De-colonialisation and a multiplicity of methods

The addition I propose is not post-colonial, but de-colonial. It suggests that there are multiple ways of knowing about the world, informed by multiple perceptual cultures. I continue to value the art historical knowledge I have, placing things in time and place, interpreting their iconographic meanings and so on. But I also value other ways of knowing, informed, for example, by the Islamic poetic tradition.

My proposition is not competitive; it isn’t that one way of knowing is better than the others. It is that there is a richness of methods available in multiple perceptual cultures that current ways of knowing (in art history and otherwise) fail to recognise. De-colonial art history enables the recognition of these methods in their multiplicity.


Such multiplicity is normal for me. It has taken me half a lifetime to be able to articulate that, because the modern world conditions us through ideologies of nationalism, by which we define ourselves categorically. But many of us are migrants, with complex combinations and legacies of movement across place, as well as across class.

Many of us practice multiple cultures at the same time. We code shift; we shape shift. We have become so used to systems of dominance that claiming equality appears radical, when it is actually quite basic. So of course European art and art history retain value. But value doesn't have to be at the cost of others.

There has been much discussion in recent years concerning the integration of migrants and specifically Muslims into the culture of a "Judeo-Christian" Europe. Where do you stand on this?

Shaw: Judeo-Christian is one of those terms that seem self-explanatory. But consider this: in 1933, there was no "Judeo-Christian West". The term Judeo-Christian was initially used in Germany as a Protestant smear against Catholics for remaining "blind" to the true religion, and therefore too Jewish.

In the 1950s, it was recycled in the United States as a tool of integration, from which it spread to Europe – at a time when Europe had, after a thousand years of periodic persecutions (since the First Crusade), practically decimated its Jewish populations. "Judeo-Christian Europe" suggests a Biblical legacy, but it depends on the physical absence of Jews. Likewise, there aren’t many Jews in overviews of European art history. So I’d contest that it’s a term of integration; I’d categorise it as a myth that enabled the reunification of Europe, and its continued self-identification in opposition to Islam.


Islam is no more foreign to "the West", than the West is foreign to Islam

Conversely, parts of Europe were ruled under Islamic hegemony for eight hundred years in Spain and five hundred years in the Balkans, under which both Jews and Christians lived, if not as equals, as relatively protected populations – this is clear because they survived, even flourished, often as majority populations. This is not to say everywhere was peaceful, but neither alliances nor disputes always fell along religions lines.

Islamic cultures are integral to Europe, both constructively (everything from Algebra to Flamenco to courtly love to optics), and in Europe’s self-recognition in opposition to Islamic forces coming from the South and the East. Islam is also integral to the Americas – about a quarter of slaves purchased in West Africa were Muslim; much of the Spanish aesthetic of my home state, California, is inherited from Islamic culture in Andalusia. Islam is no more foreign to "the West", than the West is foreign to Islam.

Having thought about these relationships, we can reconsider the myths that circulate in our societies. Myths bridge two realities: more than representing the past, they address the needs of the time when they emerge and the ways in which they persist. The post-war needs may not be the same as ours, and it may be time for institutions like museums and newspapers to start propagating less exclusive myths. I find it strange that supposedly secular societies still use religion to naturalise distinctions of that other ugly myth called "race".

What hope does your approach offer for moving beyond such pressure to conform?

Shaw: There is no necessary or natural contradiction between religious groups – the oppositions are political; the histories and beliefs, both in terms of the Abrahamic and philosophical traditions, are largely shared.


There’s the old question of: if Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha (and we could add many others) miraculously met, would they fight or embrace? I have a hard time imagining them fighting, but their supposed followers have often done a terrible job learning from their examples.

We need to recognise that the stories we tell about the past aren’t simple narrations of truth; they produce the world as a reflection of certain interests. When you speak of pressure to conform, we need to think about the moments when each of us decide to conform to things with which we may not agree, or which we find unethical or unfair. In many areas of life, we have forgotten how to constructively discuss, rather than yell out positions or stay silent. We have lost the trust that enables and builds communities, critical to that framework of discussion. So I find the question is much bigger than that of "integration" or "assimilation".

The question is this: how do we move from societies with static understandings of uniformity that merely tolerate "others", to those that grow through collective engagement with multiple kinds of diversity? How do we enact this in our local experience, as well as in our interaction with new people and cultures? I hope my work contributes to the many voices that replace a focus on opposition with one of mutual engagement, curiosity, and affection.

Interview conducted by Lucy James

© 2021

Wendy M. K. Shaw is professor of the art history of Islamic cultures at the Free University Berlin. She received an honourable mention from the Albert Hourani Book Award 2020 for her latest work "What is Islamic art? Between religion and perception", published by Cambridge University Press. It was only the second time an art historian had received such recognition in the field of Middle Eastern Studies.

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