2018 Medieval Afghanistan in European Collections

Islam in Medieval Central Asia: Objects, Images, and Knowledge Construction
Alka Patel (UC Irvine) and Beate Fricke (Universität Bern)

Dates: August 30th, 10-noon, 14-16th September 2018: Copenhagen (The David Collection); 21.-24. November 2018: Paris (Musée Guimet)

This seminar aims to explore the “medieval” – specifically the sixth-thirteenth centuries – in South and Central Asia. The specific window of time is especially fitting for the theme of Global Horizons in Pre-Modern Art since, arguably, it was during this period of several centuries that the two global regions cemented more intense cultural, linguistic, and political connections with longue durée impact on both, well into the modern age of nation-states. The eastward dissemination of Buddhism into Central Asia via pilgrimage, commerce, and proselytism, and the westward influx of Islam into South Asia by means of maritime trade, Sufism, and expanding nomadic empires are but two of the broad vectors along which transregional connections can be traced.

In Copenhagen and Paris, we will study the actual holdings of two important European collections of objects from Afghanistan, the major conduit for people, commodities, and ideas from across Eurasia traveling into and out of South Asia. As is well known, direct access to the sites and monuments of Afghanistan has been curtailed for at least four decades. Thus, present-day scholars rely not only on primarily Occidental museum collections and libraries to be able to conduct in-person analyses of objects; an integral component of studying the region is the surviving photographic documentation of buildings and their contexts, ­in situ objects, and also material culture lost to willful destruction (iconoclasm?) as well as ‘collateral damage’.

The lack of direct access to Afghanistan, and our reliance on the two museums’ holdings – one, a private museum of an individual family’s collection, and the other a state-funded museum – presents rich opportunities to explore the mechanics behind the construction of knowledge.  Furthermore, this seminar’s granular focus on a temporal and geographical slice serves as a material and methodological case study, opening up and addressing the following (and other) questions:

  1. Given the survival of overwhelmingly religious rather than any other type of evidence in the historical record (i.e. Buddhist images and monasteries; Muslim mosques, tombs and shrines), how can we create a more thorough understanding of the transfer, translation, and/or transposition of things and ideas between South and Central Asia?    
  2. What is the role of the Orientalist project – arguably a product of colonialism and/or other contests and imbalances of geopolitical power (e.g. the “Great Game”) – in present-day understandings of South and Central Asia?
  3. Have private collecting practices and the resulting museum holdings been influential in our apprehension of the “medieval” in Central and South Asia? Can photography be objectively documentary, or is it only capable of representing ­a priori assumptions?
  4. What is the (European) historiography of the “medieval,” and what are the consequences of applying it to South and Central Asia?

Alka Patel is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and in the PhD Program for Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She received her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and her PhD from Harvard University. Patel’s research has focused on South Asia and its connections with Iran and Central Asia, including overland and Indian Ocean maritime networks. Her works include Building Communities in Gujarat: Architecture and Society during the Twelfth-Fourteenth Centuries (Brill 2004), Communities and Commodities: Western India and the Indian Ocean, for which she was guest editor of a special issue of Ars Orientalis XXXIV (2004). Patel also guest-edited Archives of Asian Art LIX (2007), a special issue on reuse in South Asian visual culture. Patel’s interests have expanded to include mercantile networks and architectural patronage in 18th-19th-century South Asia, as evidenced in Indo-Muslim Cultures in Transition (co-ed. K. Leonard, Brill 2012). Her recent volume India and Iran in the Longue Durée (Jordan Center for Persian Studies, 2017), co-edited with ancient Iranist Touraj Daryaee, resulted from an international conference convening a wide array of specialists analyzing Indo-Iranian connections over two millennia. Her current monographic project on the Ghurids of Afghanistan and northern India is titled India, Iran and Empire: the Shansabānīs of Ghūr, ca. 1150-1215.