Spotlighting the Body in a Nascent Arab Art World

Most conversations about the history of nude art may gloss over the Middle East, although such works existed in the region hundreds of years ago. Graves points to three sites dating to the eighth century.

One of them, Quseir Amra, a palace in present-day Jordan, is decorated in frescoes depicting various figures, including nude women. Up until the site was rediscovered in the 19th century, Graves said, the story of art in the early Islamic world “had been based on the idea that there was no depiction of people, and certainly no nudity.”

Graves also cited sculptures of partially nude women found at Khirbat al-Mafjar and Qasr al-Mshatta, two other palaces in the region. A drawing of a partially nude courtesan, reportedly found in present-day Cairo, likely dates to the 10th to 12th centuries. After that period, other widely known nude artworks in the Middle East don’t appear until the spread of erotic manuscripts in the Ottoman Empire, Graves said.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the Ottoman Empire was declining and European rule was slowly making its way into the Middle East, many Arab countries were undergoing a cultural renaissance, or the Nahda, said Eltantawi. The “flourishing of nudes,” evident in the Wallach exhibition, she added, was a product of that moment of curiosity and openness.

Around the same time, Muhammad Abduh, an Islamic reformer and then the Grand Mufti of Egypt, traveled to Europe and wrote of his astonishment with its museums and scientific institutes. He then issued a religious edict, or fatwa, that allowed image-making and the depiction of living beings for scientific and educational purposes, so long as it did not lead to idolatry.

“This is the most pivotal moment in the history of Arab art,” said Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, which provided support and works to the Wallach exhibition. While Abduh did not mention nudes, many artists saw his edict as a green light to paint bodies, said Eltantawi.

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