Tate Curator Nabila Abdel Nabi discusses the framing of ‘Islamic art’ and methods of decolonization within the museum.
Nabila Abdel Nabi is Curator, International Art at Tate Modern, whose work is largely focused on art from West Asia and North Africa (Middle East) as part of the institution’s initiative in rethinking the history of modern and contemporary art from a less Western-centric vantage point. In this Q&A she discusses the constructive discourse that was facilitated at Spiritual Affects Against a Secularist Grid: Rethinking Modernism and Islam/ic Art, a conference organized by the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational and the Research Center for Material Culture at the National Museum of World Cultures on February 10-11, 2023.
You just attended the conference Spiritual Affects Against a Secularist Grid: Rethinking Modernism and Islam/ic Art, organized by the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational and the Research Center for Material Culture at the National Museum of World Cultures. What were some key takeaways for you from the weekend?
Tate and Tropenmuseum are institutions with quite different remits and challenges, but these do intersect when we’re putting up a display of say, 20th and 21st century artists and have to think carefully about the epistemic violence that is still embedded in categories like ‘Islamic art’ and how such categories are negotiated by artists, both in terms of their pedagogical backgrounds but also their own lived experiences. So one of the main questions was: how do we as art historians account more generously for different subjectivities we engage with, and challenge entrenched disciplinary categories in our work to decolonize the field of art history?
Alex Seggerman highlighted the importance of distinguishing between “Islamic” as an idea or concept and “Islamic” as a lived experience. She asked: How do we approach the specific ways that artists engage with the idea of Islam as a religion, with an art history, or with the quotidian experience of a Muslim individual? It is important for an inclusive narrative of modernist art history to acknowledge the constitutive role of Islam in modernism where relevant, though these have traditionally been seen as mutually exclusive.
Leeza Ahmady spoke about an abundance, rather than an absence, of practices that are embedded in spiritual experience. She asked: when did spirituality/religion become divorced from culture?
Nur Sobers Khan discussed the haptic quality with which many devotional objects we engaged, such as Ottoman and Persian manuscripts which drew our attention to the fact that often when interacting with a work of art there’s an embedded potential for a multi-sensorial experience, beyond the visual. Of course, we come up against our responsibility to steward the work for posterity and material considerations, but that sense of wanting to keep works ‘alive’ in different ways really stayed with me.
Payam Sharifi of Slavs & Tatars launched into his brilliant lecture-performance al Isnad, or Chains We Can Believe In by prefacing that he would deal with the “thorny issue of the role of faith and contemplation within the arts.” The performance anchored on the little-known story of Dan Flavin’s commission for a Sufi Mosque in the middle of Manhattan and the entanglement of ‘mysticism within modernity.’ He also spoke about the vital role of other organs, beyond the mind, in the production and consumption of art and what is generated by moving away from an Enlightenment-era emphasis on rationality.
These ideas of ‘epistemic privilege’ came through in other aspects of the programme. The following morning we held an exhibition tour and artist talk with Saodat Ismailova and curator Dina Akhmadeeva (co-convenor of the seminar). Ismailova’s work considers the loss of local experiences and knowledge throughout post-Soviet Central Asia. A particularly moving aspect of her work is the way she uplifts her grandmother’s transmission of knowledge as a way of resisting cultural erasure but also re-siting embodied knowledge as a legitimate way of being in the world.
How did the speakers, and the conference at large, consider the entangled legacies of nationalism—and how new voices can untangle them?
The title of the seminar, Spiritual Affects against a Secularist Grid, is drawn from a text by art historian Wendy Shaw. In that text she explores the unevenness in the way that geometry, or what we might call geometric abstraction, is engaged in art history. She traces the way in which art historical discussions analyze Islamic geometric patterning as non-representational and non-meaningful, as ‘craft’ rather than ‘art,’ in context with a moment when modernist art in Europe and the US was increasingly invested in the conceptual evocativeness of geometric abstraction. She asks: how could geometry be declared traditional and anti-intellectual in the Islamic context yet progressive and innovative in modern Europe? In many ways this question got to the heart of what we were aiming to draw out of the discussions.
The different presentations really got us to reflect on the ramifications of Western colonialism that continue to shape the conditions in museums, in terms of our classifications, our value systems and vocabularies, and our approaches to our audiences—challenging the grounds of the museum as a secular space.
As Shaw emphasizes, the decolonized museum can’t just address colonialism, it’s about the way it shares knowledge being so deeply entrenched within a European way of knowing. So the question is how to learn to think outside the European and secular episteme and learn from—not about—other ways of being in the world to more effectively enable exchange between communities and communicate with multiple audiences. This includes making sure that the museum team, from curatorial, to research, to visitor services, to marketing etc. reflect the transnational and transcultural stories we aim to tell.
You’ve mentioned in the past that, while curators working with the Middle East region can consider and elevate cross-cultural themes, they also “need to focus on singular moments, specific developments in particular countries, and the deeper interrogations, where we can do it, of local contexts.” I’m curious if this thread was brought up at the conference.
Tate Modern’s collection displays are arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, which aids our ambition to question the canon while also allowing more conceptual flexibility in how we display our works. This, however, can create a universalizing or flattening of history and context. To counterbalance this, we create moments in our displays which allow for greater contextual depth by dedicating a room, or several rooms, to focus on a specific issue grounded in time and place. We talked quite a bit in the seminar about the importance of acknowledging the ‘life-worlds’ of the artists whose works we display and being attuned to the scale-ability of art history, from micro-histories, at a local level, to interactions with broader networks. We carry out a wealth of research before the acquisition of any work. The challenge is how to continue to bring that depth into the framework of the transnational, and inflect those broader, more horizontal histories we tell with the specificity of personal, cultural, historical trajectories.
Did anything surprise you while you attended?
It was just wonderful to see how incredibly engaged the audience was and the strong resonances between the papers as well as the appreciation of the speakers, even beyond what we’d hoped for! The next day we held a closed-door session and everyone was really forthcoming and genuinely invested in how these discussions could reshape museum practices across research, curatorial and approaches to visitor experience. We also held very honest discussions about what perspectives might have been missing from this session and where we could go next.
What did you learn that you’ll likely fold into your own work as Curator, International Art at Tate Modern?
A transnational approach to researching and displaying art is one that involves challenging hierarchies and canons in art historical narratives, grounding our research in an understanding of the complex links, networks and exchanges of ideas that has fostered the production of historic, modern and contemporary art all over the world. It means taking into account that historically human beings have been intertwined and learned from one another, that everything we inherit is a blending of a lot of things, sedimented over time. It’s important to think in terms of an absence of ‘pure’ culture, but rather to think about what has been generated through our connectedness.
And I think it’s important to point out here that this process of researching, acquiring and representing works in our collection is not an additive one. We can think of practices that shift our paradigms on art historical narrative and museum practice. Transformative works come into the collection that disrupt and challenge us to question the very construction of the art historical canon itself, and how the discipline of art history continues to be very Western-centric, although we’ve made great strides!
I want future publics to have access to a far more inclusive history of art than I did when I was visiting museums growing up and to see their own histories represented in museums like Tate, that aim to tell transnational histories of art.
Where and how does your work as a curator at Tate Modern intersect with the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational?
Alongside my work with Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational, I work closely with MENAAC (Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee), a group of passionate and knowledgeable supporters of the arts. My role is to research and propose works to bring into the collection, which transform and challenge the singular perspectives through which art history has been told, and instead enable us to communicate more plural, more transnational histories of art. The research center is key in terms of getting us to constantly complicate and challenge the regional delineations we work on as curators at Tate Modern. For example, all the conferences and discussions we’ve held around indigenous and First Nations art histories, or transnational solidarity movements, have pushed us to think in more expansive and complex ways about how we define “nation” in “transnational.” In the context of decolonizing North African countries such as Morocco or Algeria, who recently secured their independence in the mid 20th century, Amazigh, indigenous communities of artists were expressing their struggle for sovereignty through artistic practice. Furthermore, many artists moved fluidly between painting and graphic design practices to better espouse their political praxis, which challenges disciplinary boundaries and socio-cultural categories of what constitutes ‘art’ but also entrenched mid-20th century ideas of ‘art’s autonomy.’ These are questions that came up in the programme on Textual Abstraction within Transnational Modernism that we held in 2020. Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational enables us to interrogate and better interpret these highly textured histories.
I am lucky to be one of the core group of curators embedded in Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational. I am part of regular meetings with the team and part of the steering committee group as well. The center acts as a thinking hub and a nexus for all Tate sites which is also an opportunity for us to synergize our thinking and enrich the work that we do across the whole organization.
What are you currently working toward that you are excited to see come to life soon?
I’ve just opened a show called Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life, which is very much about expanding and ‘rewilding’ narratives of 20th century abstraction. We unpick the idea of geometric abstraction as a violent reaction to representing nature and suggest that both artists came to their languages of abstraction as a way of thinking through nature.
At the heart of the exhibition is a space we call “the Ether” dedicated to making visible and tangible the cultural, scientific and spiritual networks that both artists drew on. It was a great privilege to work on this show alongside Frances Morris.
It also resonated with the research I’ve done through the display of Infinite Geometry, and now the seminar Spiritual Affects Against A Secularist Grid, to consider the varied impulses and trajectories that have led artists to develop languages of geometric abstraction over the last century.
Nabila Abdel Nabi is Curator, International Art at Tate Modern who specializes in art from West Asia and North Africa (Middle East). Prior to joining the museum, she was the Associate Curator at The Power Plant, Toronto, and before that, a Gallery Manager (Exhibitions) in The Third Line, Dubai.