One of the most striking paintings in the otherwise uneven collection of Istanbul Modern is a moody chiaroscuro canvas from 1909, depicting the flagellation rituals of Ashura. The tenth day in the lunar month of Muharram, Ashura is the occasion when, since the 7th-century battle of Karbala, mostly male Shiites all over the world have slapped their chests and bloodied their brows and chanted the name of Haidar, the hidden mahdi, whose reappearance at some vague point in the future is said to be bringing with it the redemption of Islam.
The painting in Istanbul is by the Italian artist Fausto Zonaro, an unreconstructed Orientalist who belonged to the court of Sultan Abdulhamid II, a paranoid reformer who, like the Khedives in Egypt and the Qajars in Iran, instigated enormous cultural shifts by adopting a keen early interest in photography. The Young Turks deposed Abdulhamid in the same year Zonaro completed his painting. A certain tension is palpable in the composition, in which a black-robed cleric is seen moving through a mass of sword-wielding, bloodstained men, apparently trying to calm them.
At the museum, which is privately owned, the wall text speaks of the artist’s bohemian spirit, his adventurous milieu and the effect of his work being like that of a photograph. But the description zips through the religious significance of the subject, alluding only to ‘certain religious orders’ without mentioning Shiism by name. Yet the resonance of that work, not only as art but as historical evidence, in the decade since Istanbul Modern opened in 2004, echoes louder as proximity to the civil war in Syria and the increasingly divisive policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (akp) call greater attention to Turkey’s Shiite community, many of them Alawi, like the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle.
When the artist Köken Ergun showed his three-channel video Ashura (2012) late last year in New York, for a project by the itinerant non-profit Protocinema, few noted that the exhibition coincided with the actual commemoration of Ashura, or registered that Ergun’s work took place on the outskirts of 21st-century Istanbul, and tapped into a population of around a million Turkish Shiites living there. Yet neither did it seem totally apparent, in the absence of other contextualizing work, that Ashura was one of the most ambitious in a long and interesting line of short films and videos exploring the ritualized mechanisms of community, nationalism and masculinity in which religion exists on the same level of open inquiry as the army and the public school system.
Contemporary art has long been considered a godless realm, and so curators and critics tend to be queasy with religious subjects and even more so with religious artists. Another scene from Istanbul: during a past edition of the city’s much-fêted biennial, I had an intense conversation on the terrace of a Beyoğlu hotel with a smart South American curator who had been won over by the work of a Lebanese artist – a proper leftist, decidedly secular – but was deeply sceptical of the work of an Egyptian artist who happened to be devout. That work made him nervous. Was it extremist or fanatical or fundamentalist propaganda? Or was it so clearly Sufi (my convoluted argument) that it could pass for safely radical? A paradox, that. Anyway, from early videos such as The Cave (2005), in which the artist paces the aisles of an Amsterdam super-market reciting suras from the Quran, to the marionette series known as ‘Cabaret Crusades’ (2010–ongoing) and ‘Al-Araba Al-Madfuna’ (2012–ongoing), based on the stories of Mohamed Mustagab, there is clearly a lot going on in the work of Wael Shawky.
For reasons more to do with money, business and the intrigues of the Saudi ruling family, the spate of exhibitions organized in recent years by Edge of Arabia, an independent initiative promoting contemporary Saudi art, has also elicited scepticism. An exception is the work of Ahmed Mater and, in particular, his photographs of the changing face of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, which has not escaped the defacing powers of our era’s relentless urban development. That body of work is critical in a familiar way, and so it, too, gets a pass.
But perhaps reading the familiar into work that is unabashedly strange, at least in the zones of contemporary art assumed to be free of religious feeling, is a mistake, flattening out what a work might want to tell you or show you or make you feel – including discomfort. Identity politics have been wonderfully picked apart for years. But when the spiritual creeps into contemporary art, it still remains mostly unacknowledged and rarely tethered or traceable to a specific system of belief. There are obvious reasons why religion is treated with extreme sensitivity in the context of public institutions and the exhibitions they programme. But perhaps a more interesting tack would be to acknowledge how much religion is already present in complicated works of contemporary art that are waiting to be unpacked beyond the initial layers of assumed criticality and good, safe politics.