In Praise of ‘Making’ Traditions and Materiality

Leslee Michelsen, Senior Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design in Honolulu, Hawaii, talks to Artscoops about her commitment to righting longstanding wrongs by giving equal space and recognition to lesser known and under-represented types of work 

Leslee Michelsen, Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design (Photograph: Elyse Butler, 2020). 

Having witnessed the skill and passion that went into the quilts lovingly crafted by her grandmother, it’s not surprising that Leslee Michelsen, Senior Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design in Honolulu, Hawaii is committed to giving art in all its forms equal standing.

“I remember loving those quilts as a child,” she said, “but as a curator today, I can admire them on another level – the sophisticated understanding of colour and motifs they and other quilters displayed, for example.” This insight, together with Michelsen’s all-encompassing love for ‘materiality’ and ‘making’ traditions, has left her determined to right the wrongs for these art subcategories where she can, in terms of both presentation and denotation of Islamic art at the Shangri La Museum. “I see it as my responsibility to make equal space available for cultures whose art forms are perhaps lesser known or under-represented,” she said. “All types of work are treated as valued cultural production, whether that’s a simple bowl crafted by an anonymous potter or the illustrated court manuscript of an artist who found fame in their lifetime. We also refer to art collectively, rather than categorising it into sub-divisions, seeing that as the most equitable way of describing it.” 

Classism undoubtedly has a part to play in the under-representation of ‘making’ and the ‘domestic’ or ‘quotidian’ in Islamic art, as Michelsen pointed out, exacerbated by myriad misconceptions, including an assumption among some that many of the artists who achieved fame in their lifetime produced art solely for artistic expression.  

“In general, choosing one’s job is a contemporary luxury,” she said. “It’s incredibly important to talk about historic art as an economic generator rather than the domain of singular geniuses, whether that’s someone making a piece of pottery for a neighbour or an Ottoman Sultan ordering the creation of an illustrated volume for the Shah of Iran.” 

Making and ‘materiality’ in Islamic art also provides intriguing insight into the key contribution made by women in these segments, including gender divisions and, fascinatingly, indications of their efforts to balance work with family commitments.

Artist in residence, Faig Ahmed

“Much of artistic production was carried out in familial units, where everyone contributed and people had allocated roles that were often defined by other occupations,” she explained. “Processes were routinely informed, at least in part, by gender, such as in contemporary Afghan pottery practices, for example. Here, frequently the men’s role would be to throw pottery, while the women performed the ornamentation, in part because this task meant they could more easily deal with daily or urgent interruptions.” These fascinating narratives and backstories undoubtedly permeate exhibitions celebrating ‘making’ and ‘quotidian’ art. Visitors’ curiosity becomes almost palpable, which helps to generate a welcome buzz and more relaxed atmosphere in venues, much to Michelsen’s delight.

“I’m naturally deeply interested in how things are made, whether it’s the leather-tanning process or the production of a metal fork, but it’s fantastic to see visitors on a journey of discovery bringing a museum to life,” she said. “There’s a sense of freedom rather than a hush when institutions are displaying what are often described as ‘crafts’. It’s often experienced as less intimidating, even when the artworks on show are astonishingly sophisticated.”

Michelsen is all too aware that intimidation can be an issue in museums, admitting she didn’t find them inviting places to visit as a child. Ensuring shows bring a display and its backstory to life is, she believes, key to winning over audiences in numbers. 

“Museums shouldn’t be tombs – you can care for art and still create a memorable museum experience,” she said. “It’s important to remember that art didn’t emerge from a vacuum - all art was contemporary at the time of its production – and it’s a curator’s task to relay this message to audiences through vibrant presentation.”

Ensuring audiences are able to appreciate the influence of Islamic art from the past on artists creating today is another reason for presenting historical pieces in a way that truly does them justice, according to Michelsen, who cites the textile sculptor Faig Ahmed as an example, explaining that his visually striking work is deeply connected to production of the past.

Projects in the pipeline for 2023 at the Shangri La Museum certainly have the inextricable links between past and present at their core, while also exploring a wealth of other intriguing, topical themes.

Building on the Shangri La’s rich legacy of diverse and eclectic exhibitions celebrating Islamic art in all its forms, the upcoming schedule highlights Michelsen’s awareness of the curator’s role in both bringing visitors through the door and getting them excited about what’s in front of them.

“Museums have to listen to people not just talk at them,” she explained. 

“We need to be doing our best to reach out to people across the divides as we move forward, positioning museums as community service partners, and curators have a major part to play in making that happen.”

Find out more about the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design, Hawaii here.

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