Promoting global understanding: Islamic patterns in context
From: Dr. Patty Bode
The study of Islamic patterns in tessellating geometric imagery can authentically integrate PK-12 curriculum through mathematics and visual art. Including sociocultural and historical perspectives about these patterns adds vibrant meaning to this unit of study, and simultaneously expands some understanding about Islamic traditions and breaks down misconceptions about some Muslim experiences. By weaving historical contexts into art lessons with student engagement in studio production, investigating Islamic imagery can aid efforts to counter Islamophobia through art education and support the NAEA mission to “promote global understanding.” Art educators can create counter-narratives to the false assertions, stereotypes and denigrating dialogue that is prevalent in some arenas of popular discourse when students hear and use the word “Islamic” in the context of art lessons such as: Islamic art, Islamic patterns, Islamic traditions, Islamic scholars, and Islamic architecture. One strategy to help you get started could be to make big signs with those terms to make the vocabulary visible and present in your art room, helping you and your students refer to it within your classroom dialogue. Use inquiry-based questions such as “What do you know about Islamic art? What do you want to know?” As you present images, ask “What do you notice, what do you wonder?” Document student voice by noting their comments on the white board, or inviting them to write on sticky notes to make a collection of classroom thoughts. Use their questions and their knowledge to guide student-led research into each topic.
See “tile photos” from the Alhambra.
This message will help ground your teaching about geometric tessellations in a sociocultural context. These ever-popular PK-12 lessons often include a study of the work of Dutch graphic artist, M.C. Escher - a worthwhile connection that can spark students’ imaginations.
Adding more historical context about Escher’s study of the Islamic patterns in The Alhambra and Reales Alcázeres in Spain, and relationship of tessellations to the concept of the infinite will bring a more explicit anti-racist and anti-religious oppression stance to your classroom dialogue by explicating the contributions of Islamic art from approximately 1500 years ago throughout contemporary work. Moreover, these explorations will enlarge the students’ inquiry into the cultural and political predecessors of Islamic culture as explained on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Islamic Art (See“The Nature of Islamic Art).
Understandably, many teachers express uneasiness that they will misrepresent the cultural meaning about that which they are unfamiliar. Critically conscious art educators will worry about over-simplifying, or even worse, insulting the tradition about which they are trying to teach. These are valid concerns that may be addressed collaborating with your students to:
Ask: “What are we learning today?” Be clear with students that we are learning about the role of visual art within a cultural and historical context, some of which includes a religious context. Like studying the work of Michelangelo and Sistine chapel, we are not teaching the religion, rather we are attempting to understand the role of religion in the practice of art making.
Cultivate expertise. Admit and explain that you are not an expert in Islamic art (unless of course you are!), but that we are studying, researching and learning together. To be an artist is to be a researcher, and we must make no assumptions. Make lists of what we do not know to help guide our investigations. See Eric Broug’s TED-Ed Talk to get the conversation started, “The Complex Geometry of Islamic Design.”
Seek out experts. Ask members of the Muslim community if they may be willing to share knowledge and tell stories; invite students’ family members to your classroom, call the local mosque, email professors and scholars in nearby educational institutions and museums. Crowd-source the classroom resources by teaching students to curate materials and knowledge rooted in research and participants’ voices. See website of The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha Qatar and the Online Highlights Tour for myriad resources and images.
Pre-empt backlash. If you are concerned that your choice of subject matter will be criticized, stay rooted in your commitment to provide a comprehensive art education that supports NAEA's mission to advance “visual arts education to fulfill human potential and promote global understanding,” and draw from the well-stated rationale from the Met “Why include Islamic art in your teaching?”
Ask how much more there is to know. These investigations will lead your students to inevitable questions about the vast expanse of art that has been generated across regions of the world and throughout history with origins in Islamic traditions. It will also provoke curiosity about how misconceptions are propagated and how contemporary practices art might lead to deeper understandings. Hopefully you and your students will agree that a single art project, or one book, or a solo research study – or one blog posting – is not enough. Promoting global understanding is a lofty goal for art education. It is a multifaceted and complex endeavor. When teaching is framed in historical and cultural contexts it helps uncover how much more there is to know.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art provides free unit plans online on “Art of the Islamic World.” My forthcoming blog postings will consider the power of language by inviting dialogue that analyzes vocabulary, and connecting traditional art forms to contemporary practices.