Until the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art opened in New York earlier this month, with a four-woman show of work by Dana Awartani, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Zarina, and Nasreen Mohamedi, the city did not have an institution devoted to modern and contemporary art in that field. For now, it is occupying a temporary location on sunny Howard Street in Nolita, but its staffers eventually plan to find a permanent home in New York. Ahead of the opening of its first exhibition, the IAIA’s founding director and chief curator, Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani, and I met at its current home to discuss his goals and his inaugural show. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
ARTnews: The name of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art is interesting because it does not include two words some might expect to be a part of it: “Middle East.” Why did you select that title?
Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani: The reason we chose the title the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art is that many people have the misconception that all Arabs are Muslims or that all Muslims are Arabs. In reality, not all Arabs are Muslims. You have Arab Jews, Arab Christians, and Arab Muslims. Then we don’t say Muslim because not all Muslims are Arabs. Muslims can also come from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan.
I personally reject the term “Middle East.” It’s a concept that was developed through the British India Office in the late 19th century, and then was coined in the early 20th century. It’s not reflective, really, of Middle Eastern culture. Islam has touched people beyond the Muslim world. If we look at it historically, the largest Jewish quarter in the world was in the south of Spain, in Seville. It was predominantly Muslim at the time. If you look at Islamic art as a term, you will see that historically, Christians and Jews created art for Muslims, and that was considered Islamic art. Muslims created art for Christians and Jews, and that was considered Islamic art, too. Our term is more for geographical representation that we think is fair and relevant.
How long had you been planning this space?
A lot has really happened since then. To open this now, in this political climate, must be so different.
Even if we had Hillary as president, we didn’t know how people were going to react to this space. It’s all timing. Our main purpose is to make sure that artists, writers, and curators have a voice here, that there are exhibitions and talks happening consistently, and that there are engaging publications. I think that’s really the main focus. Obviously, from a sociopolitical perspective, it’s impossible not to look at how Arabs are stereotyped and misconceived. We cannot ignore it. But we hope this is a space for the community to engage, either through the exhibitions or the public programming, with the cultures of the region.
When the news came out about the IAIA, what surprised me most was that something like it didn’t already exist.
The question I hate most is, “What has inspired you to do this?” There’s really no platform [in New York]!
The first show brings together works on paper by Dana Awartani, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Nasreen Mohamedi, and Zarina. New Yorkers may know these four artists, but usually they’re not shown together. Tell me about the show’s concept.
I’ve been exposed to Dana’s work at the Marrakech Biennial last year. Simultaneously, I was reading Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Works on Paper by Hans Ulrich Obrist. At the same time, I met Zarina through Luhring Augustine, and then the Met Breuer had an exhibition of Nasreen Mohamedi. I was really intrigued by how Islamic architecture had found its way into their work, and [how] a lot of those artists have lived abroad and have always had this relationship to their region through their memories. Monir, for a very long time, was in exile here in New York City. Dana, who’s Palestinian, lives in Saudi Arabia. Zarina is now obviously here in New York. When Nasreen was very, very young, her family moved from Pakistan to India. So, it was very, very incredible to see how architecture and geometry feed into their work, and what they produce in return.
What strikes me the most is how much presence one’s own heritage has in a place [like New York] that’s universal, that’s global—a place where you strip yourself of your identity and your society, to live in something that’s more of a celebrated, universal environment. But still, there’s the need to go back—the need to reflect always finds its way into [the work] of those artists. Dana’s nostalgia for the great monuments of Islam throughout the south of Spain to the north of India still finds a way. In Arabic culture, the alphabet is equivalent to Abjad, which make up the numbers of the Arabic alphabet. Before Islam, Arabs used to communicate a lot through numbers. When Islam came, it reinforced the importance of language and the alphabet. With Dana, she’s developed a coding of those numbers through geometrical patterns that she’s developed. A lot of the patterns [were] developed through her experience in Alhambra, Granada, and a lot of the monuments and mosques in Seville.
Some of the pairings are a bit unusual. For example, bringing together Mohamedi and Zarina’s work is a bit unlikely in most people’s minds.
They’re very different, and that’s what I think is the exciting part of it. Zarina said, “Oh, I have so much respect for Nasreen that I don’t want to be seen in the same space.” I said, “Zarina, we’re going to acknowledge how different your work is, that we can’t escape the fact that you’ve shared those experiences, and you can see it in the work.”
And you’ll continue these sort of unusual pairings?
Oh, yes! Our idea is not to listen to limit exhibitions only to artists from the region, but to see how we can bring the U.S., Europe, or Asia in conversation with artists from the region. I can’t say a lot, but there are a lot of artists we’re looking at right now, and we can see parallels with their contemporaries from the rest of the world. We want to bring them into the conversation.
What are you most excited to do with this space?
My main objective is to see how artists from the region are going to engage with people here, to see how we’re going to engage the community. That’s what excites me—to have people here, engaging with the art.