May 26, at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue; 602-457-5814; General admission is $18 to $23.
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Ashley Naftule