By Martin Giesen
Rarely do re-enactments add much substance to the original. Redressing the Renaissance, a recent project by students in the College of Architecture, Art and Design, is a laudable exception to the rule.
In April 2018, when a team of graduating architecture students called the Group of Seven chose to organize and choreograph a reunion of Raphael's School of Athens, they wondered what the outcome would be.
They picked a crown jewel in the canon of Western art history: the 1510 Vatican fresco that covers one of the walls in a room of the Pope's private apartments. In reality, the Stanza della Segnatura is neither private nor is merely a room. These days thousands of tourists are shepherded through the hall on their way to the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo was painting the ceiling just when Raphael, his much younger rival, was at work in the Apostolic Palace next door.
Raphael's painted vision assembled his Renaissance peers in a pageant of historical giants. Philosophers, poets, mathematicians and astronomers, dramatists and physicists, artists and architects—the VIPs of Europe's intellectual and creative history gathered in a fictional symposium below the grand Roman vaults of the new basilica of St. Peter.
In Raphael's fresco the A-list of appearances is impressive. Alexander the Great is present. Socrates and Apelles mingle with Raphael's lover La Fornarina and the Andalusian polymath Ibn Rushd. Bramante, Raphael's mentor and architect of the new basilica, is featured prominently. Aristotle represents the empiricist school of thought, while Leonardo da Vinci poses as Plato and points towards heaven as the source of his theory of forms.
It took 61 students, staff and faculty of the College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD) to pull off the photo shoot for the reenactment. Garments and shaylas were procured. Skeptical mothers lent saris and bedsheets. The composition was color-coded and divided into regiments, each under the tutelage of one of the seven lieutenants. Parts were chosen or assigned according to personal preference or prevailing character. Prestige played a subordinate role.
Masking tape was deployed the night before the shoot to mark individual positions on the ground in front of the university's administration building. Raphael's image was carefully studied and actors were coached to mimic likeness of stance, gesture and expression. Wardrobe was labeled, and binder clips were readied to secure clothing.
The resulting work, however, is more than the kind of tableau sometimes enacted for entertainment at a fine arts graduation party. It is a statement that challenges the canon, argues stereotypes and redirects the debate. It is an art work in its own right.
The students' re-enactment debunks Renaissance notions in post-modern fashion. High and low culture hierarchy is shattered. Commercial exploitation of an original product is avoided. The cult of originality, embodied in the single-minded grouchiness of Michelangelo, is replaced by cheery teamwork. The almost all-male cast in the fresco is rebalanced by plenty of women, in recognition of the gender ratio of CAAD's student body. High-brow pretensions of the fine art of painting—a solitary affair of the lonely genius—are replaced by clever crafts, historically associated with women's work: the textile world, linked to weaving, tailoring and dressing.
On the other hand, women's managerial skills are given a nod: the mainly female students multi-task to organize the majority male faculty.
The Redressing counters global dispersion by grounding the locale firmly on the campus of the university. The library lent the arch. The dome was appropriated from a classroom building. The arcade was borrowed from those that front our academic buildings.
Contemporary media of art-making are given their due. The all in-house production benefitted from excellent IT infrastructure. The Photoshop work alone required a 5GB file.
The colonialist assumption of western/white superiority is confidently rebuked by parading a competent phalanx of minority actors and protagonists of color. Local cultural norms are respected: Raphael's naked Apollo got dressed. The universality claim inherent in Roman Catholicism is challenged by a cast that includes, among others, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants and Agnostics (here with a capital A).
At the end of the day, this contemporary work of art does not rebel against tradition or denigrate Raphael or Renaissance values. Instead, it seeks to celebrate another rebirth, a Renaissance that embodies the spirit of our age.
Redressing the Renaissance is more than a re-costuming event. It is the courageous and creative installation of seven students of American University of Sharjah who decided to pay tribute to and give artistic form to the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah: to establish a distinctive institution, nurtured by history, responding to the aspirations of contemporary society in the United Arab Emirates.
Martin Giesen is a professor of art history at American University of Sharjah.
To access high resolution copies of the image, Click Here.
Credits: Photo Credits: Aashish Rajesh; Editing Credits: Tasnim Tinawi; The Group of Seven Team: Divya Mahadevan, Farah Monib, Zahra'a Nasralla, Gopika Praveen, Tasnim Tinawi, Uthra Varghese, Nabeela Zeitoun