NEW YORK: Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani, a 30-something self-proclaimed “closeted poet,” moved to New York in 2014. He quickly noticed that while the city was home to a number of niche institutions including the Asia Society, the Jewish Museum, and El Museo del Barrio, it lacked spaces dedicated to Arab and Islamic art, aside from a few scattered shows — usually curated by Westerners — or limited spaces in places like the Met.
Al-Thani believed that raising public awareness of art from the Arab and Islamic worlds would be a way to counter Islamophobia and present a narrative about those worlds that was not focused on violence and terrorism. So in 2017 he created the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, a registered non-profit organization. Although Al-Thani is a member of the Qatari royal family, the IAIA is independently funded.
Its first show, “Exhibition 1,” and featured four female artists — Saudi-born Dana Awartani, Iranian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, India’s Nasreen Mohamedi, and Indian New Yorker Zarina Hashmi — and focused on Islamic architectural elements and design.
On May 15, the IAIA doors opened a new exhibition at a different location in downtown New York, featuring artwork by the late Iranian modernist Behjat Sadr, who, according to the show brochure, “broke through the male-dominated pre-revolutionary Iranian art world, establishing herself as one of the foremost artists of the 20th century with her biomorphic gestural abstractions that defied the status-quo.”
The Brooklyn-based artist Pooneh Maghazehe created a site-specific work for the façade of the building, which houses an intimate space with some curated items for sale on the side, including coffee-table books, trinkets, and custom garments from the East.
Here, Al-Thani discusses his hopes for the IAIA, how he was inspired by the Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah, and looking beyond gender.
Let’s start with an easy but complex question: How do you define Arab and Islamic Art?
The term “Islamic Art” refers to certain artistic productions that are produced within a geographical realm. But there are Arab Christians and the majority of Muslims aren’t Arabs. You feel the diversity in the architecture and urban development — even in the south of Spain some of the food and language is inspired by our shared culture. The misconception that every Muslim is Arab is just not true.
Saudi Arabia recently held the first Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah. How has the narrative about Arab and Islamic art changed — or not — since the launch of IAIA?
The Islamic Art Biennale in Jeddah was a much-needed platform to discuss not only historical narratives around the influence of Islamic Art, but also to bring forward the diverse platform that exists within contemporary Islamic art and the role it’s had globally. If it wasn’t for the biennale in Jeddah, I wouldn’t have been introduced to so many cutting-edge artists from the region who present a compelling visual language.
What are your hopes for the IAIA?
There is a widespread stereotype that Arab women are not given a platform and that their voices are not heard. That might be true in some cases, but not in all cases. We look beyond gender, we look at the quality of work. And when we were building the (first) exhibition, the best work was created by female artists, so we decided to showcase them.
And this current exhibition is also dedicated to a female artist. Are you making a deliberate statement?
I have six sisters. I’m the only brother. I grew up with women and whatever opportunities I’ve had have also been given to my sisters. I know how hardworking my sisters are. That’s why, for me, it’s very easy to look beyond gender. For sure, in certain areas, women are not given an equal opportunity but we (at the IAIA) have to be able to grant them these opportunities. I’ve been really drawn to works by female artists. The work is solid. The artistic and stylistic approach is very genuine and independent to what we see from their male counterparts, and it’s our responsibility to give a different perspective on art being produced in the Islamic world. We are opening doors to people so they can experience work that hasn’t been experienced before.
Why did you decide to create this space in New York, rather than another city?
The city is really a mecca for art and culture. When I came here, I saw that every civilization was represented except for the Arab and Islamic worlds. There are many museums and foundations in New York that showcase Islamic and Arab art, but it’s based on (Western) narratives. Westerners curate the shows and choose the artists. I think that, sometimes, stereotypes would come up mainly from Western perspectives. But when an institute is run by Arabs, you have a genuine narrative. So I felt it was time for us to build an institute to engage the community. We introduce the depth of Arab and Islamic culture.
Let’s talk about the current exhibition. Why is the work of Behjat Sadr still relevant today?
Behjat grew up at a time when the socio-political and cultural climate was being shaped by the oil industry, and so much of the thick oil and pigment she uses in her paintings is reminiscent of that. Many decades later, the region is still being defined by its natural resources, and their undeniable influence on nature, (and this is something) Behjat covered in her work more than half-a-century ago. Beyond the conversations surrounding the work, it was also important to showcase through Behjat’s work that artists from the region were creating abstraction simultaneously to the West and were active participants in that movement.
What does the IAIA mean to you personally?
Every morning I wake up, I want to make sure that those artists have a platform here. I want to make sure that they are able to show the Western audience that not everything produced in the region is distinctively political. Now you see this amazing work produced in Arab countries that you can put it in any museum in the world, and in some cases, you can’t identify gender. It’s good, solid art. It is work that speaks to a diversified audience that really drives me. The cultural exchange that once existed in the Islamic world, with translations of books from European languages traveling to and from the south of Spain — that was such an exchange across the civilizations. Today, with the technology that we have, why are we not doing that? I’m here not only to support my culture, but to open a dialogue. I’m here to connect people and artists. I feel like that’s a duty we have. Poetry, science, technology and art belong to everyone and everyone should experience them.