09 February 2015

Picturing Muhammed

Beyond the obvious distinction between racist provocations on one hand and pious homage on the other… one towering fact emerges: The life of the Prophet of Islam has now entered a global scene far beyond anyone's claim or control.
-Hamid Dabashi, in an article for Al Jazeera
It so happened that I began working on my print for A Real Fake (2015 Upper Northeast Portfolio Exchange) the week after several men claiming to be acting for Islam attacked the office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in retaliation for the publication of cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammed. The fact that four cartoonists were murdered in this incident hit me quite hard, as I've been a commercial artist myself for a couple of decades. In doing that work, I've often marveled at the power some images have to disturb people. In commercial art in the U.S., this is most often expressed through what is not published, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. (I'm thinking of a particular instance when I was not allowed to show a cow's udder in a children's textbook diagram titled "Where Does Milk Come From?")

The Charlie Hebdo attack was not the first time that depictions of Muhammed by westerners have caused fury in the Muslim world, and will likely not be the last. The belief that Islam prohibits depicting the prophet is cited often, but it seems to be not true. The practice is not banned anywhere in the Qur'an, and there are in fact many historical instances where the prophet has been depicted within devotional Islamic art. Many of these gorgeous paintings, called "miniatures," are housed in major museums and libraries although, unfortunately, many have been removed from public display because of the recent controversies. Nevertheless, a simple Google Image search reveals many examples of images of Muhammed, although many show his face covered with a veil.

I wouldn't really call my print work emotional, but I often derive the work from my own inner turmoil or strong feeling so, since the Charlie Hebdo killings disturbed me quite a bit, I've decided that for my portfolio exchange print I'll be doing a depiction of the Prophet Muhammed. I don't want to invent my own image of Mohammed. I don't know enough about him to do that, and I want to avoid any semblance of disrespect. Instead, I plan to make a reproduction of an image of Muhammed from a Persian miniature painting. My motivation is not to do a full-throttle defense of so-called free speech, or a defense of my right to make any picture I please, or a defense of anything, in fact. Rather, I want to gently explore the edges of this whole controversy about images and religion and blasphemy and disrespect. I want to look at questions like these:
• Who gets to claim or control an image?
• Are there images an artist has no right to make?
• Why do some images have so much charge?
• Can a westerner create a respectful depiction of Muhammed, or am I forbidden simply because I am not Muslim?
• If I do a reproduction of a historical image, am I the author of that image? Can I be held responsible for it?
• Does my attitude while creating the image matter or is it just about the final image?
• If I make a woodblock reproduction of a painting, is it real or a fake?
• What is a cartoon?

The title, "A Real Fake," seems perfect for an examination of questions about the power of image, the reality and unreality of two-dimensional art, reproduction, and authorship that come up in this context. As the brief states, "A work of art is never fixed or absolute: it doesn’t exist independently and once released, the work evolves and is often interpreted in different ways by the viewer. The brief also states, "the truest part of the work resides in the original act of creation." I'm not sure if I agree with that or not, but I'll be asking that question as I work.


Celia Hart said...

My feelings about the Charlie attack were similar to yours and your cow story is so like my own experiences as an educational book illustrator for over 25 years. For much of that time I became type-cast as 'the designer that did religious books' and worked with authors from 5 different faiths. At point I was attending briefing meetings in London with an Islamic publisher in the morning followed by one at Westminster Abbey with the Church of England in the afternoon. Tip-toeing around what was acceptable for each of them.
What I leant was that the contentious differences between faiths and creeds is usually a seemingly trivial thing and that mostly all of them teach tolerance and common sense. But it's those picky little differences....
I'm interested to see how this project develops.

Annie B said...

The education market is pretty amazing, isn't it? I've struggled in the past with whether or not to work with evangelical Christian clients, worrying that if they knew I was gay they wouldn't have hired me and wondering if I had some kind of obligation to tell them. (I took the job and did not tell.) Then there's the whole representation thing, where a simple illustration of a small group of people ends up being an entire crowd of people by the time you've represented all possible categories and races and ethnicities. I always enjoy comparing notes with you, Celia!

Victoria said...

I'm just reading William Kentridge's lectures, Six Drawing Lessons, given at Harvard in 2012. A discussion of the layers of history in imagery; I think that it is relevant to your questions. A dense read, and, for me, provocative of many questions.

Annie B said...

Those Kentridge lectures sound great. Thanks for bringing them to my attention.