The images we see of Islam in the media often conjure images of international terrorism, submissive women, or angry mobs in protest somewhere overseas. In this flood of stereotype-inducing images, we often lose sight of the more elegant and rich parts of Islamic civilization and culture. A new documentary film, Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World by Unity Productions Foundation (PBS broadcast summer 2012) seeks to present some of the riches of Islamic artistic contributions to an American audience.
On March 10th, this new film will be premiering in Chicago at the Muvico Theater to an audience of civic, faith-based, and Muslim leaders throughout the city. The film opens a window onto the larger field of Islamic art — a window that we don’t often look out of — one that starts in the seventh century Arabia, and continues to today in every corner of the world. It tracks the predominant art forms, motifs, and accomplishments of Muslim artists across many different countries.
A documentary, like any film, is a journey. It starts with a question. In the case of this film, the filmmakers asked: What is the story of Islamic art? To answer this question, we engaged a dozen leading experts, art critics, and artists from across the world, and we take you to multiple continents and bring you up close to the most dazzling monuments and artistic achievements that Islamic culture has contributed to the world.
The 90-minute documentary is produced and presented by Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit media foundation that has made several other PBS films, including Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain, and Prince Among Slaves. It is directed by the Emmy award-winning filmmaker Robert Gardner, and narrated by Academy Award-winning performer Susan Sarandon.
The Chicago premiere will feature a keynote address from the film’s executive producer, Michael Wolfe, author of a number of books on Islam, including The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca.
Exploring five themes that are central to Islamic art: the word, space, ornament, color and water, the film traces the arc of Islamic art as a universal human endeavor that frequently interacted with people of other faiths and the cultures, making a contribution to world civilization. Islamic art is the result of a surprisingly multicultural and adaptive set of artistic approaches and creations. Muslim artists would frequently adopt artistic expressions from other cultures that they integrated as new art forms were developed and it expanded upon.
Two great examples of this artistic syncretism are the Great Mosque of Djenné, the largest mud brick building in the world and the mosque is thought to be a hybrid of Islamic architecture and Sudano-Sahelian architectural forms. Of course the Taj Mahal in India is another magnificent example of cultural collaboration. Made of marbles used from countries including Rajasthan, Punjab, China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East, it was a combination of Persian, Islamic and Indian architectural styles.
The film takes on the controversy of whether Muslim artists are uniformly opposed figurative images. In fact, there have been many times in Islamic history where figural representations have been the norm. One striking example of this brought forward in the film is a beautiful ivory box, made during 10th century Cordoba, which is exquisitely carved with animals and other natural scenes.
We also learn how and why Islamic art turned the written word into masterpieces through the development of calligraphy, and how it made water into an expressive, useful art form.
Like all art, Islamic art carries with it the fundamental values and perspectives of the artists who created it as well as those who commissioned and paid for it. It incorporates the basic themes of transcendent beauty common to all creative endeavors. For those of us that are interested in developing a shared admiration for the artistic projects that link our rich tapestry of cultures together, we look to the material objects of great beauty, for which we don’t have to have any special knowledge of to appreciate other than our own senses and universal human awareness.
As one of the scholars in the film, Dr. Fairchild Ruggles professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign points out, “Sometimes material objects can be the bridge between one world and another. Translucent glass is beautiful regardless of your religious background. Monumental tall domes that stretch over the heads like the heavens above are awesome whoever you are.”