When Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers decided to build a show about Islamic Africa, he knew he couldn't do it alone.
"I am not Muslim, I don't read Arabic," said the Brussels-born Grootaers. "I thought it was impossible to do this show without someone who has lived experience in this religion, and knows how to treat objects respectfully."
But he knew Ifrah Mansour, an artist with whom he'd worked on Mia's first-ever Somali-American show, 2017's "I Am Somali." She suggested he contact Amallina Mohamed, curator at the Somali Museum of Minnesota — and the result is "Khatt Islami: Sacred Scripts From Islamic Africa," which opened last weekend.
Drawn from the museum's own collection, all 16 objects in the show, ranging from textiles to an amulet, showcase Khatt Islami, Arabic for "Islamic line" or "Islamic design." Calligraphy is considered the highest form of Islamic art, used to transmit the sacred words of the Qur'an.
Mohamed served as co-curator with Grootaers, who has been Mia's curator of African art since 2008, but "I made sure community members were involved, too," she said. "Inviting them into these spaces that they usually wouldn't be familiar with was necessary and important."
Islam was first introduced to North Africa in the seventh century. Its influence remains strong in the continent's northern half and down its eastern coast.
As visitors roam through the gallery, they may hear the rhythmic, meditative chanting and drumming of Sufi music from three different African countries, further adding to the mystical element present in this beautiful exhibition.
From Somalia to Minnesota
Mohamed grew up in Minnesota surrounded by Somali culture and language: Her parents came to the United States as refugees in 1990.
As a child, she attended dugsi, a weekend school where students learn Arabic so they can read and memorize the Qur'an.
The show includes seven writing boards, which children use to learn how to write Arabic script and memorize Qur'an verses.
A worn wooden board from Somalia is similar to ones that Mohamed's parents used.
"In Somalia, the ink that's used is made out of soot and frankincense," she said. "Students would write a chapter, memorize it, and erase the board to learn a new chapter on it."
In some parts of Islamic Africa these boards are also used by healers, or as a spiritual talisman to protect the home.
Mohamed and Grootaers included two "home protection boards" — allo kafi gida in the Nigerian Hausa language — that depict finely painted animals, including a camel, birds and possibly a lizard, along with words, numbers and geometric figures. The boards were custom-made by a Muslim cleric-artist. Traditionally, the head of a household hides the boards somewhere inside the home to protect from evil and bring good fortune.
Iconography of these boards draws from the Qur'an, Sufi mysticism, and Hausa animal symbolism. But the curators were stumped by a rougher-looking board full of Arabic-looking squiggles.
"When we were looking for a translation, it turns out these doodles are illegible," said Grootaers. "This is clearly the work of a child, mimicking the movements of someone."
English translations are supplied for objects with legible Arabic, thanks to Fahimeh Ghorbani, a curatorial intern at Mia who is originally from Iran and specializes in Islamic and Persian art and architecture, with help from Alam Saleh of the Australian National University.
Other objects in the show are more commonly found in homes or mosques. A deep red Moroccan textile with silver-threaded letters from passages 21 and 96 of the Qur'an hangs on the wall next to a deep green textile with calligraphy in the shape of a bird.
Although most objects in this show include calligraphy, there's also a silver 19th-century pen box, studded with coins and beads, used to store reed pens. Ink was typically made of soot and gum Arabic; in old times, the soot was scraped from the inside of mosque lamps, lending the ink a spiritual quality.
A contemporary Tunisian artist, Khaled Ben Slimane, integrated his Sufi beliefs into a ceramic vase covered in twirling letters. Ironically, it's positioned en route to a Japanese calligraphy show that's also on Mia's second floor.
"Calligraphy essentially is dancing words," said Mohamed. "He went to Japan to learn about the calligraphy work there to make this sort of art piece."