By Anita Kirpalani, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil Rio de Janeiro (CCBB) has acquired a new look. A marble fountain, geometrical patterns and Arab calligraphy have pride of place under the glass dome of the rotunda that now resembles an Arabic patio. No wonder: until December 26th, the CCBB becomes the main exhibitor of Islamic Art in Rio, with two major exhibits: “Islã” (Islam) and “Miragens” (Mirages).

spheric astrolabe
A bronze spheric astrolabe, Isfahan XII A.D, photo by courtesy of CW&A Comunicação.

The first big exhibition ever made on Islamic Art in Brazil, “Islã” which opened on October 12th, is an ambitious project that aims to cover thirteen centuries of Islamic Art. Curated by Rodolfo Athaye and Professor Dr. Paulo Daniel Farah, it features more than 300 pieces of an incredible diversity, the majority of which comes from the most famous museums of Syria and Iran, like the National Museum of Damascus or the National Museum of Iran – and had never been taken out of their home countries before.

Despite of its title, the exhibit is of course not about Islam as such. But at a time when this religion has become a sensitive subject in the West, the somewhat provocative title “Islã” is a clear statement of the curators’ aim: make accessible to Brazilians the wealth of the often little known Islamic culture and show its diversity.

The public does not only enjoy an impressive number of beautiful art pieces, but also a great variety of objects, both decorative and functional, from ceramics to mosaics, calligraphy, miniatures, jewelry, furniture, tapestries, arms, utensils, musical and scientific instruments and clothing.

But it goes further than that. On one hand, the exhibit tries to underline the unity of Islamic art by explaining how these usually anonymous pieces are often anchored in something bigger – Islam. It does it in a very didactic way, with a mix of written explanations and audiovisual content (you can do a virtual tour of the five most important mosques in the world for instance), explaining side by side both the art and its religious counterpoint (it even goes as far as explaining what a minaret or ablutions are).

Shirin Neshat's Allegiance with Wakefulness, photo courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

Yet, the exhibit heavily insists on the heterogeneity of Islamic art thus debunking the temptation of lumping together a culture that once went from the Iberia Peninsula to the Himalayas and that has an old tradition of syncretism. The incorporation of works from North African art and more specifically Tuareg and Saharan Art that come from the Biblioteca e Centro de Pesquisa América do Sul – Países Árabes (Library and Research Centre South America – Arabic countries) and of the Casa das Áfricas (House of the Africas) both located in São Paulo, and the well-made chronologies and maps also on display serve the purpose further.

International geopolitics can justify the eminence and necessity of such an exhibit and explain that it was chosen to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the CCBB. But it also resonates deeper with the existence of an old and fairly important Middle Eastern and Muslim community in Brazil which dates back to Muslim African slaves and which is now mainly composed of Brazilian Lebaneses and Syrians who came during WWI.

“Miragens”, which opened to the public October 19th, is a contemporary counterpoint to “Islã”. Curated by Ania Rodriguez, the exhibit presents on the second floor of the CCBB seventeen artists from all over the world – including one from Brazil – that all share a common Muslim culture. As many as 85 pieces mainly from European and North American galleries – photography, video, paintings and installations – will be displayed with the same aim as “Islã”: confront the viewer with a sometimes stereotyped vision of the Middle East.

To complement this, CCBB is also hosting a series of movies by Harun Farocki, German filmmaker of Arab origin.

Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil Rio de Janeiro
Rua Primeiro de Março, 66 – Centro
Tel: (21) 3808-2020
Open from Wednesday to Sunday from 9AM to 9PM. From October 12th to October 31st, the CCBB will exceptionally be open until 10PM.
Free entrance.

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