Challenging stereotypes: Islamic and Arab institute opens in NY

11th May 2017

New York is now home to the city’s first Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, which hopes to tackle common stereotypes and represent Arab Muslim artists. Launched on May 4th by Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani (who is part of the ruling family of Qatar) the gallery will stand among New York’s cultural institutes - the Swiss Institute, the Asia Society and the Jewish Museum. 

As founding director, Mr Al-Thani has said the 2,500ft space will host exhibitions with Muslim and Arab artists, foster interfaith dialogue and encourage public discussions. It will also include a new bookshop. 

Although Mr Al-Thani has been working towards the institutes creation since 2014, the launch comes at a particularly pertinent time when American attitudes towards Muslims in the US have been under the microscope. He states that the main objective of the institute is to challenge stereotypes and engage people on Islamic civilisation beyond the religious context.  

He claims one of his inspirations came from a book about Middle Eastern stereotypes called ‘Orientalism’, which was written by Palestinian American cultural critic Edward Said in 1978.

“If we dig into how Arabs and Muslims are stereotyped, they go way back,” commented Mr Al-Thani. “It made sense to me there had to be an art and culture institute that represents the Arab and Islamic region, as there isn’t really one here in New York.”

“Whether it was the exotic woman with the grapes or the Ottoman empire; there were always were misconceptions and stereotypes that tagged along historically. The way it has evolved historically up until now has become more politically oriented.”

One of the first exhibitions is themed around Islamic architecture and geometric design, relating to ‘sacred geometry’ - an Islamic tradition that goes back thousands of years as a universal language that is believed to bring together divided communities. 

Other art on display includes Dana Awartani, a Saudi Arabian artist who paints masterpieces with ancient flower motifs, and Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian who combines traditional Iranian folk art with modern abstraction. 

New York-based Indian artist Zarina Hashmi will also have her work on display, which uses decorative arts to represent political borders, alongside pioneering Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, who changed the face of minimalism. 

While New York is already home to galleries - such as the CRG Gallery - that represent artists from the Islamic and Arab regions, Mr Al-Thani argues that they do not have homes institutionally. For example, the exhibition ‘Here and Elsewhere’ in 2014, that included work from 45 Arab artists, generated conversation but was not consistent.

“There are religious centers and community-based centers across America but they’re not for art,” exclaims Mr Al-Thani. “New York City is a very welcoming place, if I didn’t have New York’s support, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

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