Finding an exhibition of a living, breathing artist at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is always a pleasure. Less rare than one might think, such shows as Masami Teraoka's 1996 riff on traditional Japanese art filtered through the California sunshine, or Robert Powell's watercolors of hauntingly animated Himalayan architecture from last winter, or the current small installation of photos, slide projections and transparencies by the British-based Iraqi-Irish artist Jananne al-Ani forge fresh synergies with the museum's better-known, if somewhat tradition-encrusted, fare.
The Sackler is a museum that some people all too easily tend to dismiss as a place dedicated exclusively to the art of the past. Its ongoing "Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur" is a prime example of that. Therefore it's always a little bit unexpected, despite the museum's growing commitment to collecting and showing contemporary work, to discover art that has . . . a pulse.
Mind you, I mean no disrespect. The museum is consistently able to breathe life into the art of ancient civilizations, often by transfusing some fresh blood into the patient.
Jananne al-Ani is such a shot in the arm.
By photographing her mother, herself and her three sisters in two pairs of group portraits that face each other from opposite walls, al-Ani takes the veil and the (to Western eyes) exotic dress of the Oriental female to use them as metaphors to examine the role of women in the contemporary Islamic world. In one of two color images called "Costumes," the five family members stand before the camera in casual, Western clothes (including the artist's mom in a funky leotard). Across the gallery hangs a mirror image of sorts: a photo of the same women with cheap-looking Middle-Eastern costumes thrown over their jeans and workout togs.
Interestingly, the photographer includes herself in the photographs, shutter-release cable in hand. That leaves no one behind the camera, therefore, except you, the viewer, left to evaluate what al-Ani calls "a documentary of a fantasy."
A second pair of untitled black-and-white portraits hangs nearby, again depicting al-Ani and her family. On one wall, the women are shown in descending order of veiled-ness, with her mother completely uncovered on the right side of the photo and her sister completely swaddled on the left. In its opposite number, the subjects have switched places, like musical chairs, and her mother's face is now completely obscured.
Al-Ani notes that, unlike writing, which runs across the page one way in English and another in Arabic, these ambidextrous passages can be "read" from both right to left and from left to right; they make no judgment about whether the veil is a good or a bad thing.
The show also features two installations: a series of five color transparencies of her family's head shots on which black-and-white images of the same faces (some veiled, some unveiled) have been superimposed; and a five-slide projection in which every 40 seconds one of her family's faces gradually appears or disappears. Plans for a video of women in the act of veiling each other had to be scrapped when it was not finished in time for the opening.
Nevertheless, the multimedia flavor and the hot-button politics of gender and ethnicity stirred up by al-Ani's polemical but ambiguous show may initially seem like strange bedfellows alongside two of the Sackler's recent -- and stodgier -- offerings. Still, it's no accident that the museum has simultaneously scheduled a show of Antoin Sevruguin from its collection of some 900 glass negatives of the photographer's late-19th-century and early-20th-century photos of Iran, as well as a small survey of antique and modern Islamic calligraphy.
Sevruguin's fixation on the exotic and calligraphy's emphasis on the word as both signifier and embodiment of the thing signified tie in beautifully with some of al-Ani's contemporary themes.
The subtext of al-Ani's art, post-feminist in the way it deals with the nature of otherness (but not so didactic that it forsakes aesthetic considerations), segues most neatly to the photographs of Sevruguin. The son of a diplomat in Tehran's Russian embassy, Sevruguin not only served as court photographer (whether shooting ruler Nasir al-din Shah on the Peacock Throne, getting his mustache dyed or resting while on an outing with his catamite), but in many ways epitomized the turn-of-the-century colonial fad of "orientalism" -- which viewed (and appropriated) Eastern culture through a Western lens.
Witness his "Western Woman with Chadoor and Hookah" (c. 1900), whose coy subject peeks out from beneath a black robe, the hem of which has been lifted to reveal a bit of bare ankle and high-fashion heels. Isn't this distortion -- which both reveres and marginalizes the culture of Islam -- exactly what al-Ani alludes to in her own work?
Less obvious but no less pertinent is al-Ani's link to "Imaging the Word: Selections of Calligraphy from the Islamic World." Just as every photograph is also a text, the samples of writing on display here are both objects of beauty in and of themselves and repositories of meaning.
The Arabic word for "Allah," for instance (which appears in the long, regal strokes of muhaqqaq script in the upper left-hand corner of a Koran folio the size of a tablecloth), is not merely a marker for, but in a sense a representation of the divine. And just as the contemplation or recitation of that word is a form of prayer, so would be the act of writing it. Only those calligraphers sufficiently skilled at their art would be deemed worthy of creating these proxies, as it were, for the word of God.
In English, the Koran isn't even really the Koran but a shadow of itself, as a translation included in the show and called "The Meaning of the Koran" makes clear.
That becomes more lucid still when looking at a painting like Turner Prize runner-up Shiarzeh Houshiary's 1998 "Light Upon Light," in which the delicately penciled word "Allah" spirals illegibly out of -- or into -- the black hole of her canvas like a visual mantra -- not just the name of God but almost a picture of God Herself.
CONSTRUCTING IDENTITIES: RECENT WORKS BY JANANNE AL-ANI -- Through Feb. 28.
ANTOIN SEVRUGUIN AND THE PERSIAN IMAGE -- Through May 28.
IMAGING THE WORD: SELECTIONS OF CALLIGRAPHY FROM THE ISLAMIC WORLD -- Through May 7.
All at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202/357-2700 (TDD: 357-1729). Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Free admission. Web site: www.si.edu/asia.
Public programs associated with the Antoin Sevruguin exhibition include:
Dec. 3 at 7 and Dec. 5 at 2 -- "Old Iran in Film" series: "Once Upon a Time, Cinema."
Dec. 10 at 7 -- "Old Iran in Film" series: "Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life."
Dec. 12 at 2 -- "Old Iran in Film" series: "People of the Wind."
Dec. 14 at noon -- Massumeh Farhad, associate curator of Islamic art, conducts a tour of the exhibition.
All films take place in the Freer Gallery of Art's Meyer Auditorium.