EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Perri Sparnon, Research Assistant for The Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Architecture (CAMEA)

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Perri Sparnon in Florence

This weeks sees a group of internationally renowned academics flock to Adelaide to attend and speak at The Centre for Asian And Middle Eastern Architecture’s conference, ‘Ilm: Science, Religion, and Art in Islam’. We spoke to Perri Sparnon, research assistant at CAMEA and one of the conference’s organisers, to discuss the aims of the conference, and CAMEA’s future.

Q: Hi Perri! What is CAMEA and how did you become involved with it?

A: Hi Masya! CAMEA stands for the Centre for Asian and Middle-Eastern Architecture. The Centre is part of the School of Architecture and Built Environment (SABE) at The University of Adelaide, and consists of a group of Higher Degree Researchers (HDRs) and academics whose work focuses on the history, culture, and environment of the Arab world, Asia, and India. CAMEA was established in 1997 by Professor Samer Akkach, who remains the centre’s Founding Director. I became involved with CAMEA at the start of 2015 after Samer recruited me to be his Research Assistant.

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Q: What does your job at CAMEA entail?

A: Mostly assisting Samer with his latest Australian Research Council (ARC) grant project, which is on the history of science in the Islamic world circa the 16th-century. People are always surprised when I tell them what I’m working on! They assume we’re researching architectural history and theory because of CAMEA’s name and because we’re based in the School of Architecture. In fact, the project considers an architectural structure, the Istanbul Observatory, as a way to deal with a much broader set of questions. The Istanbul Observatory was a state-of-the-art facility for astronomical observation founded in Ottoman Istanbul by the leading Muslim scholar Taqi al-Din (d. 1585) in 1577, only to be destroyed by its patron, the Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-1595), three years later in 1580. The research project accordingly considers what the reasons for the destruction of the Istanbul Observatory could have been, and whether the destruction can be explained in terms of changing attitudes to science in the wake of the so-called Copernican Revolution of 1543.

In working on this project my job has entailed sourcing and organising research materials, collaborating on articles for publication in academic journals, writing grant applications, and, most recently, developing a series of events on Islamic history, culture, and science which are launching at The University of Adelaide this week!

Q: Tell us more about the ‘ilm’ conference you’ve put together.

A: ‘Ilm: Science, Religion, and Art in Islam is a series of events that CAMEA is presenting over four days in July that highlight the role of knowledge (‘ilm in Arabic) in Islam. The events include the opening of an art exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia; four keynote addresses by leading thinkers on the history and theory of Islamic art, politics, and science; a special panel discussion on the digitization of Arabic manuscripts; a workshop featuring leading contemporary Australian and Muslim artists and curators; and an international conference featuring panels and presentations from researchers and designers from all around the world. All of the events are free to attend and open to the public, and I highly encourage anyone interested in learning more about Arab-Islamic culture, history, and art to attend!

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 11.24.40 pmList of events and talks taking place at next week’s ‘ilm conference

Q: What is CAMEA hoping to achieve with this conference?

A: The main aim is to connect with a variety of researchers working in CAMEA’s and related research areas, and then to collectively share our work with the broader public. In focusing the events on the Muslim’s contribution to knowledge in science, religion, and the arts, we’re hoping to shed a positive light on Islam, and to show the pubic just how diverse and multifaceted Islam, like any other tradition, really is.

Q: The academics and speakers at your conference read like a who’s who of the Islamic art and history world. Who would you say are you most looking forward to seeing speak?

A: Our four keynote speakers, Stefano Carboni, Peter Harrison, James Piscatori, and Nidhal Guessoum, are all distinguished scholars who have made a remarkable impact in their respective fields. Their lectures will be fascinating and I really encourage everyone to attend!

I studied my bachelor’s degree in art history so I’m particularly looking forward to Stefano’s talk on the role of images in Islamic art. Stefano is currently the Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia and was previously Curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York so I think he’ll have a wealth of knowledge to share!

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Dr. Stefano Carboni’s talk

Q: What next for CAMEA after this conference? Any more events for the rest of 2016?

A: The rest of the year will be spent evaluating the impact of the ‘Ilm events and developing the relationships built through the events into exciting future projects! One project that CAMEA already has in the works is an anthology of the papers presented at the conference to be published by the Adelaide University Press (AUP) in 2017. This is really exciting because the AUP has recently shifted to online, open-access publishing, meaning that CAMEA’s work will finally be available to anyone, anywhere in the world. This sharing of knowledge without discrimination is very much in the sprit of CAMEA and the ‘Ilm events. Also, next year marks CAMEA’s 20 anniversary so we’ll present something big for that – stay tuned!

– Masya Zabidi


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