The Power of Images
by Anja Pietsch
Why do people convert to Islam? There are no precise statistics on how many Germans convert to Islam every year, as this step can be taken very privately. There is no need for a public avowal of faith, nor is there an official register of conversions. The word itself is of Latin origin. Conversio, i.e. reversal or turnaround, means taking on new a religious faith.
Despite the almost 220,000 Muslims living in my hometown of Berlin, Islam had remained a closed book to me. When I moved to Damascus, however, I lived close to a Shi’a mosque. I gradually came to learn that there are different religious denominations within Islam, associated with different paradigms. As I hurried to work every morning, a stream of tired Iranian pilgrim women headed in the opposite direction. Swathed in black chadors and visibly exhausted by their long journey, they eyed me and wanted to help, thinking I had lost my way in the old city. The greengrocer in the Christian quarter Bab Touma also seemed to know where I belonged. “Where do you live?” he asked. He did not seem pleased at my answer: that I lived near Bab Salam, a mainly Muslim area. “You must come to us, here to Bab Touma!” he said. “That’s crazy,” I thought. “He thinks I’m a Christian but I’ve never even been baptised. And if I sat across from him on an underground train in Berlin I’d instantly assume he was a Muslim.”
Germany’s Religious Studies Media and Information Service categorises all those who come from a predominantly Islamic country or whose parents are Muslims under Islam. The Christian greengrocer, in other words, really would be counted as a Muslim.
As much as Islam is present in the German media and public discourse, specific knowledge about the faith is minimal. Anti-Islamic sentiments are socially acceptable in every European state, summarise the authors of the study Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination, commissioned by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Approximately half of the Germans questioned for the study considered Islam an intolerant religion. Diverse populist parties in the whole of Europe have positioned themselves against an alleged hostile takeover of Western civilisation by Islam, fanning the flames of the debate. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders, also popular in Germany, claims for example, “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam.”
All these debates about Islam barely mention the psychological function of images and symbols, yet these have a major effect on the way we form opinions. Whether we like it or not, our very concept-led perception is constantly intermingling actually perceived images and situations with our expectations. That means our actual perception can never be truly objective and thus soon leads to false images and indeed false perceptions. A constant stream of certain images has led to these images now being perceived as representative of Islam itself and individual Muslims.
The omnipresence of negative images makes it almost impossible for the observer to find understanding for the religion. The interpretation of these loaded visual impressions prompts an unconscious inference in the observer, which can often not be rationally justified but is nevertheless regarded as fact. As a consequence, individual Muslims are spontaneously attributed with characteristics that usually have little to do with them. As I mentioned above, were the Christian greengrocer from Damascus on a train in Berlin, around half of his fellow passengers would consider him a radical Islamist. No dialogue takes place.
Understanding and dialogue go hand in hand. Yet many debates on Muslim identity take place more in the form of a monologue. Germany’s debate on headscarves was ultimately more focused on majority sensibilities than contributing significantly to our understanding of Islam.
Isolated radical Islamists are perceived in the public eye as representative of the religion as a whole. A mix of debates, commentaries and opinion polls has played a key role in the emergence of a visual archive on Islam in Germany’s public consciousness, filled with negatively associated images and icons. Like a cipher, these pictures have branded themselves onto the collective image memory. Every photo of a girl in a headscarf instantly evokes concepts such as oppression of women or even forced marriage in the observer. It seems barely possible to view images in a manner that allows an open, unprejudiced dialogue between the subject and the observer. There appears to be no room for an everyday, normal Islamic life alongside these all-powerful symbols.
Concerning the power of images, the visual culture theorist W.J.T Mitchell wrote that every history actually consists of two histories: “(…) the story of what happened and the story of the perception of what happened.” For Mitchell, the first type of story focuses on facts and figures, and the second on images and words, which determine the framework within which the facts and figures attain their significance.
It is on this mined territory that Lia Darjes works. Her photo essay “konvertieren” (converting) takes us into new visual spaces that have nothing to do with our existing perceptions and expectations. For these, the phenomenological view of Islam is already consolidated in a comprehensive visual archive, from which Western observers find it difficult to escape. As Islam has its origins in a different culture, we cannot fall back on any aesthetic model. So in order to create the prerequisite for viewing Islam in a different visual context, Lia Darjes arranged still lives and portraits in the tradition of Christian visual language. By alluding to Baroque and Renaissance painting, she employs a canon of Christian images that Western observers can actually refer back to. These epochs in art history, which played very consciously with allegories and symbols, thus encourage the observer to make associations in order to understand what they represent.
Darjes is more concerned in her work with creating a blurred artistic memory for the observer to pick up upon, however, than with specific images. She found the motifs for her still lives mainly in the Qur’an and through observations. The pomegranate, for example, is surrounded by myths and stories like few other fruits. It is mentioned a number of times in both the Old Testament and the Qur’an. Referred to as one of the fruit in paradise in the Qur’an, it stands for the promise of that paradise. Christian iconography often depicts the Virgin Mary with a pomegranate. In Matthias Grünewald’s Stuppach Madonna, for instance, Mary is handing the infant Jesus a pomegranate, the key to the interpretation of the picture’s statement that Mary is the mother of the church.
Why is it, though, that Germans of German ethnic origin have converted to Islam and exposed themselves to all the questions, prejudices and expectations? The reasons can be as varying as Islam itself. For this aspect of conversion, describing the person who has gone through the conversion rather than the process as such, we have a synonym of Greek origin. The converted person is called a proselyte (Greek προσήλυτος), which can be translated as newcomer. Lia Darjes work tells us stories about this new arrival.