Illustration 1.Mahmoud-Mokhtar- (Egypt, -1891-1934) .- Au-BordDu-Nil, 1931-1939, 61 x 14 x 13 cm, bronze. Taken from Sothebys.

The delay of modern art in Islamic countries

Speak of “Islamic art” is to refer, without doubt, to a generalist and imprecise expression. However, and although the way in which this art was developed was very diverse according to each country and its respective historical process, it is also an expression that, at times, speaks of a kind of almost ethereal unanimity that is easier to perceive than to explain. In this article I start from the premise that, although “Islamic art” is extremely diverse, it can also be studied as a unified body since its historical roots are, in most cases, the same. Talking about why the processes of modernity in Islamic art took so long to consolidate is precisely a great example of what I just mentioned, since almost all these countries shared the same historical root: European colonization.


Historic context:


The expression “Islamic art” usually leads the viewer’s mind towards images of rugs or textiles, geometric shapes, heavily ornamented materials and calligraphy, and indeed, as in most occasions, the general notions of the viewrs have something true. In the case of Islamic art, it is a type of art that was produced mainly “between the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th century and the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 (…)” (Ali, 1992, p.186), and The notion that was created during those thirteen centuries has been more than Illustration 1.Mahmoud-Mokhtar- (Egypt, -1891-1934) .- Au-BordDu-Nil, 1931-1939, 61 x 14 x 13 cm, bronze. Taken from Sothebys. enough to consolidate the perspective that, to this day, many people still carry within themselves, that is, an exotic and not very “modern” form of artistic expression. Of course, “In the beginning, Islam borrowed motives and norms from the other artistic traditions with which it came into contact, such as the Byzantines, Sassanids and Greco-Romans.” (Ali, 1992, p.186), but when it began to consolidate his own plastic forms, they triumphed by themselves and created a kind of sensation in the collective unconscious regarding how Islamic art should be.


The forced arrival of modernity:


“Islamic art” was strongly disrupted by the European colonizations of the second and first half of the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. “The occupation of Islamic lands, mainly by the French and British, undermined not only their economic self-sufficiency and their ability to rule, but also their art. Western aesthetics and culture dominated local artistic traditions ”(Ali, 1992, p.186) and a certain change began to emerge even in Islamic countries that were not under European domination, such as the Ottoman Empire, whose Emperor Abdul Aziz, who ruled between the years 1861-1876, was the first Ottoman sultan to visit Europe, and after being greatly impressed by Western art and, upon his return to Istanbul, he opened the country to Western artists and celebrated the first art exhibition in the empire in 1874 ”. (Renda, 1986).


Another factor that was important in the processes of modernity of art in Muslim countries, mainly in Africa, was the industrialization of many of the artisan practices. This, like everything else, brought with it both good and bad things; the artisans who had a strongly rooted vision of their work from the point of view of tradition and the conscience for enduring this tradition, suffered greatly from the inclusion of machinery and processes that had nothing to do with artisan traditions. But, on the other hand, the very notion that a machine was capable of matching and even surpassing a lifetime of artisanal experience, made the intellectuals and artists of the time think, forcing them to view the industry not as an enemy, but as a means to achieve new forms, techniques and experiences that would enrich their respective worldviews.


As the Jordanian artist and art historian Wijdan Ali says in her study on “The status of Islamic art during the 20th century”:


“Traditional Islamic arts continued to suffer, while Western-style plastic arts benefited from this resurgence in other parts of the world. This flourishing was said to be a revival of modern Islamic painting and sculpture, but in reality it caused a loss of cultural identity and created a schizophrenia among modern Islamic artists: their education and training were wholly Western, while their beliefs and convictions they remained with their Islamic Roots and traditional education. ” (Ali, 1992, p.187)


A strong but unbeatable statement, modern artists from Islamic countries found themselves between a rock and a hard place: although their training was Western-style, their worldviews continued to permeate them completely, and, as a result, many of the works produced during this period show a lack of plastic and symbolic identity that continues to be transmitted to this day. In other words: the real reason why contemporary notions are just being delved right now and not before, is not because the visual arts in Muslim countries have a religious restriction, but more because a poorly managed process of modernity that took a long time to consolidate due to the resistance of the countries to be subjected to the logic of western artistic production.1


In this way, when many of the Muslim countries became independent from Europe after the Second World War, they felt the need to return to rescue all their artistic practices in the most traditional sense, both in production and in the final form. What made artistic modernity develop organically many years after having overcome that nostalgia. A great example of all this is found in the article Tracing the Modern in Post-Modern: The dilemma of Contemporary “Islamic” Art by the art historian Isabelle Imbert, who uses the Egyptian artist Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934) as an example to explain that in some Islamic countries, the artists whose production stage was cataloged between approximately 1880-1940, are artists who find themselves in a kind of limbo between “orientalist” and “pre-modern” artists, although they are artists who, in theory, developed their work under the modern logic imposed by Europe.


In fact, a Modern art in the strict sense of the term and that belongs to the previously mentioned period (1880-1940) is not easily found in the art market of Muslim countries and their auctions, nor in the academy, and, for Isabelle Imbert, this is a historiographical gap that is difficult to fill. Apparently, the artists of Islamic countries failed to internalize the modern practices “the hard way” imposed by Europe, and this, without a doubt, is visible in their respective artistic productions.


“For this reason, it is not uncommon to find artists from Turkey and Egypt such as Bilal alSham and the Maghreb in auction catalogs of orientalist or pre-modern Islamic art. A confusion that is due to the fact that nobody knows how to label such creations since they fall within a gray semantic area. ”(Tracing the modern in the postmodern: the dilemma of contemporary” Islamic “art -, n.d.)


The Egyptian artist Mahmoud Mokhtar demonstrates this situation very well, “his life put him right on the border between the pre-modern and the modern, but his work is unmistakably modern and reflects the impact of Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession.” (Tracing the Modern in Post-Modern: The Dilemma of Contemporary “Islamic” Art -, nd) However, a sculpture of his called Au-Bord-Du-Nil2 was auctioned at Sothebys in 2018 during the “20th Century Art / Middle East auction ”, but previously, it had been auctioned by the“ vente Orientalisme ”in France in 2016. It is incredible to see that they have listed an Egyptian and modern artist within an auction of“ orientalist ”and premodern art, could it be that The officials and workers of the largest auction houses do not know the history, and, more important than that, do they have no intuition when it comes to cataloging a piece? Obviously, the answer to that question is: yes. Of course they know that Mahmoud Mokhtar is an artist with clear modern intentions, however, they know very well how difficult it is to catalog an artist who behaves more as an isolated phenomenon, than as a large movement that developed under the production of many artists.


Nostalgia and grief:


Modern art begins to manifest itself years after the independence of the countries, and after having overcome the nostalgia for the past. Because, in a certain way, the Muslim peoples did not initially have the opportunity to mourn what they were “losing” and that was slowly mutating, parameters, styles and techniques were imposed on them that, although later they could incorporate, at the time they appeared like a hurricane that came to change everything in an abrupt way. It is like when one is in a battle and loses a friend or loved one; At that moment there is no time to think about that person, but after a certain level of time, an overwhelming nostalgia comes back to us because until that moment, we had not had the opportunity to mourn.


At the time the Muslim countries managed to mourn and overcome that nostalgia regarding their artistic past, and, little by little, the miniatures, calligraphy, the exaggeratedly ornamented forms represented in wood, metal and stone, suddenly returned, but with the search and awareness of a change. There was no longer so much the claim to represent for the sake of representing, but rather, questions began to emerge such as: Why represent, or why not represent? What material to use and why? What does each one give me? All those questions that began to haunt the minds of the artists were undoubtedly a legacy of forced modernity and that many years later, the artist were able to internalize naturally. Today, artists from Muslim countries continue to experience a transformation that is increasingly accelerated by globalization and the appearance of the immediacy of social networks, and although at the time the processes of modernity took a long time, now, step by step, They begin to teach us a lesson of how should be an art that looks at its past with pride, historical and mystical intelligence, and seeks, at the same time, a contemporary manifestation that enhances everything they want to produce without forgetting the present they live.




  • Ali, W. (1992). The Status of Islamic Art in the Twentieth Century. Muqarnas, 9, 186.
  • Karnouk, L. (2005). Modern Egyptian Art, 1910-2003. Amer Univ in Cairo Press.
  • Renda, G., & Kortepeter, C. M. (1986). The transformation of Turkish culture: The Atatürk legacy. Kingston Press.
  • Tracing the Modern in Post-Modern: The dilemma of Contemporary “Islamic” Art -. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2021, from


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