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Shangri La: Islamic Arts Come to Los Angeles

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In partnership with The Los Angeles/Islam Arts Initiative, which brings together nearly 30 cultural institutions throughout Los Angeles to tell various stories of traditional and contemporary art from multiple Islamic regions and their significant global diasporas.

Addressing and showcasing Islamic culture is an excellent way to open up a dialogue about misconceptions and stereotyping of Muslims here in Los Angeles. As recently as 2007, the LAPD came under fire for mapping out Muslim communities in Los Angeles. Hollywood, through shows like the wildly popular "Homeland," continues to promote negative stereotypes of Muslims. It's safe to say that Islamic communities have every right to feel stigmatized. Amitis Motevalli, the project manager of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs' L.A. Islam Arts Initiative (LA/IAI), a citywide program to highlight art from countries with majority Islamic populations and their diasporas, believes that platform will give non-Muslim viewers the opportunity to see there's a rich creative culture within the Muslim communities.

"My interest, initially -- why I went ahead to go and do all this work -- is because I believe that there should be an understanding of multiplicities," says Motevalli, who has built a practice of exploring her Iranian-American identity as a multi-media artist. "People exist in so many different ways under the umbrella of the culture, and to be able to experience these multiplicities and get an understanding of how people are living, creating art, and how their works have influenced us here in Los Angeles."

For Muslim communities, Motevalli says, it's a perfect way to engage with these multiplicities. "Los Angeles is so diverse. It's nice when culture is highlighted, because some of the folks that might be living within our neighborhoods, that we know and may interact with on a regular basis, we may not know some of their deep philosophies, some of their cultural backgrounds, and forms of practice. Right now, just through this project alone, I've been able to get a better understanding of, say, the Chinese Muslim or the Ismaili communities."

The Initiative, which has been ongoing since early September and runs through December, includes activities and events that range from installations, exhibitions, readings, workshops talks, music, and more. One of the main exhibits will be open to the public from October 26th through December 28th at the Los Angeles Municipal Arts Gallery (LAMAG) in the Barnsdall Art Park in East Hollywood: a presentation of "Doris Duke's Shangri La." Duke, who passed away in 1993, was a tobacco heiress whose honeymoon in 1935 was a trip through the Islamic world, spurring her massive collection of Islamic art for which she built an Islamic-style mansion called Shangri La in Honolulu to store. Organized by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, 60 selections from Duke's collection -- including ceramics, textiles, paintings, architectural elements, and tiles -- have been traveling and will finish their trip at LAMAG before heading back to Hawaii.

As a companion to the exhibition, the Department of Cultural Affairs has commissioned Baghdad-born curator Rijin Sahakian to organize "Shangri La: Imagined Cities," an eight-artist exhibition. Sahakian played off the ideas of mobility and circulation as a way to inspect art being made by "Islamic artists" today.

Earrings, "Doris Duke's Shangri La"
Earrings, "Doris Duke's Shangri La"

"Part of the title 'Imagined Cities' was a critique on what we think of when we think of 'Islamic art' or the Islamic world, which is a place that might most accurately lie in the imagination, and the kinds of imaginings that we might have about what these cities are, what they look like, what they smell like, what they feel like, what the people are like," Sahakian explained in a phone interview. "The idea of imagining a city like a Shangri La or this idea that we can imagine a place based on artworks. And the idea of creating work to imagine new possibilities for a city, or a place, or a history that doesn't necessarily exist, but might be possible within a work. The idea of 'Imagined Cities' was both a critique and a new set of possibilities."

Sahakian enlisted artists Haig Aivazian, Jananne Al Ani, George Awde, Taysir Batniji, Charles Gaines, Mariam Ghani, Gelare Khoshgozaran, and Adrian Paci to create these "Imagined Cities."

A number of the artists work with the issue of landscape and circulation," Sahakian said. "Jananne Al Ani and the prints from her film Shadow Sites II does this very compellingly through photography; George Awde's series of photographs taken in Beirut and Syria and including images of some of the subjects he's worked with on WhatsApp. That's a very contemporary way of how things are being circulated and what they have to do with people's abilities to travel. Miriam Ghani's work, Trespassers, links to transcripts with prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, but also in Pelican Bay in California. These issues of travel, but also looking at that and how that is something that affects people in so many of our cities; it's not necessarily just something we face in what we call the Middle East or Arab world or certain parts of Asia. It's collapsing the idea that these issue pertain to one particular place."

That idea of universal concepts is something that Sahakian believes ties the show together. By presenting diverse works that don't necessarily speak to issues that people expect 'Islamic art' to address, there is a sense that the show is helping to break down certain preconceptions people have about artists from countries that have majority Islamic populations.

Imagined Cities, Haig Alvazian, Still
Imagined Cities, Haig Alvazian, Still

"Something I wanted to be in cognizant in the exhibition of is noting that these kinds of categories don't actually make very much sense right now. Thinking about who is giving those categories, why those categories are happening, and what that does to create this idea of distance or an idea that we don't know what those artists might be about. When we think of 'Islamic artists,' a lot of people are thinking of Middle Eastern artists, but this idea that they somehow need to be speaking about a certain subject or identify in a certain way has allowed for people to not realize that those artists have been in Los Angeles and have had shows or done talks -- unless they're part of a show that calls them 'Islamic artists.' I wanted to have viewers really look at the works themselves -- a lot of these categories don't actually make a lot of sense, and are imposed by certain authors that aren't necessarily basing these categories on the works itself."

Motevalli points out that there are a number of topics that will arise during this exhibition and the LA/IAI's duration. "This is the first time the city of Los Angeles has embarked on doing a celebration of 'Islamic culture,'" she says. "I'm interested in the conversations that will come up -- which will be whatever the city of Los Angeles decides is important to come up."

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