Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 28, 2019
Kishwar Rizvi, ed. Affect, Emotion, and Subjectivity in Early Modern Muslim Empires: New Studies in Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Art and Culture Arts and Archaeology of the Islamic World, vol. 9. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2017. 224 pp.; 94 ills. Cloth $140.00 (9789004340473)

Attention to structures of patronage in the creation of works of art and architecture has furthered our understanding of the sociopolitical context of material culture in the Islamic world. However, this approach has also overshadowed questions of materiality and a more comprehensive range of human-object relationships. In an attempt to redress this imbalance, scholars have increasingly pushed the roles of the artist, the audience, and the multisensorial experience of spaces and objects to the forefront of the field. Kishwar Rizvi’s Affect, Emotion, and Subjectivity in Early Modern Muslim Empires represents a collective effort to develop a discourse of reception, audience, intentionality, and devotional practices by infusing the methods of social art history with an embodied history of art. To achieve this, the essays in this edited volume study a wide range of works of art and architecture not only as sites of patronage and historical information but also as bearers of subjective and emotional experience. The contributions’ focus lies on artists and their self-fashioning, as well as the audience and its devotional and affective responses to the work, all of which are understudied issues in scholarship on Islamic art.

The first two chapters study the status of artists through signatures in architecture and manuscripts. The opening essay by Sussan Babaie explores the social position of architects on the basis of visual clues: signatures on major Timurid (1370–1507) and Safavid (1501–1722) monuments. Warning against the fetishization of such signatures as evident signs of individuality and self-expression, she considers these inscriptions’ frequency, manner of design, location in relation to the patron’s name, and urban visibility, and argues for a socially constructed concept of authorship that was embedded within specific professional networks. The following chapter by Marianna Shreve Simpson sheds light on the convention of hidden signatures by illuminators and painters in Timurid and Safavid manuscripts. Moving past the seemingly contradictory relationship between the function of the signature as a mark of authorship and the self-effacing practice of inconspicuously including them in miniscule scripts, she suggests that we read these signatures as competitive assertions of calligraphic skill rather than signs of the artists’ humility. Both essays challenge the presumed primacy of the calligrapher’s social status. This emphasis on the calligrapher in Islamic art history rests not only on the relative scarcity of sources regarding other professions but also, as Babaie points out, on historiographic weight given to the art of writing in light of its connection to the Qur’an in defining Islamic art as a field.

Continuing with the problematics of reading authors’ visibility as a straightforward indication of individualism, Emine Fetvacı focuses on author portraits in Ottoman illustrated manuscripts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She argues that an increase in author portraits at this time contributed to a stronger sense of the objecthood of books. These portraits turned a book into something more than just its content, reminding viewers of the labor invested in its production. Considering the financial uncertainties that court historians faced, Fetvacı invites us to read these portraits not merely as static signs of class, but also as indicators of social status in the making: performances intended to assert and maintain authority.

Transitioning away from authors and artists, Christiane Gruber’s essay directs our attention to audience and the blurry boundaries between iconoclasm and iconophilia. Through a close reading of fourteenth- to sixteenth-century figural paintings of the Prophet Muhammad and other holy figures alongside rare textual evidence about their alteration, she convincingly challenges the dominant discourses on Islamic iconoclasm by distinguishing between intentional and unintentional interventions. Intentional intervention, such as erasing eyes or veiling figures, was a controlled act, rooted not only in iconoclasm but also in the desire to ensure the survival of images in an acceptably altered form. On the other hand, unintentional damage—usually caused by repeated pious handling like rubbing and kissing the surface—reflects the role of the figural image as a locus of affectionate and devotional response.

Sylvia Houghteling’s chapter discusses the sensual properties of textiles as mediators between patrons and audiences in Mughal courtly culture, with specific attention to the court of Akbar (r. 1556–1605). She starts with a critique of the place of textiles in the art historical canon vis-à-vis their material and metaphorical potency for the study of emotions, and reflects on the methodological complexities of writing an embodied history of art in general. Houghteling’s main questions center on textiles’ role in the politics and poetics of courtly exchange. She shows how the exchange of textiles was entangled with corporeal, sensual, and emotional intentions: an intimate act that becomes all the more remarkable in light of the social status of the Mughal ruler, the size of his collections, and the reach of his empire.

Moving questions of subjectivity to the urban realm, Chanchal Dadlani explores the embodied experience of eighteenth-century Mughal Delhi. Her core argument posits a shift of urban order in Delhi around 1700, roughly half a century after it became the Mughal capital. She traces the increasing concentration and significance of activities beyond the palace walls by studying the fabric of the city alongside contemporary literature. Drawing on examples from several shrines and place-centered literary sources that furnish a veritable catalog of spatial and sensory experiences, she demonstrates how Mughal rulers capitalized on this new urban order as a source of legitimacy at a time when their power was waning. Arguing for a breakdown of social hierarchies in the city, Dadlani shows how the urban gaze shifted from the private, imperial court to the more public realms of the urban elite.

Sunil Sharma continues with the topic of transformed urban subjectivity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mughal society. Taking the poems of Fa’iz Dihlavi (d. 1738) as a case study, he detects a shift from poems written about the private palace grounds to those about public places, such as wells and rivers—a process that converges with a repositioning of the erotic gaze toward men to one toward Hindu women in the city. While Sharma’s focus is on poetry, he also extends the argument to representative paintings of the period as objects that showcase similar shifts. He offers a close reading of linguistic hybridity—combinations of Persian and Hindavi modes of poetry—and reveals how, against the wider backdrop of an emergent ethnographic gaze in the period, such hybrid writings broadened the traditional canon by subverting established gender norms in a transformed urban order.

Jamal Elias’s chapter looks at representations of emotions in paintings, etchings, and photographs in the Ottoman world, with a focus on Mevlevi Sufis (followers of the thirteenth-century poet Rumi). The essay cautions readers that despite our ability to recognize sentiments in a given historical work, as modern viewers we cannot access the precise nature of these emotions because their representations rely on inherently ambiguous forms of metaphoric speech and somatic description. It is fitting to reflect on the methodological limits of the history of affect and subjectivity at the end of an anthology that explores the potential of such lines of inquiry. However, while Elias’s underlying concern—the danger of assuming continuities of behaviors and values across time and space—is understandable, it is odd that he appears to prefer modern over pre- and early modern material (i.e., early Ottoman and European photography versus fourteenth- to sixteenth-century painting) and texts over images. Despite problematizing the modern gaze as an impediment to understanding pre- and early modern material, the author does not engage with the questionability of European and ethnographic gazes. Nor does he interrogate the limits of language in describing emotions, especially when it comes to mystical experience. Nevertheless, Elias’s worries about the accessibility of “original” emotions may offer a middle ground moving forward. Specifically, building on the kinds of contextualized, embodied histories that the previous essays in the volume offer, focusing on the study of metaphor and ambiguity as artistic resources and their relationship with intention, might well lead the way for future affective and sensorial histories of art.

All the essays in the collection engage with questions laid out by the editor from the outset and are structured so that each chapter takes several connecting threads in new directions. One question that the editor could have scrutinized further relates to the anthology’s premise: why empires? While Rizvi discusses the reasons for the book’s emphasis on the early modern period, such as expressions of selfhood vis-à-vis the expansion of exchange and knowledge of the world, the choice of empires versus other forms of government as part of the framework for a study of subjectivity and emotions could have been explained and/or problematized.

As a collective attempt at addressing questions of affect, subjectivity, and multisensorial experience in the field of Islamic art, the book would appeal to a broad audience that includes specialists and nonspecialists alike. The volume’s engagement with the status of the artist, for example, could be of interest to historians of Western medieval and Renaissance art. By asking such questions of pre- and early modern material, this anthology makes an important contribution to the broader discipline of art history, as well as history, comparative literature, cultural studies, anthropology, and religious studies.

Peyvand Firouzeh
Lecturer in Islamic Art, University of Sydney