Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, shares her personal thoughts on 12 pieces from the museum’s collection
Much has been written, and many words spoken, about the significance of Islamic art in today’s world. A little over 10 years ago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s curator of Islamic art, Linda Komaroff, began acquiring works of contemporary Islamic art for the museum. Today, LACMA is home to one of the most compelling collections of Islamic art in the world, and 2015 saw the opening of Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East – the first major exhibition of its collection. Islamic Art Now, Part 2 opened in LACMA’s Ahmanson Building in January 2016. For Komaroff, the parameters of “Islamic” art have shifted considerably – to her the term now represents work by artists from, or who have roots within, what was once traditionally known as the Islamic world. “The term represents a civilization,” she stresses. “It’s a kind of cultural umbrella covering linguistics and, for some, faith.” Her curated artworks for Selections were all acquired during her time at LACMA, and here she shares her personal thoughts on and connection with each piece.
Bracelet, Egypt or Syria, 11th century. Although I have never even thought of trying on this bracelet – it’s not really my style – it still creates a kind of personal connection to a long dead and anonymous lady of the Fatimid period. For her, this bracelet, and its now lost mate, perhaps dowry items, might have served as a source of pride, happiness and financial security.
The House That My Father Built, Sadik Alfraji, 2010. I first saw this piece in Doha in 2011, in the wonderful exhibition Told Untold Retold, and was overwhelmed. While it was on exhibition at LACMA in 2015, I watched our version over and over and I was, and am still, awestruck by how Sadik Alfraji has visualised not merely his own memories but, exceptionally, his emotions, something that requires great talent, as well as enormous bravery.
Ewer, Iran, Nishapur or Uzbekistan, Samarqand, 10th century. While a graduate student in New York, long before I ever dreamed of becoming a curator at LACMA, I held this handsome vessel in my hands. I still remember my surprise and delight at how light it was and how easily it tipped forward at the spout to pour liquid directly into the mouth.
Panel from a Ceiling, Spain, probably Toledo, third quarter 15th century. This ceiling panel is the fruit of another restoration project, with thanks, as always, to my conservation colleagues at LACMA. The ceiling had been used to decorate the Faculty Club at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I saw it still in situ in the kitchen and service areas. I was thrilled we could “rescue” these important mudéjar architectural elements. So far, just this single panel has been conserved.
Untitled (Shubbak II, IV, V) Sherin Guirguis, 2013. I first saw this work, and the larger group to which it belongs, in Sherin Guirguis’ studio; all of the collages were tacked to the walls. As she talked to me, she continued to add paint here and there; I wanted her to stop as they already looked perfect to me. I picked out three of the “windows” for LACMA.
Whoever Obeys Allah, He Will Make For Him a Way Out, Nasser Al Salem, 2012. I am attracted to Nasser Al Salem’s work – LACMA owns three – not merely because it is based in calligraphy, the most significant of all Islamic art forms. I think he is just so brilliant at integrating the calligraphic tradition into a present-day context through his use of contemporary media and materials, such as neon and Corian, and the clever means by which he visualises (or emphasises through contradiction) the message of the words.
Tile, Iran or Central Asia, 15th century. The simple visual delight this brightly coloured tile elicits contrasts dramatically with my understanding of the complex and labourious nature of its manufacture. The elements of its floral decoration were cut from glazed tiles of different colours and assembled as a mosaic; the tile was set in place on the exterior of a building, where it joined others as part of a much larger, more complicated design.
Speechless, Shirin Neshat 1996. I think what I appreciate most about this print from Shirin Neshat’s landmark series Women of Allah is its ambiguity. It shows the right side of a woman’s face, the barrel of a gun emerging like a gaudy earring from the shadowy area between her cheek and the barely visible chador. She stares calmly outward. Although Neshat has tightly framed the face of the subject, perhaps it is the viewer who is held captive.
My Rock Stars Experimental Volume 1. Hassan Hajjaj, 2012. The first time I saw My Rock Stars Experimental was a case of love at first sight. Whatever it was that initially drew me to study Islamic art – possibly the unique combination of colour and design, the oscillation between abstraction and figuration, and especially the inclusion of Arabic text – is also what attracts me to Hajjaj’s work. It seemed to me that if music videos had existed in the medieval Islamic world, this is how they would have looked and sounded.
Damascus Room Syria, Damascus, 1766–67. Witnessing the transformation of this room from the dismantled and dirty condition in which I first saw it in a London warehouse in 2011, to its present state, has been one of the most exciting and gratifying moments of my curatorial career. Today, it exudes a kind of beauty, warmth and comfort, which is in keeping with its original function as a place for welcoming guests, while it also serves as a preserver of memories of Syria.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections #38, pages 140 – 154 and Limited Edition #50, pages 74 – 81.