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Another Way of Looking at Islam

Taking a different look at the hijab by artist Asma Shikoh
Taking a different look at the hijab by artist Asma Shikoh

Ramez Islambouli takes great pride in his Islamic heritage and, quite frankly, he's surprised at what he sees around him at the Cleveland State Art Gallery.

RAMEZ ISLAMBOULI: When I say Islam, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Usually, people have this concept of terrorism, violence --- the dark side. When you come here, you would expect to see dark images, not this colorful.

Islambouli teaches Islamic Studies at several local colleges, and he likes the fact that the gallery walls here are covered with paintings and photographs that put a different spin on the ancient history of his faith. For instance, there is a frame filled with brightly-colored calligraphy, that is both beautiful to look at and contains a religious message. A series of photos shows a multi-racial collection of people wrapped in traditional robes. A video screen shows a young woman draping scarves around her head, alternating between sacred and secular looks. Art Gallery director Robert Thurmer says the goal of this exhibition is to get people to look past recent televised images of terrorists.

ROBERT THURMER: As people involved with art, we are more interested in the works --- not the politics. We're interested in the visual power of images, and the visual power of surfaces and sculptural forms.

CSU Art historian Marian Bleeke points out a thought-provoking example.

MARIAN BLEEKE: I like this one, which is a very simplified form of the "hijab" --- or the headscarf. But, it's also an iPod!

It's one of series of paintings that show decidedly non-traditional versions of the common head covering for Muslim women. One of these scarves is fashioned out of police caution tape… one is decorated with clouds against a blue sky... and then there's this white one, sporting a screen and the familiar iPod dial.

MARIAN BLEEKE: And so there's this interesting juxtaposition of tradition and modernity --- can we be both traditional and modern? Can we be Islamic and contemporary at the same time? You know, maybe she has an iPod on under the headscarf. And who knows what she's listening to?

Ramez Islambouli smiles at this playful version of the hijab, because it subverts what he calls a "false fear" of Islam.

RAMEZ ISLAMBOULI: In Europe, for example, there was the big fuss over the head cover. I think the real issue is: a fear of the head cover and what it represents --- Islamic, Arabic culture --- might replace an existing culture. And I think that's the fear, rather than people trying to hide explosives.

Historian Marian Bleeke says that some of these images get at concerns that are more than unjustified fear. For example, as a self-described feminist, she says she's deeply conflicted about the status of women in some Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan. But, she's not so sure that her American cultural perspective is somehow superior. That's the lesson she takes away from this show.

MARIAN BLEEKE: The art speaks to that conflict --- it doesn't give us an easy answer --- it shows us that conflict and makes us think about it. It makes us ask those questions.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.