A small world, after all
Islamic art show invites us to connect
The Philbrook’s latest exhibit is the most extensive Islamic art show ever displayed in Oklahoma.
With intentionality and a celebratory spirit, Philbrook Museum of Art opened its latest exhibit, Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam through Time & Place.
Make no mistake: by bringing in the most extensive Islamic art show that Oklahoma has ever seen—in a political climate swirling with xenophobia, including Islamophobia, violence against religious minorities, and Tulsa County’s own white supremacist court clerk—Philbrook is doing something special.
“This is an example of the power of art to inspire, open us to new ideas, educate us, hopefully change some lives, and truly be an inclusive place for all Tulsans,” Director and President Scott Stulen said at a June 20 press conference.
The conference included speakers from Tulsa’s religious community: Rev. Courtney Richards of Harvard Avenue Christian Church, Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman of Congregation B’nai Emunah and Rev. Amy Venable of Boston Avenue Methodist Church.
Fitting with the Philbrook’s new strategic plan “to be the most welcoming and inclusive cultural institution in Tulsa,” the themes of connection and oneness were on full display at the conference. All three religious leaders used sibling terminology when referring their “Muslim brothers and sisters.”
It makes one wonder why the term “Judeo-Christian” is still a thing. The phrase erases the second most populous religion in the world (at roughly 1.8 billion), and all of its many similarities as an Abrahamic religion.
“The Quran and the Bible share so many stories and so many heroes and heroines,” Venable said. “The fear comes out of not knowing.”
By showcasing a wide assortment of media—ceramics, textiles, paintings and architectural forms, to name a few—which span over 1,200 years and come from across the globe, there is an obvious but profound point: It’s a small world.
In one section are ceramic vases made by Middle East artisans whose floral motifs and sancai ( “three color”) style show a clear Chinese trade influence beginning as early as the 8th century; in another, there is a 20th century ritual bowl from Mali which is covered with religious inscriptions in meticulous Arabic calligraphy.
Almost everything in the exhibit was made for use, and many are commonplace objects—butter jars, a necklace, a hair comb. By highlighting the everyday lives of Muslims around the world and in our own community, Philbrook encourages visitors to create connections between the items under the plexiglass and the treasures we may have in our own homes and histories.
“I’m so completely drawn by objects and the stories that they might tell,” said Susan Green, Philbrook’s associate curator for special collections, archives and research. “[This art show] has completely enriched me, so that then I think about my own life … and what do I have in my home, and how does that express who I am?”
In that spirit, here are two standouts from the show.
As soon as you enter the exhibit, you are humbled by two stunning tapestries. Large in scale, vibrant in color, and distinctly Islamic in its geometric patterns and calligraphy, these Egyptian textiles from the early 20th century have been beautifully preserved. Set against a navy wall, they flank a Moorish “horseshoe” archway which invites visitors to step further inside.
Traditionally, panels like these were meant to enclose a space for celebrations, weddings and get-togethers. Green meant for these panels to set the tone: “We wanted to hang these right in front to show that this is a celebratory space,” Green said. “It’s a space for blessings; it’s a space for us to learn; and it’s a space for us to see beautiful, amazing objects that artists have been inspired by the Islamic religion and culture to create.”
Hand of Fatima
The hand of God factors into all three Abrahamic religions, such as the hamsa in Judaism, or the distinct positioning of a saint’s hands in Christian artwork. This piece, from Algeria or Morocco, features a hexagram, known as the Seal of Solomon in Islam and the Star of David in Judaism. It is also prevalent in Hindu art, representing the union of masculinity and femininity.
Made of brass, it is sturdy, yet delicate with its dizzying ornamentation. Combining artistic designs and flowing calligraphy, it looks like the beautiful henna work of an Indian bride at her wedding.
As this object was likely placed at the entrance of a house to offer a blessing or for protection, one may liken it to a framed “Bless this Home” needlepoint, or recall an especially memorable housewarming party, such as one in the Jewish tradition in which a mezuzah is hung in celebration.
Objects like these offer an insight into the force of connection animating this remarkable exhibit, and they might just help us understand our neighbors and ourselves.
“In justice work, we say that representation matters; we say we cannot be what we cannot see,” said Rev. Courtney Richards of Harvard Avenue Christian Church.
Aliye Shimi, executive director of the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, agrees. “For a place like Tulsa, Oklahoma, to have such an exhibition—I cannot tell you how important it is for the Muslim community.”
Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam through Time & Place
Philbrook Museum of Art
2727 S. Rockford Rd.
June 23–Oct. 6.