Over a year ago my six-year-old grandson Henry Flynn rushed home from his multi-ethnic south London school playground in Streatham with a solemn but urgent question for his father, an art historian, as it happens. So far as is known, incidentally, mainly Anglo-Saxon and Celtic blood flows in young Henry’s veins. ‘Am I a Muslim, dad?’ he asked.
Now, at the well-planned eight-year-old Sharjah Art Museum in the United Arab Emirates until the end of February, there is a British Council travelling exhibition involving 22 artists from nine separate countries which is also about the quest for identity.
Many of the exhibits are photographic portraits and one of them is of an Englishman from Streatham, south London, who has married a Muslim woman and converted to Islam, thereby making my grandson’s query amazingly pertinent. ‘Nick Higgins, London 2003’ — the head and shoulders of the green-shirted subject caught looking thoughtful under a chandelier against an orange background — is one of a series of images capturing converts to Islam. The photographer is the freelance professional Sam Piyasena, who showed in the group exhibition OOZEROZEROZERO at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1999.
Promoting British art abroad (now including art by British Muslims) is a role that is expected of the British Council, whose guest I was — a guest who enjoyed matchless Arabian hospitality as well. Visitors to Sharjah, designated ‘the Cultural Capital of the Arab world’ by Unesco in 1998, may witness something of a new departure in Common Ground, as the exhibition is called. Artists from the Middle East and South-East Asia join artists from the UK in a travelling show that has snowballed since it was conceived in 2001. In effect there are 22 one-person shows. The layout of the Sharjah Art Museum, with room after room of the ground floor opening out on both sides of an elegant and well-lit long central corridor, is ideally suited to such an installation.
Not all the artists are Islamic but phrases such as ‘Muslim identity in the context of a post-modern globalised world’ and ‘a new “intercultural” identity’ feature in the catalogue’s preface and foreword. The language of officialdom is notorious for its clichés, but both the Emirate of Sharjah and the British Council are at least trying to do something, however modestly, about the evident crisis in relations between Muslims and non-Muslims by getting people of different countries to talk to each other outside the level of government. Art stimulates conversation and analysis.
Each artist shown here has something individual and different to say in his or her work. The current cartoon controversy has demonstrated, if nothing else, the extraordinary potential power of a single particular visual image despite the fact that we live in an environment in which we are constantly bombarded with visual images. The feeling among artists to whom I talked in Sharjah was that the publication in Denmark and elsewhere of negative caricatures of the prophet Mohammed was a case of appalling insensitivity and bad manners. Nobody thought that violence in a reactive demonstration was justified. In terms of the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq, however, the disturbing footage that awaited me on my return from Sharjah of British troops apparently beating up Iraqi civilians could well prove that the video is mightier than the gun.
The exhibition in Sharjah has attracted the attention of prominent British Muslims. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, flew from England for the press view. He held an informal conference of his own in which he explained to the local press and others how he had persuaded some of the British media, at least, to drop the insultingly vague blanket phrases ‘Muslim terrorism’ and ‘Islamic terrorism’. He pointed out that ‘IRA terrorism’, for example, or ‘Basque terrorism’, was legitimately specific. Similarly, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in her introduction to the catalogue, which places the rich variety of Anglo– Muslim relations in an historical context, has stressed the absurdity of talking about ‘the Muslim community’ as if it were ‘monolithic and in any way politically uniform’.
As everyone knows, there is plenty of oil in the Gulf to pour on troubled waters — even though the journalistic image of oil ‘fanning flames’ is now more common. His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi, member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, is on record as considering ‘the roots of humanity to be one, regardless of race and nationality’. This is a ruler who has studied at two universities in England, and when he was at Cairo University in 1969 he heard that the old 19th-century fort in Sharjah, a building in which he had played as a boy, was being demolished. He came home, stopped the demolition and began restoring it as a museum. Recently, he has appointed an experienced English curator, Susan Underwood, to oversee a programme of development and expansion in Sharjah’s museums.
Today, the old fort is one of more than 20 art and heritage museums in the heart of Sharjah. The Islamic Museum, formed from the ruler’s own collection, is well developed and highly educational. The Calligraphy Museum is embryonic. The Maritime Museum well evokes the days of fishing and pearl diving, beginning with boats — dhows and shashas — in a central courtyard. These museums form a sort of oasis of low-rise, peaceful buildings in an extraordinary area of gleaming skyscrapers and other modern offices and dwellings which have shot up from the sand in recent decades. Such constructions now stretch seamlessly along the Arabian Gulf — what used to be called the Trucial Coast of the Persian Gulf — to the neighbouring emirate of Dubai, rather as, in town-planning terms, one district of Los Angeles melts into another or, in English terms, Hove merges with Brighton. Dubai’s building boom is earning it a reputation as the most dynamic place on earth. The emirate of Sharjah boasts another coast to the east, however, on the Gulf of Oman.
Some of the images in Common Ground are at least as close to photojournalism as they are to art, but perceptions of what art is and isn’t have changed. Photography and video are well suited to the theme of Common Ground and many artists have used collage or some other transforming method to take their work above the sphere of common-or-garden photography. The images which will stay in my mind from this exhibition are Camille Zakharia’s ‘Stories from the Alley’, Yee I-Lan’s ‘The Writer’s Portrait’ series and above all Amal al Athem’s video ‘From Darkness to Light’. I’m sorry to use the clichéed word ‘timeless’ but this is the adjective that rather suits her noble, archetypal Arab woman who emerges, almost imperceptibly at first, from the dark sea, lights a fire and fearlessly crosses desert after desert towards the sun.