The Asia Society’s current exhibition, “Comparative Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds,” in New York has sparked controversy over the handling of images of the Prophet Muhammad. The exhibition, which opened in February, explores depictions of Hell from different religions, including Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Islam. The exhibition is the first comprehensive showcase in the United States dedicated to exploring religious depictions of Hell.
Virtual tour blurs images of the Prophet Muhammad
The Asia Society used a virtual tour to promote the exhibition online, but some scholars involved in the exhibition noticed that images of the Prophet Muhammad were blurred. Kjeld von Folsach, director of Copenhagen’s David Collection, a museum that has a large holding of Islamic art, and Christiane Gruber, a scholar of Islamic art based in Michigan, claimed that they were not told the images would be blurred in marketing efforts.
Outside contractor blurred images
Representatives for the Asia Society said that an outside contractor handled the virtual tour, and the blurring of the images was done without the museum’s official approval. The museum removed the online tour from its website to correct the error and apologised, saying that their goal has always been to display these historic works fully while also including necessary context and information.
Image sensitivity signage
To address the sensitivity surrounding images of the Prophet Muhammad, the Asia Society installed signage at the exhibition space to warn against photography of these sensitive images. Additionally, the exhibition notes include extra text explaining the sensitivity of the subject matter. This demonstrates the museum’s commitment to respecting religious beliefs and avoiding any offence. It also highlights the importance of providing context and information about sensitive subject matter to ensure that visitors have a full understanding of the artwork and its cultural significance.
Historical images conflict
The handling of historical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in institutional settings remains a point of debate. In some sects of Islam, and for many observant Muslims, viewings or renderings of the Prophet are commonly believed to be forbidden. This applies not only to contemporary depictions but to historical ones as well.
Controversy at Hamline university
Earlier this year, an art history adjunct professor at Hamline University was dismissed after a student flagged historical images of the Prophet as offensive. The school initially defended its decision but later walked back the claim after a debate ensued over academic freedom. The aftermath of the controversy led to widespread calls for the resignation of Hamline’s president, Fayneese S. Miller.
The controversy surrounding the Asia Society’s exhibition, “Comparative Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds,” highlights the challenges that institutions face when displaying sensitive artwork. While the Asia Society has taken steps to address concerns over the handling of images of the Prophet Muhammad, the controversy underscores the ongoing debate over the display of historical depictions of the Prophet in institutional settings. It also emphasises the importance of providing context and information about sensitive subject matter to ensure that visitors have a full understanding of the artwork and its cultural significance.