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June 15, 2018

The David Collection

THE HUMAN FIGURE IN ISLAMIC ART, The David Collection, Copenhagen

This issue has always interested and puzzled me.

There is still uncertainty with regard to attitudes about figurative art in Islamic culture. This exhibit in Denmark – now closed – tackled the delicate issue, together with a great catalogue. An article in May 2018 ASIAN ART by JULIET HIGHET and titled THE HUMAN FIGURE IN ISLAMIC ART explains what we know and what we do not know about figurative art. She reports that there is no explicit passage in the Qur’an forbidding figurative depictions of humans. It is the written traditions that are more critical on this subject; and three dimensional portrayals seem to be more objectionable than paintings because sculptures and reliefs express a greater reality of a divinely created world. We find human figures in paintings and we find and we see the Prophet’s partially hidden face together with his winged steed Buraq – often – with a female face. So what are we to believe? It might help to keep in perspective the world of politics during the early times of Islam, the Islamic revolt against Christian Byzantine symbolism, and the influence of Persian portraiture painters. Great art patrons like Akhbar and his son Jahangir and his grandson Shah Jahan all encouraged local and imported artists in their own traditions portraying more human figures. And it helped me to keep in mind that religious art and human figures in churches and temples played a great public role whereas figurative art in Islamic art was often developed for and in the private realm.

The author Juliet Highet is a writer, journalist and photographer who writes and publishes on a wide range of Arab, South Asian, East Asian and African cultures. One of her books is: Frankincense: Oman’s Gift to the World. Got to order this one….


human figure in islamic art

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