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Aesthetics or Ethnography? Notes on the Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS)

Photography by Omar, one of Termeer’s respondents

By Matthias Teeuwen            When one thinks of a Muslim artist in the Netherlands one naturally thinks of someone who, with his or her art, tries to address issues of integration, tensions between Islam and secularism or the clash between Islamic and western society. Because that is what art by Muslims in the Netherlands is supposed to be about. Right?

In last week’s AALS lecture Dr. Bregje Termeer came to talk to us about her dissertation research on artistic strategies of young Muslim artists living in the Netherlands. What she discovered was that these artists did not subscribe to the definition of what art by Muslims is supposed to be. These artists were, as Termeer called it, ‘disengaging culturalism’.

By making art that could not easily be defined as art by Muslims these artists ignored and in a way rejected the dominant notions of what their identity is supposed to be determined by. Termeer argues that this is a political act by which these dominant notions were subverted. The artists merely wanted to manifest themselves as individuals in their art. And even though they identified themselves as Muslims this did not necessarily find expression in their art. In short: they affirm that their authorship should not be defined by their religion or by the “problems” surrounding the Islam in Europe, but simply by them as individual authors.

At the same time however, they felt the excluding mechanisms of culturalism. Because by making art that cannot easily be defined as ‘art by Muslims’ they often missed out on art expositions whereas others who were more willing to be framed as young Muslim artists got their art exhibited in expositions that reproduced the dominant discourse on Muslims. Art gallery owners and museum curators would stubbornly be on the lookout for Muslim artists that would make the dominant discourse and frictions their theme – and would react at best lackadaisical in case they received work in which “muslimhood” was absent.

By not allowing themselves to be framed as ‘angry’ or ‘radical’ these young artists tried to redefine the way art by young Muslims should be seen. They want their art to be evaluated on other criteria than those based on culturalist notions of Muslims. They want to give expression to their experiences of life and being Muslim is just one of them.

At the end of the talk I was left with the impression that this is just as much an aesthetic issue as it is an ethnographic one. Let me explain.

When I walk into the Rijksmuseum I have two ways of looking at paintings. I could either look at the composition of a painting, examine its harmony and admire its symmetry or I could ask what ideas the painter wanted to get across with his painting. The first presupposes the concept of art as something that is aesthetically pleasing to the senses and requires that I look at the artwork as it is. The second presupposes the concept of art as something that expresses an idea or an emotion and requires that I try to understand the artwork as embedded in a story.

With regard to art by young Muslim artists this would mean that one could see the piece of art as something that is aesthetically pleasing or as something that is meaningful and that can only be understood in light of the artist’s background: his age and religion, for example.

These alternative ways of seeing also inform ethnography. In ethnography, the first would be a phenomenological approach in which the phenomena in the field are taken as they are without any preconceptions or presuppositions. The second would be a symbolic approach in which the phenomena in the field are taken as standing for underlying principles or as embedded in a story without which you would not be able to understand them.

This helps us understand Termeer’s research. By focussing her research on their art, Termeer studied these young Muslim artists as they are and refused to see them as representatives of some specific culture. The focus on their art helped Termeer gain an initial phenomenological understanding of her respondents that was unhindered by the dominant discourse on Muslims that labels them as ‘problems’ and helped her get to the real stories of these young Muslim artists.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of cultural anthropology and theology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.

The Amsterdam Anthropology Lecture Series (AALS) is a year-long event organised by the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. It involves public lectures for the academia and the wider public and it means to connect current affairs with anthropology. The series is linked to the new research theme of the department entitled ‘Mobilities, Belonging and Beliefs’ (MOBB). Upcoming lectures are announced on the departmental website.


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