When you make your way through the swarms of tourists at the Louvre in Paris, you might come across the Islamic art wing, which showcases approximately 3,000 pieces of art dedicated to understanding Islam. The Department of Islamic Art at the Musée du Louvre is home to a myriad of artwork ranging from the beginnings of Islam in the 7th century to the early 19th century, encompassing architectural elements, stone and ivory objects, metalwork, glasswork, ceramics, textiles and carpets, manuscripts,” says the Louvre website.
Upon first impression, you may notice a certain homogeneity within the art. The top floor of the exhibit consists of “urban items,” or ceramic bowls, chalices, candlesticks, vessels and plates inscribed with gold, polychromatic patterns and intricate carvings. The main mediums used in this particular part of the exhibit are steel, metal and clay. Although they were sourced from Islamic areas across three continents, all the way from Spain to Southeast Asia, a common material culture is illustrated within these items.
One particularly memorable item is “Candlestick With Ducks,” an ancient, circular candlestick about 2 feet tall, and crafted from only one sheet of copper. With patterns not affixed, but pounded from the inside out, this remarkably ornate piece was made sometime within 1150-1200 in Khorasan.
Downstairs, you will discover layers upon layers of mosaic depicting scenes of war. A stained glass window rests beautiful and untouched in the center of the dark room, casting ruby red and emerald green light patterns on the floor.
A particularly eye-catching collection is a display of urban items like plates, wall decals and art designed for the home. They follow the same detailed style of the other urban items, except they are transcribed with short poems and symbols pertaining to the worship and appreciation of nature. A mosaic of a man inhaling the scent of a narcissus flower rests above an evocative peacock painted on a bowl.
As an American in Europe observing an exhibit about Islam, I naturally had conflicted and controversial opinions about the art I witnessed. In “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World,” Edward Said suggests that Islam is America’s foreign devil. “There is a culturally determined ideological framework filled with passion, defensive prejudice and sometimes even revulsion, and because of this framework, understanding of Islam has been a very difficult thing to achieve.” For Americans especially, who know a culture that is diametrical to that of Islam, we associate conflicted notions when we talk about Islam.
We see cultural misconceptions about Islam in “grade-school history textbooks, comic strips, television serials, films and cartoons, the iconography of Islam … hence the frequent caricatures of Muslims as oil suppliers, as terrorists, and more recently, as bloodthirsty mobs. Conversely, there has been little place either in the culture generally or in discourse about non-Westerners in particular to speak or to even think about, much less to portray, Islam or anything Islamic sympathetically.” This could not be more true, especially in this day and age, and is partly due to the way American journalists cover matters of the Middle East. As a whole, American media is constantly threatened and confused by Islamic culture and therefore takes a stance of either prejudice, or general disinterest toward the culture.
This is why it is imperative to actually take a look at non-Political aspects of Islam such as ancient art, which bears no affiliation to modern day political world conflicts. My modern impressions of Islam lead me to expect an exhibit of a fragmented, oppressed culture, however I was confronted with a cohesive exhibit detailing thousands of historical artifacts depicting a unified body of people that has endured throughout thousands of years.