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The Islamic Art of ‘Disgraced’

An Interview with LACMA Curator Linda Komaroff

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J Anthony Crane and Emily Swallow in "Disgraced" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Emily is a painter whose work is heavily influenced by Islamic art and incorporates Islamic forms. She is also a white woman married to a Pakistani American man named Amir. In Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, onstage at the Mark Taper Forum through July 17, 2016, Emily is accused of Orientalism by Isaac, a curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. She rebuts him, then directs him to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “The Islamic galleries. Room 42. Remember that. It will change the way you see art,” Emily tells Isaac.

Linda Komaroff, who curates the Islamic art collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), noted that Isaac could save himself the trip to London by viewing the many great works of Islamic art on display at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art. Angelenos, too, are lucky enough to be able to view LACMA’s renowned works (which are currently traveling). Today, LACMA owns over 1,700 works of Islamic art; the museum began to concentrate seriously on the collection in 1973. Since 9/11, said Komaroff, Americans generally have grown more curious about Islamic art. “People have a much better sense now that there’s this culture or this civilization out there that’s called Islam, and they don’t know much about it,” she said.

That includes how Islamic art is defined. “We’re not talking about religious art,” said Komaroff, but rather about art created during “a period when the leadership or the predominant culture was Islam.” In fact, 75 percent or more of the Islamic objects you find in a museum are secular (or possibly secular). The term “Islamic art” covers work created over “a long period and an enormous geographical expanse,” said Komaroff, that stretches over 1,400 years, and from parts of Europe and the Middle East to South and Central Asia.

“The most distinguishable characteristic” of Islamic art, said Komaroff, “is something inscribed or covered in writing in Arabic script.” (It’s not necessarily the Arabic language but could also be Urdu—the language spoken by Amir’s family in Disgraced—Persian, or Turkish.) “That really has to do with the central role that writing takes in the religion of Islam,” said Komaroff. The Quran (which means “reading” or “recitation”) was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, who was illiterate, as a book that he was able to read. As a result, “it became important to read in the language of the Quran, which is Arabic,” she said.

Arabic script is “the most obvious thing that unites all of Islamic art,” said Komaroff. “Writing is used to provide information but it’s also used as decoration” everywhere from art and architecture to clothing and drinking vessels in the medieval Islamic world.

The other major characteristic of Islamic art “is geometric designs and floral designs,” said Komaroff. (The Disgraced stage directions call for Emily and Amir’s living room to contain “a large painting: a vibrant, two-paneled image in luscious whites and blues, with patterns reminiscent of an Islamic garden.”)

Contrary to what many people think, “representational imagery is quite common” in Islamic art, said Komaroff. “You just don’t find it in a religious context. Objects of everyday use or things that clearly have a secular function have figures on them.” Those include illustrated manuscripts, textiles, sculptures, and ceramics. The Quran forbids making or worshiping an idol but does not forbid representational art; the Hadith (the second-most-important body of literature in Islam) includes injunctions against the making of images. “But it’s really unclear what it meant at the time,” said Komaroff. “It’s been interpreted later to be drawings, but they may have been referring to idols.”

In Disgraced, Emily tries to explain to Isaac why she finds Islamic art so inspirational—but also that she is not alone in being influenced by this tradition: “It’s time we woke up. Time we stop paying lip service to Islam and Islamic art. We draw on the Greeks, the Romans… —but Islam is part of who we are, too.”

Komaroff said that here in Los Angeles, we can see the influence of Islamic art on “what we think of as Southern California-style architecture. A stucco home with a red-tiled roof owes its inspiration indirectly to Islamic architecture,” which moved from Spain to Mexico and then to California. The Adamson House and Malibu Lagoon Museum, which was built by the family that created Malibu Potteries, features many tiles inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, an Islamic city.

Also featured prominently in Disgraced is a work of art that is not Islamic art geographically or chronologically but has a connection to Islamic Spain: Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja, a 1650 painting of Velázquez’s slave, whose mother was a Moor and whose father was Spanish, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website. “The fact that his first name is Juan, which is John, suggests that he’s no longer a practicing Muslim,” said Komaroff, because Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain or forced to convert beginning in 1492. The characters in Disgraced refer to him as a Moor, but that term “doesn’t necessarily make him a practicing Muslim,” said Komaroff—but rather “someone of Muslim descent.” Which makes him perhaps not too different from Disgraced’s Amir.

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