An installation view of Exhibition 1 at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art (all photos © Charles Benton unless otherwise noted)

“It was inspired by my favorite mosque in the world … the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad,” he said. “Have you been there?” I asked. “No, no, but I’m dying to go,” he responded. Standing in the bookstore of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art on a bright day in Soho, this was how Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani explained the angular logo for his recently established institute. The “I”s of the IAIA recall the pencil minarets of neo-Ottoman architecture and the “A”s evoke what Islamic art historian Kishwar Rizvi has called the Faisal mosque’s “tent-like spaceframe structure.” The transnational mosque, full of architectural allusions, gives way to the visual branding of this new transnational institute.

The IAIA opened its doors on May 4 with Exhibition 1 featuring four artists, Dana Awartani, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi. Exhibition 1 is one room with four walls, each devoted to a single artist. The show consists of non-figural drawings and some photographs that relate to “Islamic” design and architecture. The institute has a gallery space and bookstore, and it aspires to organize quarterly exhibitions, travelling shows, artist residencies, and publications.

Zarina Hashmi, “Home is a Foreign Place” (1999) Portfolio of 36 woodcuts with Urdu text printed in black on Kozo paper and mounted on Somerset paper; image size, each: 8 x 6 inches, sheet size, each: 16 x 13 inches; edition of 25 and 5 Roman Numeral Sets (images courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine gallery)

Farmanfarmaian, Mohamedi, and Zarina (who prefers to go by her first name) are all known entities in the art world with recent retrospectives in major museums, and Awartani, a younger artist, has been making waves at biennials. Current and former Guggenheim curators have been largely responsible for presenting these artists to the broader public. Sandhini Poddar’s Zarina: Paper like Skin (2013) at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Reem Fadda’s feature of Dana Awartani in her Marrakech Biennial Not New Now (2016) are two examples. Not long after the Guggenheim, came the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met featured Zarina in its recent exhibition Workshop and Legacy: Stanley William Hayter, Krishna Reddy, Zarina Hashmi (2016) and co-organized a retrospective with the Reina Sofia, Madrid, on Nasreen Mohamedi, for its opening of the Met Breuer (2016).

Dana Awartani, “Abjad Hawad Series” (2016) Portfolio of 28 shell gold, gouache and ink on paper, each 9.64 x 9.64 Inches (courtesy the artist and Athr Gallery)

My first question for the curator Sheikh Al-Thani was, “All women?” He responded, “I see the artists’ work; their gender was a coincidence.” If broken down by nationality: the artists hail from Saudi Arabia (Awartani), Iran (Farmanfarmaian), India (Mohamedi), and India/United States (Zarina). Intentional or not, the exhibition creates a dialogue between women working across a range of geographies, which is likely unable to occur within the siloed parameters of their individual retrospectives.

In relation to each other, we can see how they come into a dialogue over the issue of form — especially as they engage with geometry, line, and architecture. Awartani’s contemporary adaptation of the practice of assigning each Arabic letter with a particular numerical value in her “Abjad Hawad Series” (2016), for instance, comes into dialogue with Farmanfarmaian’s much earlier “Variations on a Hexagon” (1976) that consists of foundational patterning techniques in Persian design. The intense control needed to execute the lines in each of Mohamedi’s works are central to the processes of Awartani and Farmanfarmaian’s practice. And Zarina’s practice of printmaking, and particularly her intimate engagement with the materiality of paper, allows her to work with the same set of concerns of geometry and space, but in a completely different medium.

A view of IAIA from the street

Considering formal expression, the grid and geometric forms in this exhibition, one also starts to think about how these artists relate to figures outside of the paradigm of what is described as Arab and Islamic art today. Mohamedi’s grids, for instance, are often juxtaposed with Agnes Martin’s, and Farmafarmaian’s meditations on geometry with Frank Stella’s. It is worth bearing in mind that Arab and Islamic art of the past was just as worldly as it is today. During the medieval period, the hexagon form Farmafarmaian engages with travelled from medieval Iran to Turkey and South Asia.

“Arab and Islamic?” was yet another question I had for the curator who chose three non-Arab and two South Asian artists for Exhibition 1. Familiar with the stakes of the institute’s name, Sheikh Al-Thani hopes for the IAIA to be as inclusive as possible. Where else would the artists shown in Exhibition 1 be displayed in the same room? It has been over five years since the Met’s renaming of its Islamic galleries to the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia — a model that spotlights regional diversity. Yet, we are still stuck with inapt placeholder categories.

Views of works by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

Perhaps the key to understanding this small show and the IAIA’s potential are apprehended in its feature of Zarina’s “Home is a Foreign Place” (1999). Made up of 36 monochromatic woodblock prints, each with an Urdu word and an “idea-image” that follows. A cross represents the word raasta (road), and the simplified plan of an apartment stands for ghar (house). Made when Zarina was being evicted from her apartment in 1999 the work captures the artist’s introspection on that experience. For her, home “is an idea we carry with us wherever we go. We are our homes.” Considering Sheikh Al-Thani’s relationship to his institute’s logo — a mosque he’s never visited — Zarina’s “Home is a Foreign Place” sets the tone for the IAIA’s to set up house in New York City.

Exhibition 1 continues at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art (3 Howard Street, SoHo, Manhattan) through July 31.

Vivek Gupta is a scholar of South Asian and Islamic art, aesthetics, and literature. He has held positions at the Freer|Sackler Galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has graduate degrees from...