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Photo of Torsten Janson

Torsten Janson


Photo of Torsten Janson

Visual Staging of Meaning: Exploring the Borders of Religion, Identity and Politics : Organizer and moderator of panel at Fourth World Congress of Middle Eastern studies (WOCMES), Ankara, Turkey


  • Torsten Janson

Summary, in English

This panel is devoted to an exploration of multimodal, visual staging of meaning in the Middle East and its transnational interconnectedness. Presentations will discuss examples of visual inventiveness in different and multimodal medial contexts, varying both in terms of motivations, positions of power and visual strategies employed. The panel invites reflection on how the study of current visual staging of meaning may contribute to analyzing the complex and intriguing interrelationship of identity processes, artistic inventiveness and religio-political constraints in Middle Eastern societies and beyond.


The public sphere is exploding with visual creativity. As pointed out in social semiotics, for a long time artistic expression displayed a distinct preference for “monomodal” art forms, relying on singular and carefully delineated mediation formats. Novels, academic treatises and journals relied solely on text without illustrations. In fine art, oil on canvas remained the dominant artistic modus. And on stage, musicians performed in identical costumes. This, in turn, did correspond to an equally monomodal approach in academic studies. Language was studied in linguistics; art in art history; music in musicology. More recently, however, cultural expression has become distinctly multimodal, taking recourse to different and combined media in the pursuit of efficient expression. The current formulation and dissemination of meaning, politics and identity through artistic expression, heavily relies on visual staging and multi-modal creativity. This creates new and sometimes surprising combinations of genres and techniques, and creates new constellations of social actors. Accordingly, the public spaces of the Middle East and beyond are awash with abundant innovative visual, multimodal forms for staging meaning, including music, video, computer games, design, graffiti, fashion, art exhibitions and pedagogical products.

Consequently, recent studies of the history and anthropology of art have called for a “pictorial turn”: a rediscovery of the centrality as well as complexity of the picture. While visual expression may always have been a significant part of human society, today its force is inescapable and unprecedented on every level of culture. Pictorial expression of meaning is defined and enacted in a complex interplay of textual traditions, visual fields, institutional norms, technological inventions and bodily practices. The analysis of the semiotic function of multimodal formulations of meaning is no less challenging than the analysis of authorship in relation to literary tradition, genre and discourse. The problem of spectatorship (of looking, the gaze, practices of observations) is no less challenging than the analysis of reading (in terms of deciphering, decoding and interpretation of written texts).

The papers of this panel are devoted to multimodality and the exploration of the borderland of identity, politics and the construction of meaning. Among the institutional norms affecting the staging of visual culture in the Middle East as well as in diaspora, religion plays an obvious role. Historically, Sunni Islamic norms of representation have significantly informed as well as constrained visual arts. Religious norms continue to inform and inspire many visual expressions of meaning, giving rise to innovative and often playful forms of visual staging. Other pictorial expressions formulate identity in mere indirect reference to symbolic universes of religion. For yet other actors, visual arts are (expressively or implicitly) formulated as counter discourse, in reaction or direct opposition to religious norms, while relying on entirely different semiotic visual codes in the staging of identity, meaning and/or politics.

Paper presentations

The current visual staging of meaning in the Middle East and in diasporic communities around the world involve a wide variety of actors. Accordingly, visual expressions illustrate highly divergent political and identity-political motivations, religious or non-religious affiliations, organizational settings, positions of power and resistance, as well as and socio-economic factors. This diversity is reflected in the papers of the panel.

1. Visual Environment as a Valued Social Order: Aesthetic Practices and Cultural Intimacy in the Beyoğlu District of Istanbul
Pekka Tuominen, Helsinki University/Lund University

Alongside the rapid urban transformation in Istanbul, novel ways related to the spaces and boundaries within the city, historical values employed in its regeneration and moral frameworks associated with material processes have emerged. The history of aesthetic and moral currents has created a palimpsest of visual materials that can be employed for a wide spectrum of purposes. Istanbul has a long history of struggle over the control of visual representations signifying belonging and appropriate aesthetic means – both within grand civilizing projects and quotidian artistic expressions.

This paper, based on ethnographic fieldwork in the Beyoğlu district, concentrates on how the visual meaning is staged and appropriated as cultural property within the bounded spaces that are routinely juxtaposed in everyday life. Arguably, the archetypal division between neighborhood (mahalle) and urban sphere extends to senses of cultural intimacy, often through differences in multimodal indexes and practices (e.g. architecture, fashion, art, soundscapes, presence in public space). The present paper discusses the interrelation of geographic and symbolic boundaries vis-à-vis modes of expression, representation and belonging, illustrating how creative practices in different spaces are used to challenge the moral and material grounds of urban renewal.

2. Staging Islam at a time of unrest in Turkey: Re-organizing the Holy Relics Section in the Topkapı Palace Museum
Canan Nese Karahasan, University of Edinburgh

This paper aims to focus on the negotiation processes involved in the 2007 renovation of the Holy Relics Department in the Topkapi Palace Museum, the house of the Ottoman Empire. The Holy Relics Department includes “sacred” items that were dispatched to Istanbul from Mecca during the 16th-18th centuries for “protection” under the Ottoman caliphate.

Focusing on the 2007 renovation, the paper traces hegemonic struggles among various institutions and actors involved in the exhibition making process. At the inter-institutional level, the 2007 renovation was by all accounts a “political show” marked by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opening speech. The resulting inter- and intra-institutional struggle over staging the history of Islam was twofold. On the one hand, conceptual reorganization of the section conveys “profane” stories of “sacred items”, which are represented as commodities and works of art highlighting the Ottoman inheritance of Holy Lands and Islam. On the other hand, interior renovation of the section reflects upon museum’s disciplining power over the visitor. While new display cases and interior design prohibit visitors from practicing idolatry and folkloric forms of Islam, its conceptual re-organization indicates that exhibited materials are not in themselves sacred and cannot be worshipped. Thus, the paper argues that through structural power mechanisms and hegemonic struggles, the 2007 renovation stages a “true” version of what sacred and Islam are and how they should be treated and practiced.

3. Multimodal staging of Islam in Music Video: Semiotic perspectives on “Paid in Full (Mini Madness – The Cold Cut Remix)”
Anders Ackfeldt, Lund University

The academic study of Islam has to a large extent failed to recognize visual and sonic expressions in favor for textual based monomodal research. Perhaps surprisingly, this is true also when it comes to the field of Islam and hip-hop. Even though research has shown that the cognitive universe of Islam has changed the language and message of hip-hop, little research effort as been put into multimodal investigations of the interplay of Islamic semiotics in audio, visual as well as textual cultural modes, such as for example soundscapes, record covers arts or fashion.
This paper provides a multimodal investigation of the semiotic functions of Islam in hip-hop culture, based on a case analysis of the music video “Paid in Full (Mini Madness – The Coldcut Remix)” (1987), performed by Eric B and Rakim and directed by Bruno Tilly. The “Paid in Full” video is not only a landmark remix that exemplifies the transnationalization of Islam through music, long before the Internet became an integral part of public life. As will be demonstrated by the analysis of the staging of Islamic semiotics, the video also provides an interesting example of the emergence of alternative Islamic traditions, shared by Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. Finally, the paper pays attention to the dynamics of Muslim and non-Muslim actors, in the current staging of Islam in hip-hop. This aspect tends to be overlooked in the current study of Islam. Social agents of varied backgrounds, creeds and identities utilize Islamic semiotic resources within hip-hop culture. In short, non-Muslims as well as Muslims are part of the complex interplay shaping the artifacts and processes currently defining what is perceived as Islamic.

4. Graffiti as a form of performance and resistance in Palestine
Ea Arnoldi, School of African and Oriental Studies/Lund University

Since the massacre in Hebron of Jews in 1929 and the 1994 massacre of Palestinian Muslims by Israeli-American settler Baruch Goldstein, Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs has been firmly divided between Muslims and Jews – usually leaving the adjoining Shuhada Street deserted. Throughout Shuhada Street, graffiti, murals and signboards testify to the different narratives and agendas of both Jewish orthodox settlers and Muslim Palestinians. Besides negating the other side’s narrative, visuals justify one’s own presence in the street and ownership of the tomb.

Continuously, efforts are made at re-opening Shuhada Street to all Palestinians. A significant example is the annual demonstration, where Palestinians use graffiti to write ‘Apartheid Street’, thus symbolically altering the streets original name. Shortly after the Palestinian graffiti is altered by the Jewish settlers’ own graffiti battalions. Focusing on the use of visuals in Shuhada Street it becomes clear that the continuous graffiti battle exemplifies the intensified and increasingly politicized struggle in Hebron. It also serves as a way for the marginalized Palestinians, through the renaming of the street, to subdue and manipulate space to their (momentary) advantage. Created is a dramatic visual performance linking Palestinian resistance and the central religious scenery of the tomb, while drawing on international references of apartheid and graffiti activism stretching from Cairo to New York.

5. Inscribed bodies: Tattoo among Iranian Youth
Reza Arjmand, Lund University

Although Shiite jurisprudence – the main source of religious law and civic code in post-revolutionary Iran – has never explicitly opposed tattooing among its community of believers, and while inscribing bodies was traditionally an accepted practice for a variety of purposes, Iranian Islamic government has associated the practice with criminality. The government regards tattooing as a sign of moral decadence and recently as a token of Westoxication, thus banning it. The criminalization of tattoos and its prohibition as part of efforts towards Islamization, has turned it into an underground movement and undercover sub-culture that has grown in popularity among Iranian youth.

While some Iranian youth with tattoos wear their inscriptions as expressions of resistance and protest, others see tattooing as a bond to a global culture. The practice’s popularity, despite complications for those tattooed in Iran’s daily social life, marks a deliberate transgression from the values imposed by the government and an attempt to join an imagined community of the tattooed worldwide. Taking Arthur Frank’s notion of “tattoo as a storyboard for identity” as a point of departure, this paper considers the tattoo as a form of visual message where the communicative body is used as a canvas to articulate a specific narrative. Using visual ethnography along with observations and in-depth interviews, this study endeavors to understand relationships between body modifications, (self-)identity and religio-social normatives. It also aims at deciphering the semiotics and symbolism of both the practice of “inking” and the messages conveyed through the patterns inscribed.


  • Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)
  • MECW: The Middle East in the Contemporary World

Publishing year




Document type

Conference paper


  • Humanities
  • Social Sciences

Conference name

Fourth World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES), 2014

Conference date

2014-08-18 - 2014-08-22

Conference place

Ankara, Turkey