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Mormon Art Exhibit To Tour the Muslim World

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 05, 2011

(The title is a hypothesis, not an announcement.)

Opening in February and running through September 2012, the exhibit “Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture” will be on display at BYU’s Museum of Art. According to the Tribune report, the exhibit will “feature more than 250 Islamic items from museums and collections in the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The objects range from functional items, such as bowls, to the sacred, including handmade pages from the Quran.” The intent of the traveling exhibit, which will go on to Indianapolis, Newark, and Portland after its stay in Provo, is to touch hearts with understanding; says its director, “Any kind of education and knowledge of each other is good to build bridges.”

Which got me to wondering …

If we were to put together an exhibit of Mormon objects for an exhibit in Kuwait and Qatar and Tunisia – the origins of some of the objects in the Islamic exhibit – what objects would best introduce us to Muslims? What would touch their hearts, to “bring pleasure without preaching,” and best represent the Restored Gospel? And why?

For example, we would probably want to include some representation of the scriptures. An 1830 Book of Mormon, because that is the first? A current maroon leather-bound quadruple combination because it represents us today? Scriptures in a foreign language? Some art object – a painting, calligraphy, a three-dimensional artwork? – rather than the printed word?

What about the temple? Would we send a visual representation of a temple (which?), or some object (what?) used within the temple?

What doctrines would we want to represent – and what objects could portray them through “pleasure without preaching”?

What objects of artistic value would also suggest our history, or our present life, or our hopes for the future?

Would we be self-conscious about Muslim sensitivities, or would we represent ourselves without concern for our audience? (That is, would we represent Deity in some depiction of the First Vision? Would we emphasize, or hesitate to mention, the participation of women in local councils and the leadership role of the Relief Society?)

Would the exhibit we sent to Islamic countries be different from one we might send to western Europe? To America’s Bible Belt?

My proposed entries:

1. Sacrament set — round tray for the bread, and a pitcher and goblet for the water — from the late 19th century. The Sacrament is central to our regular worship, so needs to be represented in such an exhibit. A brief explanation of the objects would be necessary; we’d be offering “pleasure without preaching” by focusing on the objects associated with the Sacrament rather than on a visual depiction of the Last Supper or the Crucifixion; by using a set from the pre-plastic, pre-individual water cup days, the communal element of worship would be present. The set chosen would be of highest workmanship, either individually crafted or at least representing the careful attention of an artist — I’m thinkin’ the set would probably be English. It would probably be silver, although the value should obviously be in its purpose and its beauty rather than in the cost of its materials. It wouldn’t be highly decorated, but the proportions and curves would be perfect. Ideally — maybe fantastically — the maker would be known and he would have some cool story to be told about making and donating this set to his branch, or about the importance of the Sacrament in his conversion or later life.

2. A contemporary artwork depicting some event or story or allegory from the Book of Mormon, in clay or fabric or glass or any other medium, in some traditional folk or ethnic style. Not only would this represent the importance of the Book of Mormon, it would suggest that its teachings are not bound by time or space and are understandable in any culture. The technical skill would need to be of the highest, but the piece would also have to have that element of great art that transcends even technique: it would speak to non-Mormon hearts because of our shared humanity (say, the glory of Christ blessing the children, or the grief of Mormon over the destruction of his people) or would be recognizable across religious tradition (say, Alma the Younger’s joy at being forgiven and coming to know God).

3. An architectural element salvaged from one of our vanished pioneer or early 20th century buildings — a carved stone embellishment, an elaborate window, decorative woodwork, almost anything that was more than it had to be to be functional, something that represented that little bit extra, that giving of one’s best to the House of the Lord, even when that House might serve only a few dozen or a few hundred neighbors in some corner of the Church where that labor and skill could have gone into securing a settlement or earning a living, but instead went for the glory of God.

Let’s play curator. You have access to every object (barring, perhaps the contents of the stone box on Cumorah!) that ever played a role in Mormonism, no matter where it is now located. You can imagine any object that likely existed, even if, as in my examples, you can’t point to a specific example — remembering that this is an art exhibit, not chiefly an exhibit of our history or a display of what’s so great about Mormon life, although those elements might be present secondarily. What would you like to see in such an exhibit, and why?



17 Comments »

  1. I would suggest something that would appeal to the mystical strains of Islam. You’re not going to find anything to completely parallel the Dervishes, as one example, but there are elements in our faith, particularly 19th century practices, that might sound familiar to them, and perhaps you could illustrate those similarities with a satchel representing missionaries traveling without purse or scrip.

    I would include an architectural display (temple and chapel) and, yes, definitely no depictions of the First Vision. But the model of the Salt Lake Temple from the South Visitor’s Center would be great for this exhbit.

    And, finally, this post is reminding me of the many wonderful, hospitable Muslims I met in Germany: Turkish, North African, and Persian. There was the charismatic Libyan student who had had a dream about Christ and kept inviting more and more students to hear the discussions. He wrote poetry for my companions and me. And there was the Persian student who wanted to travel to America to see how Mormons live. He was happy for an invitation to a branch party, and the usually-bickering branch outdid themselves in charm and friendliness for the evening. And I could go on and on, but I’d better leave room for others to comment. : )

    Comment by Researcher — December 5, 2011 @ 9:00 am

  2. Hmmmmmmm. I would have some sort of depeiction of the Mormon migration to the West. Express the notion of crossing the desert/living in the desert. The idea would be similar to the concept of the Muslim Hegira. This could be portrayed with maps, replicas of wagons, etc.

    Comment by Steve C. — December 5, 2011 @ 9:05 am

  3. Could I contribute the original book of Abraham?

    Comment by Carol — December 5, 2011 @ 9:20 am

  4. I love this, Ardis. So many things to think about.

    We’ve incorporated many local styles of architecture into our temples, but since there are no temples that are in Muslim areas (I think the Madrid Temple comes closest to using some Islamic design), I’d like to see some type of artwork that incorporates traditional elements of Islamic art and design with Mormon doctrine. I don’t know many artists who do that, but there are at least a few.

    I wouldn’t hesitate to include women’s participation. Women in many types of Islam have at least as large a role in their religious communities as we do in ours. I’d include several things from the history of Relief Society and its service.

    Comment by Amira — December 5, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  5. Several times I’ve happened to be in SLC when the worldwide art competition entries were being displayed in the basement of the Church Museum. I’ve always been very impressed, and I would think some of that material would work well in such an exhibition.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — December 5, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  6. When I was a boy, my grandparents gave pride of place on their dining-room wall to a beautiful, intricately crafted marquetry image of Temple Square. (I no longer recall the artist’s name — this was close to fifty years ago! — but I do remember dinner-table conversations about him and his work, and that he was, I believe, fairly well known.)

    It seems to me that something of that nature would be appreciated by a culture group that, from the Taj Mahal to the Alhambra, took mosaic work to such astonishing heights.

    Comment by SLK — December 5, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  7. A Bandlo. I’m not joking. (Of course this could be contextualized with photos representing earlier “homey” Utah Mormon culture: relief society bazaars, trikes dressed up as covered wagons for neighborhood 24th of July parades, etc).

    Comment by Mina — December 5, 2011 @ 10:15 am

  8. #6: I like the marquetry idea. Some other ideas include:

    A “beehive” doorknob from the Salt Lake Temple.

    A Minerva Teichart mural of farming the Utah Desert

    A representation of the stone pillar at the Joseph Smith Birthplace, with the story and perhaps historicla photographs.

    Journal and “grip” of Jacob Spori, from his mission to the Ottoman Empire.

    Comment by The Other Clark — December 5, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  9. In many respects, the strain of mormonism represented by Brigham Young, (patriarchal, strict, and polygamous) seems to share much more with Islam than the Mormonism of today.

    Comment by The Other Clark — December 5, 2011 @ 10:36 am

  10. I was also thinking Minerva Teichert, but leaning more towards one of her Book of Mormon paintings.

    Comment by kevinf — December 5, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

  11. It constantly amazed me, Ardis, to see how your mind works, the way you come up with ideas, and the way you sort through things, and your way with words. What would we do without you.

    Many years ago, the old ornate organ in the Centerville First Ward was being replaced. The installers were going to throw out the old organ, which was in pieces, when the janitor told them to contact my aunt Dorothy, who might want it. She had several pieces made from the ornate wood to hang on the wall to put pictures or curios on. The largest ornate piece sat on the floor in front of various size plants set in a bay window. I have one of the wall pieces and my daughter has the large ornate piece, which she hung on the wall as a headboard for her bed.

    So, I’m thinking that something to do with the tabernacle organ would be appropriate for this traveling exhibit.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — December 5, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  12. Well, you’d certainly need a panel of Islamic experts for advice on the exhibit. Dan Peterson comes to mind since he’s written on the topic of Mormon and Muslim understanding, and other scholars could come from BYU’s department of Middle Eastern Studies and other places.

    One of the questions about the exhibit would be whether any representation of the human figure was appropriate.

    Another would be if any representation of missionary work was appropriate.

    Comment by Researcher — December 5, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  13. Some of the Islamic art will be from the Middle Ages (5th century) and other pieces will represent modern Islamic art. Mormons don’t have the luxury of all those years to create art. The Mormon art exhibit for the Muslim world might include a Moroni statue to represent life with Joseph Smith (hopefully not one of those fiberglass statues). For the pioneer era a well-worn hand cart would represent Brigham Young’s day and the endless strife. For the modern era a gilded baptismal font should be built on-site and left there so a Mormon temple can be built around it when the exhibit finishes its run.

    Comment by Eric Creaux — December 5, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

  14. Oh Maurine!How lucky your family is! What a wonderful thing to have!!!

    Comment by Mina — December 6, 2011 @ 11:46 am

  15. Someday I’m going to ask for a tour of the mystical, must-be-mythical home of Aunt Dorothy — Maurine has told me so much about the things she saved. Like Mina, I would count myself fantastically lucky to have that kind of resource in my own family!

    Thanks for all your comments (so far — keep ‘em coming). It’s fun for me to think about the items or themes you all have suggested, and the advice given on Muslim sensibilities and what matters most in our own background.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 6, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  16. I would include patchwork quilts. It would be fun to include the articles of clothing made from the same cloth as the scraps in the quilt. I would also include a photo of a quilting bee, unless that image showing people would be vetoed.

    It’s hard to think of things to represent Mormonism that don’t include people. If people images are okay, can we find Arnold Friberg’s original of Lehi and his family finding the Liahona?

    Comment by charlene — December 6, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  17. Minerva Teichert did a beautiful painting of the marriage of the children of Lehi. I would surely include it in the Muslim world.

    Comment by Debrah — August 22, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

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