Israeli Islamic Culture Museum Exhibits Muslim Artist for the First Time

Anisa Ashkar is a female Muslim artist presenting her work in a place once reserved for men's prayer. She addresses this tension in her art

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From Anisha Ashkar's show, 'Black Gold.'
From Anisha Ashkar's show, 'Black Gold.'Credit: Lena Gomon
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

Anisa Ashkar currently has a solo exhibition at the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva. The museum is located in a building that formerly served as the city’s main mosque. It was built in the early 20th century and was the main center for Muslim worship in Be’er Sheva until 1948. It opened in its present incarnation as a museum in 2014, after a lengthy legal battle between the local and national government on the one hand, and the city’s Muslim residents, who sought to have the building converted for use as a mosque again. The High Court ruling dictated a compromise in which the site would house a museum dedicated to Islamic culture.

Since its opening, the museum has presented group and thematic exhibitions on subjects like calligraphy and rugs. Ashkar is the first artist to have a solo exhibition there. She is a female Muslim artist presenting her work in a place that was a site for prayer by men only. This built-in tension demanded a resolution: Ashkar could have ignored the building’s history and the argument that surrounded it and treated it as an ordinary art space like any other; or she could have given in to it completely, to its history and character and prohibitions and not shown her work there at all. She did neither. She chose to explicitly grapple with the mosque – politically and theologically. Her exhibition is happening there, was created out of it, but also acts within it, comments on it, sharpens its intersections and pulls them onward.

This is evident as soon as you enter the space. In the center, under the dome, hangs the work “Black Gold.” This is a pair of hoops with metal threads hanging from them; it calls to mind the enormous chandeliers suspended in the center of Ottoman mosques. But here, instead of dozens of small bulbs, these are covered in date paste and gold leaf.

In the mosque, the chandeliers are a sign of the divine light, which has no substance and proportion, and shines on the world. In the Koran, the Sura of Light (24:35), says: “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche, in which there is a lamp, the lamp is enclosed in crystal, the crystal is of a starlike brilliance, it is lit with the olive oil from a blessed olive tree which is neither eastern nor western, its very oil would almost be luminous though no fire touched it – as though all the means of increasing Light upon Light are provided – Allah guides to His Light whom He pleases.” But here, in Ashkar’s hands, the light becomes a substance that solidifies and thickens. The chandelier becomes a sculptural object, illuminated but not illuminating, high up but seemingly teetering.

In a direct line from it are two self-portraits of Ashkar: In one, she has her eyes wide open, in the other she covers her eyes. In both, Arabic proverbs decorate her face, written in calligraphy on her skin. This has been a trademark of her work for years, and sometimes it almost seems too predictable. But here, in the mosque, it has a different effect. From being a repetitive, daily action, she turns writing on the body in the language of the Koran at a site of worship into a calligraphy of names in the absence of images. And an action with political meaning – making the Arabic language present in the Israeli realm, which uprooted it – is expanded into a theological question: Is the imageless God who is present by his absence, and only found in the place of worship in the form of his linguistic symbols, to be found in the image of the artist, who is present, looking out from her face, which is covered with this same writing?

From symbol to figure

The exhibition relates to the mosque in different ways, to the meanings and images it holds. On fenced-in sand dunes Ashkar has placed a series of pronouns – he, she, you – drawn thickly and crudely in red. It’s as if the names of Allah, and of the Prophet and his sons, which normally appear in delicate, detailed calligraphy on the high ceiling of a mosque, far out of reach, have been turned into material items that verge on figures themselves, and are not mere writing. It’s movement in the direction of fulfillment, from symbol to figure.

But the opposite type of movement is also found in this exhibition. “Abstract” paintings, without a distinct figure, made by pouring and spraying paint. On them Ashkar has attached small ceramic plates from early 20th-century Europe, depicting scenes of courtship or baskets of fruit – vessels of a faraway domesticity, once intended for empty decoration. But on the canvas, Ashkar has smeared them with color, subverted their original use and covered them with blotches that turn the figures into an abstraction.

This dual movement reaches a peak in other works in the exhibition. There are photographs from the family album laid out on rag paper and half smeared with gold pigment. This too is “black gold”: the black of historical documentation, the gold of contemporary glory. But then there is the work titled “My Father”: an abstract portrait without any concrete father-figure, in black-gold, intensive and empty. It is situated in one corner of the space, possibly as a parallel to the Qibla wall in a mosque that signifies the direction of Mecca. The father of the artist, whose face has become known as an image of her work, has shed his form and now stands in a space where all imagery and depictions of the father are forbidden. In this way, Ashkar relates to the disputed space itself.

Converting the mosque building into an exhibition space for the Museum of Islamic Culture meant turning Islam from a religion into a culture: from a Muslim worship site devoid of imagery into a museum space that will present images of Islam. But in Ashkar’s exhibition, the culture returns to the religion: Her works explore the prohibition against graven images, and deal with the negation of imagery. Artistic exhibition here is an act of profaning the sacred; but in confronting these questions, moving toward and away from imagery, it is also an act of faith.

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