Clark art history conference puts global projects in local dialogue

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute hosted a Clark Conference lecture series titled “In the Wake of the Global Turn: Propositions for an ‘Expanded’ Art History Without Borders” last Friday and Saturday. The series featured a diverse array of lectures and discussions inspired by scholarly papers written by art history academics known across the country and internationally. 

Saturday’s papers included research by Kishwar Rizvi from Yale, Alessandra Russo from Columbia, Talinn Grigor from Brandeis and David Roxburgh from Harvard. Each speaker’s presentation focused on a unique aspect of art history and real-world artistic design as it relates to history, globalization and cross-cultural connections in the 21st century.

Rizvi began the morning’s presentations with a talk titled “Transnational Islam, or the Reification of History Through Contemporary Architecture,” which centered on the Park51 Muslim community center in New York City. Rizvi explained that the building was designed to represent both “Islamic iconography” and the sleek aesthetic associated with modern New York buildings.

“Architectural design is also a mode of historical expression,” Rizvi said, alluding to the Park51 building’s six-point Arabic star motif woven into its geometric design; Rivzi used the motif as an example of such expression that embodies both the history of Islamic tradition and the history – and history in the making – of the city. During her talk, Rizvi touched briefly on the controversy surrounding the community center, which opened in September 2011, and how it relates to the art world. “History is shaped by both the critics and the promoters of the building,” Rizvi said. The Park51 community center was highly contested due to its focus on Muslim culture and its proximity to Ground Zero.

Rizvi also devoted a significant portion of her lecture to discussing the building’s architect, Michel Abboud, and how he functions as a symbol for the building’s purpose: to build community across cultural, religious and geographical backgrounds. “He navigates the world as a transnational citizen. He was ideal for the Park51 community center, navigating across cultures and building bridges,” she said.

Abboud was born in Beirut, Lebanon, was educated at Columbia in New York City and also holds citizenships in France in Mexico. While the architect may serve as a symbol of “transnational mobility” for Rizvi, she noted that transnational mobility is seldom discussed insofar as it relates to images and architectural design, and that, according to the art scholar, “architecture is limited by globalization.”

But the Park51 project exemplifies triumph over this limitation, according to Rizvi. The architectural design of the building, encompassing “Islamic ornament and modern aesthetic,[was] meant to move from conflict to resolution,” appealing equally to Muslim Americans and all New Yorkers alike.

Russo also gave a notable talk on Saturday, focusing on a much earlier time period than Rizvi in her lecture “Renaissance Artistic Theory in the Wake of the Global Turn.” She began her talk by musing on a country’s ability to collect and preserve art on a national scale. She then moved to the context of Spain in particular during its military conflict with Atilla the Hun and the Barbarian invasions, alluding to how “violence is represented in art” from this period, as it was the pervasive social issue of the time.

Russo also illustrated another “conquest” of a more internal nature that surfaced within the art community: “the art of painting.” According to Russo, artists during the Renaissance were beginning to experiment with “mezcla,” or mixed-media expression, capitalizing on oil painting, murals and even work with glass. Like Rizvi’s presentation, Russo’s talk also lent itself easily to a cross-cultural theme. “Painters … have been national and have not experienced the world at large,” she said.

Russo used the 16th-century Spanish artist Felipe de Guevara as a figure relevant to both the history of Spanish art and the history of Spanish expansion and exploration. She also noted that, even though de Guevara was essentially unable to leave the Iberian Peninsula for most of his life, he found diverse sources of artistic inspiration throughout the various provinces of Spain. And just as Abboud served as an embodiment of artistic bridge building across the globe, Russo cited Guevara as an individual representative of the artist’s quest for meaning beyond borders, a message that the speakers at last weekend’s lecture series excelled at driving home.


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