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  • Louise Wagon

Islamic art, a victim of the Middle East conflict

In the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raging in Gaza, the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh has decided to postpone an exhibition of Islamic art, deemed inappropriate. However, the postponement was contested by Muslim and Jewish organisations.

Islamic art mosaic shard
Islamic mosaic shard presented in the exhibition "Precious Ornaments: 10 Centuries of Islamic Art" at the Frick Pittsburgh Museum © Frick Pittsburgh

The war between Hamas and Israel does not necessarily divide the cultural world, as shown by the reactions following the postponement of an exhibition of Islamic art in the United States. The Frick Museum in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) was due to host the exhibition "Precious Ornaments: 10 Centuries of Islamic Art" from 4 to 25 February 2024. This exhibition, which brings together a variety of works of art including glassware, ceramics, ironwork, paintings and weapons, had already been postponed a first time for scheduling reasons.


But on October 17th, ten days after the start of hostilities in Gaza, the museum quietly announced that the exhibition had been postponed again, this time until August 2024. The museum's director, Elizabeth Barker, justified the decision by saying that she did not want to offend viewers' sensibilities in the face of the crisis in the Middle East.


This decision provoked an indignant reaction from several Muslim and Jewish organisations, who denounced the confusion between Islamic art and terrorism. Christine Mohamed, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Pittsburgh, a Muslim civil rights group, expressed her disappointment in a statement: "The decision to postpone the exhibition on the pretext of potentially harming the Jewish community perpetuates the harmful stereotype that Muslims or Islamic art are synonymous with terrorism or anti-Semitism."


Christine Mohamed also recalled the trauma and suffering experienced by the Palestinian people, and called for greater empathy and humanity. According to 2017 and 2019 figures from the Arab American Institute, there are 3.6 million Arabs in the United States, 6% of whom are Palestinians. The Jewish diaspora numbers between 6 and 7 million.


Adam Hertzmann, spokesman for the Jewish Federation of the Grand Pittsburgh Hotel, also criticised the postponement of the exhibition. He said that Islamic art could be a source of dialogue and understanding between cultures, and that the postponement was a missed opportunity to promote peace and tolerance. He also stressed that Islamic art had nothing to do with the current conflict, and that it was regrettable to associate it with violence: "To equate Islamic art and Muslims in general with Hamas is certainly biased and certainly something we are against." He added that he thought "few people in the Jewish community would have been concerned about an exhibition on Islamic art because we understand that it has nothing to do with Hamas, which is a terrorist organisation".


Faced with the controversy, the museum changed its tune and apologised in a new statement. It claimed that the exhibition had been postponed because the Frick had not consulted the local Muslim community, which it acknowledged was a mistake. "The Frick is devastated to have hurt neighbours we deeply respect with our unclear communication about the postponement of this exhibition showcasing 10 centuries of Islamic art. We will work seriously to repair our relationship with the Muslim community," the statement said. The museum said it had booked the touring exhibition "years ago" because the focus on design and materials across the centuries was thematically linked to the Frick's recent exhibitions on Fabergé and Art Nouveau jewellery. He promised to work with the Muslim community to present the exhibition in the future, with more historical and cultural context.


However, an earlier version of the statement, now archived after being deleted, said that "it would have been impossible to predict that war would break out in the Middle East at the time of this show, causing widespread grief and growing social tension", reports Artnet.


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