Avinoam Shalem

A man surrounded by bookshelves


Avinoam Shalem, the Riggio Professor of the History of the Arts of Islam, speaks several languages and has an academic career that spans three continents, so it’s no surprise to learn he is particularly interested in expression and connectivity. Shalem, who joined the faculty in fall 2013, teaches art history with an emphasis on “interaction zones” — spaces where people of different cultures mingle, exchange ideas and create something new. His undergraduate class, “Arts of Islam: The First Formative Centuries,” is part of the Global Core curriculum. Shalem, the author and editor of 10 books, spoke to CCT about growing up in Israel, the pleasures of one-on-one conversation and the fluidity of art.

FOR SHALEM, a defining feature of art history is considering not only where a work is made, but also in what specific moment. The first question might refer to heritage and traditions, but the second deals with response and reaction. He feels the same about his own history: Shalem was born in Haifa, “at a time when the nation was trying to amalgamate people from all over the world to give them one specific identity,” he says. “That was definitely something I grew up with — the schools I went to were trying to format us as Israelis. As a child I would go to the beach and wonder what was beyond the horizon, but everyone was telling me that all the roads end here.”

ART WAS ALWAYS part of Shalem’s life; his father started his career as a painter before becoming an architect, and Shalem used to study the Great Masters for homework. “I knew the masterpieces of art history almost by heart at a young age,” he says.

SHALEM STUDIED art history at the University of Tel Aviv. “I wanted to study modern art, but the professor for medieval art was fabulous, and so I found myself attracted to that,” he says. He took his first trip to Cairo in the early 1980s, and the city cast a spell on him. “I fell in love with that part of the world, and I decided if I was going to study medieval art it would be Islam.”

IN 1988, HE DECIDED to leave Israel and study for his M.A. in Germany. “The political situation after the Lebanon war was miserable, and I had to get out of that space,” Shalem says. After completing his studies at the University of Munich, he moved to Scotland and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1995.

AFTER TEACHING in Edinburgh and working in London with the Khalili Collections (which include the most comprehensive private collection of Islamic art in Europe), Shalem returned to Germany and became an assistant professor at his Munich alma mater. In 2002, he received a full professorship and taught there until he came to the College. Shalem was an Andrew Mellon Senior Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, Guest Scholar at the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles in 2009, and a guest professor at JN University in New Delhi in 2011 and at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., in 2016

AS A PROFESSOR, Shalem aims to challenge his students’ curiosity. “I like to bring students together in discussion about a work of art so that they will start to see different views of the same object,” he says. “Then we try to explain why we see it so differently from different positions.” “Art is changing in any moment,” he continues. “It can be put on a pedestal and praised, then another day be taken down. It’s not stable. You can’t fix or freeze a work of art. It’s a living thing.”

SHALEM SAYS he most enjoys the one-on-one conversations: “That moment when you try to get into the thread of your student’s thinking and see how it moves. It’s a kind of cognitive pleasure — when it goes well, you are really traveling in minds.” He also travels with his studentsin the literal sense: As part of the travel seminar in art history, Shalem has taken undergraduates on study trips to Jerusalem and Amman. Students apply for the program, in which they take part in a seminar on campus, then travel for a week to the area they are studying. “It’s an amazing experience,” he says. “When [the students] come back, you see how their project plans may have changed after they’ve actually confronted the space.”

HE IS WORKING ON a book that looks at rural landscapes of Palestine after 1947 and how political trauma left traces on the way these areas developed. “How did new cities speak to the ruined spaces?” he asks. Though studying landscapes seems like a different discipline than art history, Shalem says you can consider a site as you would an object. “You can trace the history of an object on the object — for example, how the handle of a jug is worn in certain places — and it’s the same with a landscape... landscape was and is regarded and ‘curated’ as an object of the human gaze.”

SHALEM LIVES near campus with his wife, who is an acquisitions editor for art books. They like to vacation to explore new museums, but Shalem is hard pressed to say which institution is his favorite. “There are too many great museums in the world!”

— Jill C. Shomer