Ansar Ahmed Ullah:
Drawing upon a unique collection of historical photographs and postcards, an exhibition titled ‘Departures’ reveals the great diversity of the Islamic world’s social and cultural life. The exhibition at Asia House, near Oxford Street, London explores a geographical area from Morocco in the West to China in the East, and from the Balkans in the North to Sudan in the South. Historical photographs from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century are being shown alongside a selection of contemporary images from amateur photographers on Instagram.
Organised by Asia House and The Barakat Trust, and curated by Tarik Alireza and Richard Wilding, Departures highlights the rich heritage of this region, exploring its ancient urban centres such as Cairo, Istanbul and Damascus, its traditions of travel, trade and artisanship, and its varied styles of costume and architecture. The exhibition is both a celebration of this historical diversity, and a reminder of what has been lost or weakened by cultural destruction, social change and political upheaval.
The title Departures defines the exhibition as a journey of discovery beyond the narrow stereotypes of the region as sectarian, war torn and culturally bereft. It also reflects the eager, observing eyes of travellers who have questioned, courted, and recorded the Islamic world from the earliest days of photography. These images are the fruit of travel and enquiry, made increasingly possible by ships and railways, then the jet engine, television and internet. Yet this exhibition also suggests that, despite the advent of these improved forms of travel and communication, the Muslim world has become increasingly alien and misunderstood in the West.
This insight into the Muslim world will encourage its audience to discover icons of antiquity and fleeting moments of the mundane. The exhibition aims to be a dialogue between past and present, between the diverse cultures and traditions that make up the Islamic world, and between the Islamic world and the West.
Exhibition curator Richard Wilding said, “The Islamic world has, in its history, produced and sustained a great diversity of cultural identities, including regional styles of costume, architecture and artisanship. These were recorded with great enthusiasm from the earliest days of photography. But today, despite improved forms of travel and communication, the media presents a flattened view of the Islamic world, based largely on stereotypes and limited frames of reference. These images show a rich and varied culture, and surprising scenes from everyday life, in an era before the more recent homogenisation, cultural destruction and reginal turmoil.”
Juan de Lara, Arts Programme Manager at Asia House, said, “This remarkable insight into the Islamic world will encourage our audience to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes ever-present in the Islamic world. Now more than ever it is our responsibility to bring to society and our youngsters the tools to better understand the converging elements present in our cultures. And what is more, to recognise, accept, and celebrate its differences.”