Presentations

Monday, November 8

Keynote Presentation: Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT, The Quest for Thermal Delight.

In a fascinating small book, Lisa Heschong reminds us that the primary function of architecture has always been environmental responsiveness.  In traditional historic architecture, this function often metamorphoses over time into sensory, sentimental, symbolic, cultural, or spiritual qualities that Heschong gathers under the expressive title Thermal Delight in Architecture. 

Borrowing Heschong’s term, this presentation argues that Islamic architecture has long understood thermal delight to be the true essence of all environmentally responsive architecture.  Inspired by simple religious rules to respect all God’s creation and enjoy all God’s licit bounties, architecture regularly went the extra step beyond coping with environmental constraints toward engendering thermal delight in its actual spaces as well as in the furnishing and representations of those spaces.  To that end, it enlisted the climatic conditions of the various areas in which Islam spread —arid deserts, temperate mountains, tropical forests, and riverine marshlands— to develop sensitive, mostly passive, design strategies.  It also broadened its repertoire beyond the usual elements of building—space, surface, material, color— to employ sight, sound, and the tactile qualities of warmth, moist, and “coolth” in the pursuit of a multi-sensory thermal bliss.  This quest pervaded all scales of architecture from the territory, to the city, the house, the garden, and the single architectural or ornamental component.  

Examining select examples across time, climate, and scale, this presentation explores the various techniques deployed in Islamic architecture to harmonize with the environmental constrictions.  It pays special attention to the design subtleties aimed at transcending mechanical environmental responsiveness by incorporating the sensory qualities that are sometimes erroneously considered extra-architectural.  The presentation also shows that, despite the absence of architectural treatises, other forms of literary expressions—Qur’anic commentaries, adab, and even poetry— are replete with commentaries on the integral relation between space and thermal delight.  In fact, despite the layers of legal, cultural, symbolic, spiritual, and memorial dimensions that evolved over time to embody, enhance, modify, or even obscure the original environmental responses, thermal delight remained a constant objective of architecture well into the early modern period.  Encouragingly, it is nowadays coming back to reclaim its rightful status anew.

Tuesday, November 9

Rebecca Zorach, Mary Jane Crowe Professor of Art and Art History, Northwestern University
Presentation Title: “A luminous golden spirit owns us”: Legal Sculpting and the Rights of Nature

In this talk, I consider contemporary art works and practices that engage with the legal system, primarily in the domain of ecological art, alongside creative practices undertaken by legal theorists and practitioners that overlap with them, seeking to complicate our understanding of the potential “effectiveness” of these practices. I suggest connections with the notion of “legislative art” formulated by artist-activists engaging with the criminal justice system and projects at the intersection of the abolition and ecological justice movements, but my primary focus is on the Compass Group’s Monsanto Hearings and Aviva Rahmani’s Blued Trees Symphony along with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s “Community Bill of Rights” and environmentally-focused people’s tribunals. Though these projects often rely upon the very structures of western capitalism that they critique, I will also gesture toward openings (as in the quote from legal scholar Patricia Williams that appears in my title) onto systems of value other than western and capitalist ones.


Farid Esmaeil, Founding Partner of X Architects
Presentation Title: Context as a ‘Form’ Generator

In a context that is continuously changing, designers should spend a lot of effort to understand what values are constant and rooted and what is evolving. This may lead the designer to go to extremes when weighing one value over the other. Rooting in a “place” and utilizing its environmental uniqueness to strengthen the evolving programmatic needs may create a beautiful contradiction between the “spirit of place” or “genius loci” and the shock of the new as a result. What should designers draw their inspirations from when the context seems forever evolving? Successful designers have the ability to design buildings or objects that capture the “spirit of the age” of the surrounding environment. Some designs creatively embed connotations or reflect “truth” about the environment that we live in. Only then and in a contradictory way, does the designer succeed in developing a timeless and organic creation, elevating the work from an object to an ecological symbol in the collective mind of the society or nation.


T.J. Demos, Professor, Department of the History of Art and Visual Culture, University of California, Santa Cruz
Presentation Title: Climate Justice Now! Art and Environment in the Middle East

Arguing for the prioritization of climate justice as the most compelling ecocritical framework of analysis and methodology today, this presentation will outline its key operating principles and provide a discussion of select case studies in contemporary aesthetic practice that bring it into focus—including such practices as those of Forensic Architecture, Gulf Labor, Vivien Sansour, and Jumana Mana. Informing my research is the acknowledgment of the fundamentally entangled socio-environmental conditions of the racial Capitalocene, which prevents such terms as ecology and climate from being considered, and aestheticized, according to the narrow definitions of atmospheric carbon or more-than-human natures, as well as resists the Anthropocene’s neo-humanist generalizations. In joining climate to justice, politics to ecology, this complex analysis considers inextricably intersecting systems of social life and politics stemming from the colonial conditions of dominant economic arrangements and their militarized defense, which has long shaped the socio-environmental terms of life in the Middle East.

Wednesday, November 10

D. Fairchild Ruggles, Debra Mitchell Endowed Chair in Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Presentation Title: Cultivars and Calamities in al-Andalus: On Nature and Human Will

The built landscape is both a cultural and natural production. Most plants cultivated in contemporary and historic landscapes have become cultivars, domesticated through adaptation, pruned to concentrate growth, irrigated, fertilized, the seeds of the best specimens selected for future planting. The agricultural manuals and calendars made in al-Andalus recorded the effort of domesticating both native and imported plants and adapting the environment. Yet it was a world that could not be fully controlled. In Cordoba in the 9th and 10th centuries, the records of natural disasters that caused famine reveal the tension between humans as engineers of environmental transformation and humans as subjects of that same environment. As good trustees (Qur’an 2:30, 45:13), humans work to make the environment to suit our needs, yet at the same time the environment shapes us.

 

Yusen Yu, Junior Research Fellow in Comparative Aesthetics and Art History at Corpus Christi College
Presentation title: Flora and Fauna in Timurid Painting

Scholars have long been interested in Mughal representations of flora and fauna, which have been explained as the result of the impact of European nature drawings. A challenge to this narrative would suggest that the Mughal as well as Safavid tradition was equally the continuation of the Timurid realism of visual practice in this very genre, exemplified through naturalistic depiction, diagnostic coloring, precise anatomical and morphological description. Focusing on the arguably earliest surviving corpus of such works from the Istanbul and Berlin albums, my paper will investigate how Timurid and Turkmen painters utilized this genre to pursue unprecedented botanical and, especially, zoological projects, and how their extraordinary minuteness met the attentive eye of the intended viewer who sought beauty in nature. 

 

Stephane Pradines, Professor, Muslim Art, Architecture & Archaeology, Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations
Presentation Title: Coral Mosques and Indian Ocean Maritime Resources, from the Maldives to the Swahili Coast

This paper presents the author’s experiences, over the past twenty years, in coral stone mosque’s architecture. The use of marine porite coral is a technology that unites different cultures around the Indian Ocean, from the Swahili coast in Africa to the Maldives. The presentation will focus on the use of local resources and environmental constraints for the construction of maritime mosques. The origin of coral architecture is located between India and Indonesia. Its diffusion by the Abbasid travellers in the Western Indian Ocean, and in Africa in the 9th century, as well as its globalisation under the Buwayhids and the Fatimids in the 11th century is very closely linked to the international Muslim maritime trade. This paper investigates shared identities and how Muslim diaspora, traders, and refugees disseminate a unique technology and how local populations assimilate material cultures, new technologies and new building material.

 

Alexander Brey, Assistant Professor of Islamic Art & Architecture, Wellesley College
Presentation Title: Gushing Pools and Verdant Meadows: Rural Estates and the Reshaping of Umayyad Rural Landscapes

Medieval geographers of the 10th century like Ibn Hawqal extolled the beauty of uninterrupted vistas and vast panoramas that unfolded from elevated belvederes. For them, the landscape was best appreciated by a stationary viewer from a distance. But a letter on hunting attributed to the Umayyad court secretary ʿAbd al-Hamid, active in the first half of the 8th century, approaches the landscape instead as the dynamic terrain through which people, animals, and water actively moved. Following ʿAbd al-Hamid’s hunters, this paper argues that rural estates constructed during the Umayyad era (661–750 CE) should be understood in dialog with both unmanaged and managed flows of water and wildlife. Umayyad patrons throughout greater Syria altered the steppes that surrounded their estates through a variety of hydraulic systems. These projects also provided new emphases for the iconography of architectural decoration, attested at sites like Qusayr ʿAmra, the Azraq oasis, and Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi.

Thursday, November 11

Anna M. Gade, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor, Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin – Madison
Presentation Title: Muslim Arts and Material Ethics

The terms, “Islamic” and “Environmental” do not limit Art History by way of narrow sub-specialization; instead, they shift its grounding both expansively and irrevocably. Postcolonial perspectives about connected histories of global Muslims alter Eurocentric inheritances indelibly across a wide range of critical fields. Similarly, with respect to the “ecological thought” (Morton), eco-critical thinkers claim that environmental perspectives may not be undone after they have been afforded consideration. This presentation sets out such an engagement in the interdisciplinary terms of Environmental Studies, including the study of visual arts and material culture. Many environmental agencies and advocates seek to leverage aesthetic registers of expression in order to operationalize environmental messages, such as to render them affectively compelling; working in reverse, this presentation shows how the inherently ethical material of environmentality is apparent in Muslim religious and non-religious arts of the past and present in a manner that, once apprehended, cannot be un-seen.


Nada Shabout, Regent Professor of Art History and Coordinator of Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative (CAMCSI) at the University of North Texas
Presentation Title: A Threatened Imaginary: Environmental Interventions in Iraqi Art

The legendary modern Iraqi artist Jewad Selim (1919-1961) and his nephew contemporary artist Rashad Salim (b. 1957), both sought to understand the country of Iraq through exploring its cultures and environment. Explorations of Jewad’s generation of what the new borders of the new state contained was an act of surveying to assert existence. Jewad often presented the tension between modernity and tradition through architectural and urban juxtaposition and a palpable absence of landscape. Following years in exile, Rashad returned to an Iraq he no longer recognized. Through his Safina Project, he performs a similar exploration to that of his uncle. This time, through trying to reconstruct the imaginary his uncle’s generation erected while navigating the new destruction of both environment and heritage, Rashad delves into mythical, religious and historical narratives of events while questioning their current problematic representations. Physically building the different vessels and undertaking the journey himself offers empirical negotiations of such narratives.


Huma Gupta, Junior Research Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University
Presentation Title: Visualizing Maʻdan in Mayzara: The Hidden History of Urban ‘Wetlands’ in Baghdad

Contemporary scholarship on Iraq’s wetland ecosystems has primarily focused on the marshes of southeastern Iraq. This paper, however, uses visual archives to broaden the historical notion of what types of landscapes constituted a wetland in Iraq. This paper supports this claim through multi-sited archival research, which includes photography, film, architectural drawings, and paintings that depicted a different type of urban landscape co-created by migrant families engaged in buffalo-breeding. It  examines representations of ‘wetland’ ecosystems in Mayzara, a neighborhood located beyond the eastern Nazim Pasha flood dyke and railway embankment in mid-century Baghdad. Migrant families used flood plains, water channels, and excavated ditches to reproduce the environmental features of the wetlands they left behind to support their buffalo-centered livelihoods in the capital. However, the capital’s authorities viewed this landscape, marked by reed mat shelters, earth architecture, and wading pools for buffaloes, as one that mandated drastic environmental intervention and architectural transformation.


Rachel Winter, Ph.D. Candidate, University of California, Santa Barbara
Presentation Title: Aestheticizing the Ecologies of the Syrian Refugee Crisis 

Through the work of Issam Kourbaj (b. 1963, Syria) and Halil Altindere (b. 1971, Turkey), this paper explores the way ecological elements of Islamic art, such as fire and water, act as conduits for contemporary artists from Islamic lands now in diaspora to interrogate the ongoing Syrian Refugee Crisis. I examine the way their works draw attention to the socio-political dimensions of displacement, and the environmental shifts impacting the way refugees migrate and engage with the land while in transit. Kourbaj and Altindere’s installations reveal the way the eco-conscious ethos of Islamic art is transformed by the challenges of modernity and climate change to take on new meanings in contemporary artistic forms. This paper promotes questions about migrant interactions with the environment, the way climate change impacts migration, and the role of artists like Kourbaj and Altindere in the amorphous field of contemporary Islamic art. 

Friday, November 12

Amanda Boetzkes, Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory, University of Guelph
Presentation Title: Behind the Sun: The Theater of Oil Expenditure

This talk will consider the wasting of oil, one of the foremost global energy resources, as a paradoxical means of capital accumulation. I consider the burning of the Kuwait oil fields during the Gulf War as a case of conspicuous and aesthetically-charged energy expenditure. Drawing from the theories of Georges Bataille and Achille Mbembe, and through an analysis of the video Behind the Sun by Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri and its context in the exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 at MOMA PS1, I consider how the necropolitical logic of oil wasting conjoins with an aesthetics of ecological disaster. I chart a movement from the concept of energy expenditure as a form of systemic balance, to the tragic negligence of the need to waste well that results from the global oil economy’s instrumentalization of oil wasting.


Elizabeth Rauh, Assistant Professor at the American University in Cairo
Presentation Title: Iridescent Modernism: The Troubling Artistic Legacy of Pearl Diving in the Persian Gulf

The discovery of crude oil in the early 20th-century precipitated a fundamental shift in the Persian Gulf’s cultural, economic, and religious life. One of the most prominent effects was the near total collapse of the region’s historic pearl diving industry, and the aftershocks in coastal dwelling communities at the loss of this pre-industrial way of life. As modernist art practices and new media bloomed across the Gulf waters (fueled in part by expanding oil industry), artists looked to the pearl diver’s disappearing way of life and lasting heritage of their nacreous fishing practices as an analogy to petro-driven modernity. Through modern and contemporary artistic examinations of Persian Gulf aquatic ecologies, the destruction and enduring heritage of the Gulf’s historic maritime pearl trade can be understood as one of the chief propellers of the region’s technological progress, environmental devastation, and ongoing (troubling) artistic legacy.


Pamela Karimi, Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts
Presentation Title: Survival by Design: Oil Crisis, the Middle East, and the US Quest for Lunar Settlements

Invoked by astrophysicists, environmentalists, architects, and sci-fi writers, the desert-friendly architectural heritage of the Middle East was critical to research and experimental studies across three decades, that later came to be named the “Environmental Age” (1960s-1980s). While there is a substantial body of literature on space settlements and their correlation with science-fictional, architectural, ecological, and astrophysical writings, there is hardly a coherent study on the significance of survival strategies manifested in building cultures of the Middle East and North Africa. This presentation features US’s imaginary, architectural, and scientific proposals for self-sustained space settlements, informed by Middle Eastern desert architecture. In particular, it will focus the contributions of the Iranian American Nader Khalili (1936- 2008) who explored the frontiers of space settlements through his decade-long survey of Iran’s self-sustained desert architecture, culminating in a number of studies, including the book, Sidewalks on the Moon, as well as a proposed project for NASA.


Michelle Moore Apotsos, Associate Professor of Art, Williams College
Presentation Title: “The Earth is a Masjid”: Tanzania’s First Eco-Mosque as Environmental Advocate

In Hadith 1057, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) states: “Wherever you may be at the time of prayer, you may pray, for (the Earth) is all a mosque.” This paper takes this statement as a starting point in examining the significance of Tanzania’s first Eco-mosque, built in 2010, as a prototype for the application of ecologically, spiritually, and socially engaged architectural principles within economically emergent areas. As a collaboration between architecture, spirituality, and environmental technology, this structure has the potential to not only address how sustainability writ large can be applied to mosque design in a substantive way, but also how innovative built environments based on faith and eco-sensitivity can support the claim made by urban strategist Ibrahim Abdul-Martin (2010) that “The Earth is a mosque, the mosque is sacred; therefore, the Earth is sacred.”


Nisa Ari, Beinecke Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts
Presentation Title: Wasteland/Promise land/Homeland: Painting “Flora Palaestina” Before the Nakba

Unlike Palestinian poets from the early twentieth century, who evoked images of inhospitable lands as metaphors for the impacts of colonial and settler-colonial forces during the British Mandate, Palestinian painters from the same period, such as Nicola Saig, Sophie Halaby, and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, presented Palestine’s botanical bounty—its flora palaestina—as untouched, serene, and intact. I investigate their canvases within a history of representations of Palestine’s natural flora, from the rise of the scriptural-scientific field of “Biblical botany” in the late 18th century to institutionalized forms of “botanical nationalism” taught in government, missionary, and Zionist schools in the early 20th century. I argue that, prior to the nakba, Palestinian artists operated within this context to produce pristine, unharmed visions of flora palaestina as forms of anticolonial ecology—before such images were supplanted by postcolonial representations of deserted wastelands and ‘wretched earths’ in the second half of the 20th century.