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Journal Issue #6 Secularity

Skulls of raven and fulmar. Workshop of Jens-Kjeld Jensen, Nolsóy. All photographs by Simone Kotva.

Sealanguage: Field Notes from the Anthropocene

Simone Kotva

In the Faroe Islands, long-standing but now rapidly declining practices of tabooing have governed the language of fishermen at sea. Based on fieldwork that combines ethnography with intellectual history, this article explores the continuity of this allegedly superstitious practice within the broad framework of Western secularity. In the 1990s, local practices of naming found expression at a national level with the compilation of the first ornithological handbook written entirely in Faroese. The example of this field guide, in which local names were made to conform to scientific nomenclature, is used to interrogate tensions between orality and literacy. Contrary to the tradition that would oppose folk-taxonomy to classical systematics, it is shown that among field observers both practices of naming are used simultaneously, and, frequently, non-competitively. Through these and other examples it is argued that what is at stake in practices of naming is a habit of paying attention to the environment, premised not on lexical expertise or ideas of knowledge but on a singular hedonism of taking pleasure in the thing named. It is the cultivation of this habit that is proposed as the critical foundation and future purpose of any planetary consciousness.

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On Secularity: Discussing the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art 2017

Andrea Phillips, Nav Haq and Ola Sigurdson

In this interview between Professor Ola Sigurdson, Nav Haq and Professor Andrea Phillips, Haq discusses his reasoning for choosing “secularity” as the theme for the biennial while Sigurdson expands on the history and politics of the term. The interview situates secularity within an artistic, curatorial and contemporary context, taking into account the biennial's location in Gothenburg.

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Secularisation and Religion in a Post-secular Age

Bengt Kristensson Uggla

This article elaborates on the conditions for secularisation in a post-secular age starting from the complications associated with the story of Columbus and how this narrative, configured among the growing controversies on knowledge between church and nation-state in the latter part of the 1800s, may be considered as part of a larger narrative—the story of secularisation. For a long time it was assumed that there was a necessary, sine qua non connection between modernisation and secularisation, yet this is challenged today by “the return of religion” and “the new visibility of religion”. It is argued instead that secularisation needs to be comprehended in a non-binary way, beyond the dichotomous opposition between religion and secularisation, superstitiousness and scientificness, intolerance and tolerance, reaction and progress. Furthermore, secularisation should not be considered as an opposite to, but as something produced by Christianity.

“Lovers on the terrace”, Mughal miniature painting, Hyderabad, India, 1750. 
Photograph: Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Art as an Escape from Secularity: the Maryamiyya Case

Klas Grinell

Islamic art is a narrowly defined field with a tight canon and limited set of themes for contemporary practitioners. This article traces the modern framing of this field in the World of Islam Festival in London 1976, and the Sufi Maryamiyya traditionalist paradigm that was constructed there. The Sheikh of the Maryamiyya order and one important inspiration for the contemporary presentation of Islamic art is Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The traditionalist understanding of art sees it as an expression of a perennial truth that stands in stark opposition to the dividing forces of modernity and secularity.

Rather than trying to politically defy secularity, the Maryamiyya use art as an escape from secularity—itself a very secular move with roots in European Romanticism. Islamic art is seldom presented as the aesthetic expressions of contemporary Muslims, but rather as a timeless refuge from secularity.

Besides the presentation of the Maryamiyya paradigm of Islamic art, the article reconnects to discussions on the Islamisation of knowledge and their application to the art field within the tawhidic paradigm. A decolonial Islamisation of art might open up a space to address secularity in new ways. Through this discussion, the Christocentrism of secularity becomes visible, and new prisms of the concept surface.

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The Sacrosanct Art: On Art and Religion, the Rise of Populism and the Changing Media Landscape

Måns Wrange and Maria Karlsson

In Sweden, as in a number of European countries, it has been possible to discern a shift in the attitude of politicians to culture in general and to contemporary art in particular. Every elected politician is entitled to have views on individual works of art and to discuss them—like any other citizen. But Swedish art controversies since the millennium have not dealt with aesthetic judgments but moral condemnation and the ensuing demands for exhibitions to be closed, cultural funding withdrawn, and the dismissal of leading members of staff of cultural institutions and academies of art. In this article Wrange and Karlsson argue that art scandals are an “ethical kaleidoscope”, particularly as they are seen to transgress religious mores in a secular regime.

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The Idea of the University and the Process of Secularisation

Thomas Karlsohn

This article deals with the question of the historical secularisation of the university. It takes as its starting point the common assertion that the university essentially became a secular institution towards the end of the eighteenth and during the nineteenth century. But, when studying the different historical ideas about the university we can discern quite a different pattern. On the level of intellectual history—and when it comes to self-images, norms, values and rituals and practices governing academic life—Christian outlooks and originally theological approaches have continued to exist.

The article discusses a series of examples supporting its main argument. First, it traces the idea of the university historically, focusing on the main figures of John Henry Newman and Wilhelm von Humboldt and the traditions they represent. Thereafter the article discusses the idea of the university in relation to the process of secularisation, drawing on a number of examples dating from the turn of the eighteenth century to the post-war period. In the concluding remarks, the account turns to a recent example  in which the idea of the university is discussed and where the process of secularisation also plays an important role.

Svetoslav Roerich. Portrait of Nicholas Roerich, 1928. Oil and tempera on canvas. Courtesy The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow.

Differences and Sameness: Secularity in the Case of Nicholas Roerich

Mi You and Eszter Szakács

The article explores the conceptual structures behind secularity and associated concepts such as immanence versus transcendence and progress versus anachronism by drawing on the life and activities of Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947).

Roerich was a Russian painter, theosophist and archaeologist. He established his reputation both as a spiritual leader and as a painter mixing syncretic religious symbols, from Orthodox Christianity, Theosophy to Tibetan Buddhism. Together with his wife, he pursued—and ultimately failed—to establish Shambhala (paradise in Tibetan Buddhism) in the area from Tibet to Southern Siberia, in a time of great geopolitical tension.

We argue that Roerich’s enterprise emerges from the ruins of multiple broken orders: the empire/transnationalism, traditionalism, mysticism, religiosity and Communism on the one hand, and nation-state, modernity, scientism, secularisation and liberal democracy on the other. His curious path transgresses ideological divides and points to the categorical limits of the dichotomies they produce. His legacy is appropriated today by various, often conflicting lines of thought, canonising him in the context of Russian art, esoterism, and in Russia’s revived geopolitical interest of Eurasia.

Monument to Capital (lightbox, 2013)

Monument to Capital: Notes on Secular Religiosity

Jonas Staal

Using his ongoing research project Monument to Capital as a starting point, here Staal argues that capitalism’s alienation has bred an “authorless world” to which we can only respond religiously. The Monument to Capital project represents through video and installation the artist’s ongoing research into the structural relationship between economic crisis and the construction of the highest buildings of the world. It departs from the so-called Barclay’s Skyscraper Index, which the company uses to advise its clients in which countries to invest into real estate.

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State/Religion: Rethinking Gender Politics in the Public Sphere in Iran

Azadeh Fatehrad

Gender politics and the public sphere have been two key areas of intervention on the part of both the secular Pahlavi monarchy of Iran and the religious government under the Islamic regime. One of the consequences of Reza Shah’s modernising project, which allowed for more open and progressive gender norms and gave women access to education, work and other opportunities, was the alienation of the vast majority of conservative Iranian families who no longer recognised the new secular public sphere they found outside their door. Unsurprisingly, while a small number of Iranian women managed to benefit from the changes that were supposedly enacted for their benefit, for the vast majority these reforms were hardly liberating and family life remained fairly traditional.

Figure 1. The post box is a miniaturisation of the Seljuk mausoleum architecture with octagonal torso, pyramidal dome, and façade treatments.

On the Curves of Turkish-Islamic Heritage

Fahrettin Ersin Alaca

After the fifteen-year continuous ruling of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), the tension of secularism has evolved to another level as national Islamic imagery and has turned from the “exotic Other” to privileged institutional identity. Signalling dynamics of populism and capitalism, politically motivated commodification of Islam is continuously reproduced by a glorified national history imagination in popular media and cultural frameworks. Revivalism of Turkish Islamic roots, for example, has become a sine qua non of contemporary state architecture. Ottoman symbolism has boomed in design, architecture, and craft works, involving pastiche applications in a myriad of household objects. This trend resonates in contemporary art too, such as in the case of Islam-inspired Erol Akyavaş’ paintings, which sold successively for record-breaking prices.

As Turkey’s secularity crisis escalates, the peculiar convolution of Islamism and consumerism catalyses phenomena where one can apply secularity as a deconstructive term to scrutinise emerging social encounters and negotiations. In this contribution, I focus on creative professionals who style, design, and create consumer items that are engaged in the commodification of Islam and diverse secularities of the everyday. Via a set of interviews I attempt to show how designers and applied artists develop philosophies and strategic capacities, apply tactics and negotiate tensions in order to reconcile their creative authority with various market pressures.

“How My Grandfather Survived”, Cedrick Tamasala, 2015. Installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2017. Chocolate. 15✗8.3✗9.4 inches (38✗21✗24 cm). Courtesy the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise; Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; and KOW, Berlin. Photograph by Kyle Knodell.

Seeing from Secular Spaces

Ruba Katrib

What are some of the issues at play when minority religious perspectives are brought into the discourse of contemporary art? Following an exhibition of the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) at SculptureCenter in New York City, several considerations around the presentation and representation of traditional spiritual beliefs and their hybrids are assessed. Questions around the decolonisation of the spiritual come to the fore: how are religions deemed primitive considered and accommodated within contemporary art discourse? From secular academic perspectives, it is important to leave space for traditional beliefs and their contemporary hybrids to emerge without over-determination. Reducing, misinterpreting, over-intellectualising, and fetishising minority religions within works of art can reproduce damaging colonial frameworks. How can contemporary art in the European and American contexts navigate the presentation of a more diverse range of artists so that they may retain respect for traditional spiritual belief systems, and allow audiences to grasp part of their meaning?