List of Illustrations



Note on Qur’anic Verse

Guide to Indonesian Spelling and Pronunciation

Introduction: Picturing Islam

1 Becoming a Muslim Citizen and Artist


Becoming an Artist - Citizen

The Darkening Sky

2 Revelations and Compulsions

Self and the Spectre of Comparison

Making Spirit Matter

The Influence of Peers

A Lifeworld Refigured

3 Diptych – Making Art Islamic and Making Islamic Art Indonesian

Part 1: Making Art Islamic

First Gestures

Perfecting the Work, Sacrificing the Self

Perfecting Verse in an Imperfect World

Part 2: Making Islamic Art Indonesian

Pirous and Decenta

Islamic Multiculturalism and the Istiqlal Festivals

4 Spiritual Notes in the Social World

Making Spiritual Notes

Displaying and Selling Spiritual Notes

Spiritual Notes and Friendship

Spiritual Notes in a Political Arena

5 Anguish, Betrayal, Uncertainty, and Faith

Sky Split Asunder and Tombs Burst Open

Remind Them: All You Can Do is Be a Reminder

The Retrospective, 2002

Conclusion: A Retrospective

Afterword: Choosing a Frame




For Pirous and Erna



1 At the Beginning, the Voice Said “Recite,” 1982
2 For the Sparkling Morning Light, 1982
3 Surat Ichlas, 1970
4 Sura Isra II: Homage to Mother, 1982
5 A kasab designed and embroidered by Pirous’s mother, Hamidah, in 1941
6 White Writing, 1972
7 The Night Journey, 1976
8 And God the Utmost, 1978
9 Prayer XII/Homage to Tanöh Abée, 1981
10 A Forest of Pens, a Sea of Ink, the Beautiful Names of God Never Cease Being Written, 1985
11 Green Valley, 2000
12 The Horizon on the Southern Plain, 1998
13 It Pierces the Sky, 1997
14 The Night That is More Perfect than 1000 Months, 2000
15 Triangle with an Ascending Vertical Gold Line, 1993
16 Meditation on a Circle with a Vertical Line, 2000
17 Pillars of the Sky, 1996
18 An Admonition to the Leader: Concerning the Transient Palace and the Beginning and End of Life, 1995
19 Detail from AlifLam Mim/Only God is All-Knowing, 1998
20 Once There was a Holy War in Aceh: Homage to the Intrepid Hero Teuku Oemar, 1854–1899, 1998
21 The Shackling of the Book of the Holy War, II, 1999
22 The painter brooding over They Who are Buried without Names, 2001 (photograph)
23 A People’s Fate is in Their Own Hands, 2001
24 Meditation Toward the Enlightened Spirit, I, 2000
25 Allah. Detail from 17 Names for God, 1980


0.1 A. D. Pirous, 2001
0.2 Pirous at work in his home studio, Bandung, 2001
0.3 Making a preparatory work for a painting, 2001
1.1 Maps of Aceh and Indonesia
1.2 “Boss Piroes,” Mouna Piroes Noor Muhammad
1.3 Hamidah, Pirous’s mother, early 1950s
1.4 “Mopizar,” Mouna Piroes Zainal Arifin, Medan, Sumatra, early 1950s
1.5 Pirous with his Uncle Ahmad on the eve of leaving Meulaboh for Bandung, 1955
1.6 Ries Mulder teaching his course on “Art Appreciation,” Bandung, 1955
1.7 Pirous with wife and painter Erna Garnasih Pirous, Bandung, 1968
1.8 “Without a doubt, a modern artist,” Pirous with his paintings in a publicity shot, 1968
1.9 The Sun after September 1965, 1968
3.1 Pirous at work at Decenta preparing the serigraph, Noah’s Deluge, Bandung, 1976
3.2 Pirous, Machmud Buchari, and architect Ahmad Noe’man meeting with the Indonesian Minister of Religious Affairs Munawir Sjadzali, Jakarta, 1992 or 1993
3.3 Ilham Khoiri and A. D. Pirous at Serambi Pirous reviewing the calligraphy on The Poem of Ma’rifat, 2002
3.4 Pirous correcting the Qur’anic calligraphy on The Verse of the Throne, 2002
3.5 Muhammad, a calligraphic installation at Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta, designed and supervised by Pirous
3.6 Sketch for Reminiscences ofAceh, I, December 23, 1988
3.7 Reproduction of the last page of the Al-Qur’an Mushaf Istiqlal
4.1 Ephemeral Mountain: Travel Note VI, 1989
4.2 Come Back to the Lap of Your Lord with Devotion, 2000
5.1 The Truth that Struggles Against the Darkness/QS 113 Al Falaq, 2000
5.2 Once There Was a Holy War in Aceh, 2002, hanging at Galeri Nasional, Jakarta
5.3 Sketch for Has That Light Already Shone Down from Above?, 1999
5.4 In his own hand(s). Pirous labeling and signing A People’s Fate is in Their Own Hands, 2002
5.5 Through the Days of Our Lives, There is Nothing That Can Give Us Help, Save for the Doing of Good Deeds, 2002

Paintings must be like miracles.

Mark Rothko


Picturing Islam is an ethnographic portrait of a postcolonial Muslim artist, Indonesian painter Abdul Djalil Pirous. My goal is to sketch a story of self-fashioning in the contemporary cauldron of politics, art, and religion. At root, this is a story about making art and a lifeworld “Islamic” as a way of coming to terms with political, cultural, and historical circumstances. It considers very generally, then, a question of enduring interest to anthropologists and others in the humanities and social sciences – the question of subjectivity, our experience of acting and being acted upon in our relations with others as we are caught up in the sway of powerful social and ideological forces. As Judith Butler (2005), Michel Foucault (1997, 2005), Paul Ricoeur (1992), and others have shown so persuasively, questions of subjectivity are also questions of ethics. We commonly look to art and religion for special insights into the ethics and aesthetics of self-fashioning, despite all our trouble in defining art and religion, or the risks we may take in giving them privileged attention. My long collaboration with Pirous has given me a chance to reflect on the hopes and perils of self-fashioning in a Muslim lifeworld. How Pirous has pictured Islam is not just about his relationship to God, but also about his artistic and ethical being and location in this world.

My aim here, then, has been to write an accessible ethnographic account that will find use in a broad range of classroom discussions in anthropology, religious studies, Asian studies, and art history. Picturing Islam is not a primer on that religion, or on the Qur’an, but a portrait of how Islamic ideas and dispositions might settle into the experiential and expressive lifeworld of a believer, or make their way into art. It is a study of lived religion. At the same time, I have tried to show in this book how ethnography might be used to “confront art history with the present tense” (Belting 2003: 192). In that spirit, this book is a modest contribution to a global art history that includes Southeast Asian art and Islamic art as part of its theoretical, historical, and critical venture.

Framing the book as I did around an empirical look at art and ethics in the work of a Muslim painter, and wanting to keep it to a manageable length, I left many theoretical and comparative questions unaddressed. Colleagues interested in subjectivity, the anthropology of art, or art history and visual culture may want to glance at the Afterword.

I will be especially glad if Muslim readers find this book useful or pleasurable. If they find errors of understanding in this book, the errors are mine, despite Pirous’s generous and unflagging effort to help me see clearly.


Picturing Islam would not have come together as it did without the intellectual push from four colleagues: Charles Hallisey, who drew me into conversations about ethics and lived religion; James Siegel, whose work and conversations about subjectivity, language, cameras, and the political unconscious in Aceh and Indonesia suggested ways I might dwell with materials; Nora Taylor, who reassured me that an ethnography of a single artist might actually be a very welcome intervention in art history; and Kirin Narayan, who knows better than most the joys, risks, and power of bringing friends and family into ethnographic writing. Charlie, Jim, Nora, and Kirin bear no responsibility for this book’s shortcomings, many of which stem from my not always following their example or advice. I thank them for their inspiring support.

Conversations with other colleagues and friends have enriched this book in countless ways too. I am especially grateful for helpful insights and suggestions from Abdul Hadi W. M., Warwick Anderson, Lorraine Aragon, Iftikhar Dadi, Veena Das, Kevin Dwyer, Susan Friedman, Anna Gade, Hildred Geertz, Byron Good and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, Ramachandra Guha, Michael Herzfeld, Charles Hirschkind, James B. Hoesterey, Pradeep Jeganathan, Carla Jones, Webb Keane, Arthur Kleinman, B. Venkat Mani, Vida Mazulis, Birgit Meyer, Sarah Murray, Fred Myers, Paul Nadasdy, Hamid Naficy, Ashis Nandy, Sally Ness, Terry O’Nell, Kevin “Will” Owen, Christopher Pinney, Allen and Mary “Polly” Roberts, Kathryn Robinson, Setiawan Sabana, T. K. Sabapathy, Patricia Spyer, Mary Steedly, Sunaryo, Stanley J. Tambiah, Julia Thomas, Fadjar Thufail, Aarthe Vaddi, James and Rubie Watson, Andrew Willford, Jessica Winegar, Aram Yengoyan, Yustiono, and Merwan Yusuf. I am indebted, as well, to Lindsay French, Charles Hallisey, Carla Jones, Nancy Smith-Hefner, and Andrew Willford who at the request of Wiley-Blackwell gave generously of their time to advise and encourage me about the direction of the book while it was still a half-written manuscript. Their insights and queries were instrumental to my giving the book its full and final shape.

There is no way I can measure my gratitude to Abdul Djalil Pirous and his wife Erna Garnasih Pirous. Their family and circle of friends have always welcomed me with abundant kindness and conversation, and all of them have shown uncommon generosity in letting me share and write about their lives in as much detail as I have. Pirous and Erna have never told me so, but over the years I am sure I must have made slights, blunders, and intrusions that hurt, angered, or embarrassed someone. I hope they will forgive the flaws and lapses of their friend and resident ethnographer. I want them to take pleasure and pride in this book, confident that the intimate lessons they have given me over the years about art, Islam, and goodness will prove useful for others.

Closer to home, I thank Didi Contractor, Maya Narayan, and Devendra Contractor for their unflagging interest and support. Cheers from my brothers Phil and Andy, my sister Lois, and their families have meant much to me too.

Which leaves Kirin, my wife, companion, and mutual muse. Kirin appears rather late in this book, but has been a miracle of goodness and inspiration since page one. I once knew writing as a desperately lonely burden. Kirin has helped me see writing otherwise, as a way to care for myself and for us both. For that and for all the light she continues to throw into my world she has my unending affection.

Funding for the field research that led to this book came from several sources. I gratefully acknowledge support from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture; the Social Science Research Council; the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research; the University of Oregon’s Center for Asian and Pacific Studies; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Institute for Advanced Study; the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation; and the Vilas Associates Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave me release time from teaching, making it possible for me to conduct library research and to draft some of the analyses that went into this book. My thanks also go to my Indonesian sponsors at Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (LIPI, the Indonesian Institute of Science); Yayasan Festival Istiqal (the Istiqlal Festival Foundation); and Fakultas Seni Rupa dan Desain, Institut Teknologi Bandung (the Department of Fine Arts and Design at the Bandung Institute of Technology).

Some passages in this book appeared in my previously published work. I thank the publishers of the following journals and books for permission to reprint passages or excerpts from:

“Ethics, Iconoclasm, and Qur’anic Art in Indonesia.” Cultural Anthropology 24(4): 589–621 (2009). Wiley-Blackwell and the American Anthropological Association.

“Ethical Pleasure, Visual Dzikir, and Artistic Subjectivity in Contemporary Indonesia.” Material Religion 4(2): 172–93 (2008). Berg Publishers, an imprint of A&C Black Publishers Ltd.

“Art and Identity Politics: Nation, Religion, Ethnicity, Elsewhere.” In Asian and Pacific Cosmopolitans: Self and Subject in Motion, edited by Kathryn Robinson, pp. 37–59. New York: Palgrave (2007). Palgrave Macmillan Publishers.

“Picturing Aceh: Violence, Religion, and a Painter’s Tale.” In Spirited Politics: Religion and Public Life in Contemporary Southeast Asia, edited by Andrew C. Willford and Kenneth M. George, pp. 185–208. Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asian Publications Series, Cornell University (2005). Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.

“Violence, Culture, & the Indonesian Public Sphere: Reworking the Geertzian Legacy.” In Violence: Culture, Performance and Expression, edited by Neil L. Whitehead, pp. 25–54. Santa Fe: SAR Press (2004). School for Advanced Research. “Conversations with Pirous.” In A. D. Pirous: Vision, Faith, and a Journey in Indonesian Art, 1955–2002. Bandung: Yayasan Serambi Pirous (2002). Yayasan Serambi Pirous.

Signature Work: Bandung, 1994. Ethnos 64(2): 212–31 (1999). Taylor & Francis Group.

Designs on Indonesia’s Muslim Communities. Journal of Asian Studies 57(3): 693–713 (1998). Cambridge University Press and the Association for Asian Studies.

I am deeply indebted to Ilham Khoiri and Dar Charif for their help in translating the Qur’anic Arabic in Pirous’s calligraphic paintings. I thank Fadjar Thufail, Atka Savitri, Amy Farber, and Bart Ryan for help in transcribing my Indonesian interview materials, and Noah Theriault for help with the index. Over the years I have worked on this project I have had the help of some wonderful graduate research assistants. They are: James B. Hoesterey, Erica James, Kate Lingley, Jennifer Munger, Susan Rottmann, and Fadjar Thufail. I thank them all, and want them to know how proud I am of their accomplishments.

I am so very lucky to have had the professional assistance of the Pirous family “Dream Team.” The digital reproductions of Pirous’s paintings and family photos were prepared with the superb care of Rihan Meurila Pirous, Eka Sofyan Rizal, and their colleagues at dialogue+design and at paprieka. Mida Meutia Pirous and Dudy Wiyancoko kept me supplied with archival data from Yayasan Serambi Pirous. Dudy and Iwan Meulia Pirous also reviewed this manuscript and offered helpful tips and insights.

Last, I owe unending thanks to Jane Huber, Blackwell’s former senior acquisitions editor for anthropology, for her unflagging interest and confidence in this project. I am deeply grateful as well to senior editor Rosalie Robertson, editorial assistant Julia Kirk, production editor Elaine Willis, and project manager Helen Gray at Wiley-Blackwell for their steady counsel and outstanding care in helping bring this book to completion and into the world.

In memory

Since late 2002, I have lost six colleagues and friends whose personal and intellectual company helped guide me as I moved forward with this project. I want to remember them here: anthropologists Begoña Aretxaga, Daphne Berdahl, and Clifford Geertz; painter Umi Dachlan; art writer Mamannoor; and the always kind Masjoeti Daeng Soetigna.


Ilham Khoiri and A. D. Pirous identified the Qur’anic passages that appear in the paintings discussed in this book. I have rendered these Qur’anic passages in English, adapting and mixing translations prepared by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (2005), Ahmed Ali (1994), M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (2004), and Michael Sells (1999). I use the abbreviation QS followed by a number when identifying a Qur’anic sura, or chapter (e.g., QS 112 is Qur’anic Sura 112, Al-Ikhlas). Sura names and their translations are taken from Ali or Sells.

Khoiri and Pirous also transliterated the Jawi in these Qur’anic paintings into Romanized Indonesian-Malay.


I use conventional Indonesian spellings for Indonesian, Arabic (without diacritics), and Acehnese terms. Some personal names reflect an idiosyncratic mixing of modern and colonial-era spellings. Here are the rough approximations for pronouncing consonants and vowels.

Consonants: as in English with the following differences:

< ‘ > is a glottal stop, as in “Uh’ oh!”

< c > like the first “ch” in “church”

< kh > as in the German “Ach!”

< sy > as in “Syah” or “Shah.” Also written < sh >

< dz > like < z >, but with the tongue on the alveolar ridge above the teeth


< i > as the vowel in “feed”

< a > as the vowel in “pot”

< o > as the vowel in “boat”

< u > as the vowel in “boot”

< oe > = < u > (colonial era spelling, usually in names)

< oo > = < u > (in personal names)

< ou > = < u > (as used by Pirous)

< ö > = < o > (approximate)

< e > as in the first vowel in “about”

< é > as the vowel in “maid”

< eu > as the vowel in “her” but with rounded lips