French exhibition captures the visual and visceral spirit of Haj

April 22, 2014

It is the largest exhibition ever held in France on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Hajj, Pilgrimage to the Mecca opened at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) in Paris on April 23, tracing its historical evolution and artists’ impressions of the journey through 230 objects. The items have been curated from public and private collections, including the Louvre, diplomatic archives, university libraries and the British Museum. The exhibition is organised jointly with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Public Library.

Elodie Bouffard, the assistant curator of the exhibition, says the intention is to recreate the route of the pilgrimage through a historical and artistic perspective, immersing the visitor in spaces that, through sound, video and photography, evoke a pilgrim’s day-to-day experience.

“We wanted to show both the collective nature of the Haj as well as its highly personal, spiritual nature. This is a journey that people make together, yet it remains ‘an individual experience’,” says Bouffard. “The exhibition is about the collective imagination and we wanted to enrich a discussion of the Haj through an artistic perspective, offering the visitor images of the journey and gathering that differ from those they might see on television or in the press.”

Exploring the rites and practices associated with the Haj, the exhibition seeks to shed light on the importance of this journey in a believer’s life, as well as its aesthetic dimension.

“The show is a wonderful opportunity to display the work of Islamic artists whose work we value alongside western perspectives. Much of the contemporary art on show comes from Saudi artists but there is also work by Iranian and Algerian artists. We were also keen to highlight the connections between France and the pilgrimage, for example, through the works of artists such as Étienne Dinet, a 19th-century French Orientalist painter who spent decades in Algeria. In 1908, he converted to Islam and undertook the Haj in 1929. Other converts whose work we have on show include the British photographer Peter Sanders.”

For more than 1,350 years, pilgrims have undertaken this important journey to the holy city of Mecca through four major land and sea routes.

“Along with the artistic scope of the exhibition, we’ve included many documents that focus upon the logistics of such an undertaking. For early pilgrims, performing the Haj was a perilous undertaking and many died on the way. Over the past 10 years, the number of pilgrims who gather at Mecca has grown to around three million, so certain architectural infrastructures have been added to cater to this number. A hundred years ago, Mecca could only hold up to 8,000 pilgrims a day. The exhibition also includes architectural maquettes of Masjid Al Haram, which show the development of the largest mosque in the world.”

Visitors are also invited to participate in the show: “We were so moved by the richness of pilgrims’ recollections of their journey when we were preparing the exhibition that we decided to incorporate the means by which visitors can record and share their memories. There is a part of the exhibition where we’ve installed what we call our photomaton, where visitors can photograph themselves and make a three-minute recording of their Haj experience. These recollections will then be uploaded to a freely available website. We also ask visitors to leave material souvenirs of their trip to Mecca. Sometimes these apparently ordinary objects have an emotional charge. In contrast, we also have on show valuable pieces: medieval art objects, textiles and illuminated manuscripts.”

According to Jack Lang, France’s former minister for culture and the current president of the Institut du Monde Arabe, the exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to discover some of the many rich facets of Islam in a country where Muslims represent the second largest religious group.

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