LA initiative spotlights Islamic culture in shows at numerous venues across the city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm

Los Angeles arts institutions as diverse as the Goethe-Institut and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Centre will, until the end of the year, have something to unite them. The two venues, alongside other museums such as The Getty and REDCAT, are part of an unprecedented citywide event to showcase the best of Islamic art.

Impressive decorative objects from the Muslim world, alongside avant garde films and dramatic architectural photography, are showcased in 30 museums and galleries across the city, highlighting the artistic contributions of a culture that is often misunderstood at best, feared at worst.

Interestingly, the idea for the Los Angeles/Islam Arts Initiative - widely referred to as LA/IAI and launched in September - came about as a result of late tobacco heiress Doris Duke's long-time passion for Islamic arts. Her Honolulu home is a permanent ode to jewellery, prayer niches and mosaics from the Muslim world that she began amassing as a young woman, during her travels around Southeast Asia and North Africa.

What began as an idea to bring out Duke's collection morphed into something larger and much more extensive, says Ami Motevalli, project manager of LA/IAI.

"I thought it was important to have a very contemporary outlook on what is called Islamic art," she says, adding that her initial idea was to have a companion exhibition to the Duke showcase.

She brought in Rijin Sahakian, a Baghdad-born arts specialist, as a curator - and as organisations and institutions got wind of the idea, about 30 of them wanted to be a part of the initiative. "They all asked if we could create some programming around this for them," Motevalli recalls. "Something that would be a great, citywide dialogue on Islamic art today."

Almost every conceivable medium is explored: artefacts include a 19th-century hand mirror from northern India, part of Duke's vast collection, on show at the LA Municipal Art Gallery, or examples of East Asian calligraphy, as shown at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Centre.

There are several films - a combination of experimental shorts and documentaries - that are being seen in the US for the first time.

At the William Grant Still Arts Centre, an exhibition entitled "Return of the Mecca" charts the connection between hip hop and Islam, and showcases the influence the religion has had on big-name hip-hop acts such as Rakim, Mos Def and the Wu-Tang Clan.

At the Vincent Price Art Museum, "Hoy Space" spotlights artist Roya Falahi's dramatic photography, much of it informed by Iranian-American culture, as well as her sculptural work. Many of her pieces use a sculpture of a woman's head, a silk scarf knotted at the neck.

Performance art is explored too: twice a month until the end of the year is "Discostan", a cross-cultural evening of dance incorporating everything from Bollywood music to world music from Thailand, Burma and Ethiopia.

At Sharq gallery, an exhibition called "Mother Egypt/Golden Nubia: The World of the Nile from the Mediterranean to the Sahara" sheds light on Muslim life across the Middle East.

Motevalli says the timing of such a wide-ranging initiative is both relevant and critical. "At a time when we are hearing sensationalist stories of extreme violence and war, it is important to understand and show human beings as a whole and cultures as a whole," she says.

"Like us, the museums and institutions we have partnered with knew that we can all be enriched by this culture, to have more of an understanding of the people that are labelled under the umbrella of Islam."