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A Minnesota University Is Under Fire for Dismissing an Art History Professor Who Showed Medieval Paintings of depicting the Prophet Muhammad

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In a controversial move, an adjunct professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, has lost her job after showing her class Medieval paintings depicting the Prophet Muhammad, founder of the Islamic religion.

The school’s decision not to renew the professor’s contract for the current semester has sparked debates over free speech, including a Change.org petition in support of the teacher, signed by at least 2,500 scholars and students of Islamic studies and art history, and a condemnation from PEN America of the “egregious violation” of academic freedom.

Though it is not mentioned in the Koran, many Muslims believe it is idolatrous to show Muhammad’s face. Most mosques instead are decorated with geometric designs and calligraphy featuring passages from the Koran, and Islamic figurative art is now rare.

But there is also a tradition of painting Muhammad, often in miniature, especially in Persia, Turkey, and India. Examples can be found in the collections of museums such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. It was a selection of two of those artworks shown to the class that cost the professor her job.

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Mustafa ibn Vali, illustration of Muhammad in The Life of the Prophet (Siyer-i nebi), ca. 1594–95. Collection of the Chester Beatty Library.

Mustafa ibn Vali, illustration of Muhammad in The Life of the Prophet (Siyer-i nebi), ca. 1594–95. Collection of the Chester Beatty Library.

The teacher, identified by the Art Newspaper as Erika Lopez Prater, is said to have displayed the images during on online lecture on October 6, 2022. There was a two-minute content warning prior to the artworks’ appearance, to allow students to opt out of viewing the potentially offensive imagery should they feel it was against their faith.

“I am showing you this image for a reason,” Prater said before changing the slide, as reported by the university’s student paper, the Oracle. “And that is that there is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.”

One of the artworks was an illustration of the archangel Gabriel delivering his revelations to Muhammad from a 14th-century manuscript by Rashīd al-Dīn called the Compendium of Chronicles, while the other was a 16th-century work by Mustafa ibn Vali showing the prophet with a veil and halo.

Aram Wedatalla, a student in the class and the president of the university’s Muslim Student Association, complained to the professor afterward. Prater apologized in an email, but Wedatalla elevated the issue to university administrators, arguing that the lesson was disrespectful to Muslim students.

In response, the dean of students sent an email to the student body condemning the incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.”

The prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira, page from a Hamla-yi Haidari manuscript (ca. 1725). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, gift of George Hopper Fitch.

The prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira, page from a Hamla-yi Haidari manuscript (ca. 1725). Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, gift of George Hopper Fitch.

On December 6, two articles on the incident were published in the Oracle—one a news report in which the university’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence David Everett said that “it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.”

“My perspective and actions have been lamentably mischaracterized, my opportunities for due process have been thwarted, and Dr. Everett’s all-employee email accusation that ‘undeniably… Islamophobic’ actions undertaken in my class on Oct. 6 have been misapplied,” Prater told the student paper.

The other Oracle article was a letter to the editor from Mark Berkson, the university’s department of religion chair and a professor of Asian religions, Islam, and comparative religion.

“In the context of an art history classroom, showing an Islamic representation of the Prophet Muhammad, a painting that was done to honor Muhammad and depict an important historical moment, is not an example of Islamophobia,” he wrote. “Labeling it this way is not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate.”

The Oracle editorial board removed the article from its website just two days after its publication. (Berkson’s text is currently available on the libertarian magazine Reason, along with both emails from administrators to the university community.)

The Islamic prophet Muhammad (figure without face) on Mount Hira. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi. Collection of the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul.

The Islamic prophet Muhammad (figure without face) on Mount Hira. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi. Collection of the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul.

“Those in our community have expressed that a letter we published has caused them harm,” the Oracle wrote in explanation of the decision. “Our publication will not participate in conversations where a person must defend their lived experience and trauma as topics of discussion or debate.”

The following day, a second university-wide email went out, from Everett and university president Fayneese Miller. It said that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

“Displaying an image of Muhammad may similarly be deeply offensive to some, but because it was pedagogically relevant to the course at issue, it is protected by basic tenets of academic freedom,” Sabrina Conza, the program officer of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), countered in an open letter to Miller, expressing the organization’s concern about the incident and calling for Prater to be reinstated.

The university had held a 33-person meeting about the incident on November 10, with Everett and other administrators such as the dean of students, the interim provost, the assistant director of social justice programs, and the university chaplain among those in attendance, as well as a number of students.

“Of all of the conversations that were held between the MSA and the administration about what to do about the situation, the faculty member was excluded and not a single scholarly voice was ever included,” Berkson told Hyperallergic. “So nobody in the room actually knew anything about these images.”

Persian miniature 1550 AD depicting the Prophet Muhammad ascending on the Burak into Heaven, a journey known as the Miraj. Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

Persian miniature 1550 AD depicting the Prophet Muhammad ascending on the Burak into Heaven, a journey known as the Miraj. Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

“These images are a part of Islamic artistic tradition, and it is very important for us to appreciate and study. That’s what art historians do,” Berkson added. “If specific students don’t want to look at it, that is an important right. I think we should have a protocol to ensure that no student’s religious prohibitions are violated. But their prohibition cannot be imposed on everyone else.”

Representatives for Hamline University did not respond to a request for comment.

To address concerns among the university’s Muslim community, Hamline reportedly invited Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to the school to lead a conversation about Islamophobia in December.

“Many of the Muslim students on campus, after they heard of this incident, it impacted them. It impacted their grades, it impacted them finishing off the semester. They obviously were hurt. At the same time, they’re appreciative of the institution doing the right thing,” Hussein told Twin Cities Pioneer Press last month. “For us Muslims, it is blasphemy.”

News of the professor’s termination was first reported outside the university in New Lines Magazine by Christiane Gruber, an art historian who specializes in depictions of Muhammad.

The Prophet Muhammad and his companions advancing on Mecca, attended by the angels Gabriel, Michael, Israfil and Azrail, from Siyer-i Nebi: The Life of the Prophet (1595).

The Prophet Muhammad and his companions advancing on Mecca, attended by the angels Gabriel, Michael, Israfil and Azrail, from Siyer-i Nebi: The Life of the Prophet (1595).

“Hamline administrators have labeled this corpus of Islamic depictions of Muhammad, along with their teaching, as hateful, intolerant, and Islamophobic. And yet the visual evidence proves contrary: The images were made, almost without exception, by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons in respect for, and in exaltation of, Muhammad and the Quran,” Gruber wrote.

“Through conflation or confusion, Hamline has privileged an ultraconservative Muslim view on the subject that happens to coincide with the age-old Western cliche that Muslims are banned from viewing images of the prophet,” she added, noting that this “muzzles all other voices while potentially endangering rare and precious works of Islamic art.”

“If these reports are accurate, Hamline University has committed one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory,” Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, said in a statement.

“Not only is an art history professor well within their rights to show medieval and Renaissance Islamic artworks in class,” he added, “but the professor apparently took added care to create a positive pedagogical experience for students—placing the images in historical context, allowing students to opt out of viewing them, and thoughtfully exploring the history and diversity of Islamic art and thought.”

The ascension of the prophet Muhammad depicted in the Miraj Nameh manuscript (1436).

The ascension of the prophet Muhammad depicted in the Miraj Nameh manuscript (1436).

The Academic Freedom Alliance also published a letter in support of Prater, calling for her immediate reinstatement.

“If a professor of art history cannot show college students significant works of art for fear that offended students or members of the community could get that professor fired for doing so, then there simply is no serious commitment to academic freedom at that institution—and indeed no serious commitment to higher education,” Keith Whittington, a member of the alliance’s academic committee and a professor of politics at Princeton University, wrote in the letter.

In another email to the Hamline community on December 31, the university president continued to defend the decision not to renew Prater’s contract.

“It was important that our Muslim students, as well as all other students, feel safe, supported, and respected both in and out of our classrooms,” Miller wrote, according to Pioneer Press. “It is also important that we clarify that the adjunct instructor was teaching for the first time at Hamline, received an appointment letter for the fall semester, and taught the course until the end of the term.”

In response, FIRE filed a complaint with the Higher Learning Commission on January 4, asking that the organization hold the university accountable for violating accreditation standards regarding academic freedom.

“We gave Hamline plenty of time to reverse course, but it’s clear they’re not planning to deliver on their academic freedom promises,” FIRE attorney Alex Morey, who wrote the complaint, said in a statement.

“Hamline has no right to dismiss an art history instructor for teaching art history,” Conza added. “Hamline clearly doesn’t understand what academic freedom means, even though it explicitly promises faculty this core right.”

 

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Builder's clothing drive, tiny art show in Cowichan – Victoria Times Colonist – Times Colonist

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Builder’s clothing drive to boost families in need

Donations of gently used clothing, shoes and ­accessories for all ages and sizes are being sought for a clothing drive hosted by LIDA Homes, now until Jan. 31.

All donated items will be given to Our Place Society to be distributed to families in need in the community.

“As a community-focused business, we feel it is our responsibility to give back to the families and ­individuals who have supported us throughout the years,” said Dave Stephens, president of LIDA Homes. “We hope that this clothing drive will make a ­meaningful impact on those in need and encourage ­others to do their part as well.”

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Stephens has also issued a challenge to other ­builders to see who can collect the most clothing and have ­bragging rights.

The hashtag #LIDAclothingdrive has been created to encourage everyone to use it in their social media posts.

Donations will be accepted at LIDA Homes, 6015 Patricia Bay Hwy.

Tiny art show in Cowichan

More than 100 original artworks will be up for auction at the Six by Six Art Show and Auction, a special one-week fundraiser for the Cowichan Valley Arts Council, Feb. 3 to 11.

The name for the show stems from the fact that each of the locally produced original artworks is limited to six by six inches in size. In addition to paintings, the show includes some sculptures.

Janet Magdanz, president of the group, says working at that scale can be a real challenge for artists used to creating larger pieces.

”Yet our talented local artists have produced some outstanding work, creating landscapes, abstracts and pieces both whimsical and thoughtful,” she said. “For buyers, the auction is a chance to pick up a small piece of work by a professional artist at a great price.”

The art will be available to view and bid on both online and in person, with bids starting at $30.

Proceeds from the auction will support and expand the art council’s youth programs and bringing regional shows to the gallery.

The finale of the week-long event will be a gala reception featuring live jazz, gourmet food and a cash bar, at the gallery Saturday, Feb. 11. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling the office at 250-746-1633 or at cowichanvalleyartscouncil.ca.

In your neighbourhood

Victoria council has voted to increase the maximum amount available for its My Great Neighbourhood Grants to $7,500 for placemaking and resiliency projects and up to $1,500 for activities in 2023.

The money is expected to support up to 36 community projects.

“The My Great Neighbourhood Grant program is incredibly important during these times when community is coming together again,” said Mayor Marianne Alto. “It is exciting to see residents start to reconnect with the goal of adding vibrancy and resiliency to their neighbourhoods.”

The funds are contingent upon matching equivalent contributions from applicants, including volunteer time and in-kind donations.

Grants are available to residents and community groups in the city. Not-for-profit organizations, schools or groups of residents can apply, although a sponsor is required for those without not-for-profit status.

In 2022, the city funded 13 community activities, 12 placemaking projects and 11 community resiliency projects.

Intake for the 2023 program will open in April, with city staff available to help residents through the application process.

Opera’s the ticket

Pacific Opera Victoria is making a night at the opera more attainable by distributing more than 1,000 free tickets to more than 40 community organizations for a second year.

The organizations hand out the tickets to members of the community who may be experiencing barriers, giving them the opportunity to attend one of three Pacific Opera’s 2022/23 mainstage live performances at the Royal Theatre.

“The North Park Neighbourhood Association was thrilled to participate in Pacific Opera’s Ticket Access Program,” said Sarah Murray, executive director of the association. “This program eliminates financial barriers to access, making Victoria’s thriving arts and culture scene a more equitable and inclusive space.”

Community organizations interested in taking part in the program should contact Pacific Opera. More information about the program is available at pacificopera.ca/ticket-access-program.

Art for Prospect Lake

The Prospect Lake District Community Association is looking for donations of artwork for its upcoming Art at the Lake fundraising online auction.

Proceeds from the event will be used for the maintenance of the heritage Prospect Lake Hall on the Saanich Peninsula, one of the last community-owned and maintained halls in British Columbia.

“Downsizing or just tired of looking at certain pieces? Give your old art pieces new life by donating them to Art at the Lake,” said Barbara Newton, a volunteer organizing the sale.

The association is looking for donations of any type of art — prints, watercolours, pastels, oils, posters, collectibles, statuary, vases or objects d’art.

• To donate, email jackie.wrinch@shaw.ca or telephone Mavis at 250-361-3236 by March 19.

$400M recovery fund

Community service organizations, non-profit organizations, Indigenous governing bodies and charities on Southern Vancouver Island and the Cowichan Valley can apply for funding through the federal government’s $400-million Community Services Recovery Fund, now until Feb. 21.

The money will help fund one-time projects focused on people, systems and program innovation. Organizations can apply for one of two tiers. Tier one includes funding ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, while tier two covers $100,001 to $200,000 for applicants that meet specific criteria.

United Way Southern Vancouver Island, the Canadian Red Cross and the Victoria Foundation will accept applications locally.

All unincorporated non-profits should apply to the Canadian Red Cross for funding for one-time projects that focus on how organizations recruit, retain, engage and support their personnel, including staff, volunteers and boards of directors.

Apply to the Victoria Foundation with projects that invest in systems and processes involved in creating the internal workings of an organization’s overall structure.

The United Way Southern Vancouver Island will accept applications for funding to support projects primarily focused on program and service innovation and redesign using information gained during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“United, we champion initiatives, programs, and projects that integrate and make a significant, positive change in people’s lives,” said Danella Parks, director of community impact with United Way Southern Vancouver Island. “As society recovers and rebuilds, United Way is honoured to support this investment by the Government of Canada with a focus on program and service innovation and redesign in the nonprofit sector.”

• For more information, go to communityservicesrecoveryfund.ca.

parrais@timescolonist.com

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Inuvialuk sculptor David Ruben Piqtoukun’s work shaped by cultural stories

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Inuvialuk sculptor David Ruben Piqtoukun sits in front of his piece entitled Thar She Blows! at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on Jan. 25, ahead of his exhibition Radical Remembrance: The Sculptures of David Ruben Piqtoukun.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

When veteran Inuvialuk sculptor David Ruben Piqtoukun hears stories from his culture, they sprout images in his mind.

Remembering these stories, and combining them with modern elements, has influenced his work for decades.

A solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto is celebrating 50 years of Piqtoukun’s work. It features more than 60 sculptures, including recent pieces.

“Every work is special for me,” he says. “It comes from my heart.”

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The exhibit is called Radical Remembrance. Piqtoukun says his work is an act of cultural resistance, reclaiming history that was stolen from him by the residential school system.

Piqtoukun, who now lives in Ontario, was born in 1950 in Paulatuk, N.W.T., an Inuvialuit community in the western Arctic, where his family led a traditional lifestyle. He was taken away when he was five years old to attend residential school.

Piqtoukun said his work is inspired by the Inuit stories he’s heard over his lifetime, as well as songs, environmental issues, elders and the materials he works with, which include stone, antler, metal and bone.

“I often embellish certain stories,” he says, adding a major one he incorporates into his work is that of a shaman who travels to the moon.

“A lot of people don’t understand how much memory and remembering is such an act of resistance and an act of building the future for all of us,” said Wanda Nanibush, curator of the exhibit and of Indigenous art for the Art Gallery of Ontario,

Nanibush said she “fell in love” with Piqtoukun’s work and hopes people will come away from the exhibit with a new way of thinking about the Arctic.

“I also think that a lot of people have never seen the diversity of what he creates, nor the absolute beauty of it,” she said. “I wanted to make peoples’ jaws drop.”

Piqtoukun said he learned how to carve stone in the early 1970s watching his brother Abraham Anghik Ruben, also a world-renowned artist who studied at the Native Arts Centre at the University of Alaska. He said he also learned through trial and error.

“There’s something magical about this material. It felt like silk,” he recalled of his first experience carving stone.

Early in his career, Piqtoukun credits art patron Allen Gonor with encouraging him to collect traditional Inuit stories and use them in his work.

“I’ve been following that advice ever since,” he said.

While Piqtoukun no longer lives in the N.W.T., he still has many family members and friends there. He said he’s planning a trip to the North for 2024.

Piqtoukun’s work has been displayed in institutions across Canada and internationally. His pieces have been in the Canadian Sculpture Centre and the National Gallery of Canada, and are collected around the world.

He was the first Inuk artist to be appointed to the Sculpture Society of Canada in 2000. He was recognized with a Governor General’s Award for visual and media arts in 2022.

The opening of Radical Remembrance was celebrated by a performance from the Paulatuk Moonlight Drummers and Dancers in Toronto. It runs through June 25.

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Criss Bellini Art Fans Urge for Pop-Up Gallery

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Since the brand’s launch in 2020, Bellini’s sales have skyrocketed, selling over $1 million in its first year and exceeding its sales in 2021, in 2022, with over 2 million sales in euros. Seeing this, it is clear that art sales are booming, and people want to see more of his unique pieces.

However, because Bellini’s website is the only place to view and purchase his art, the public has begun to request a gallery or a pop-up gallery where they can go visit Bellinis’ work and see it for themselves.

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