I miss traveling. Thirty miles, 300 miles, 3,000 miles, anywhere outside the context of my normal day-to-day life, anyplace with different patterns, sights, voices than I’m used to. In many ways, working at an encyclopedic museum is an opportunity for daily travel. Before the pandemic, walking to a meeting could take me to Egypt in 2400 BCE or 18th-century England. Working on book projects in my role as associate editor, I’ve been to Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico, the ancient Americas, medieval Italy, and early 20th-century New York City, among other places. Even with the MFA’s closure, our books have remained opened.
One of my favorite trips within the Museum is to Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Interior of a Mosque, Cairo, on the second floor of the Art of the Americas Wing. The painting depicts a hushed interior, loosely painted in cool blues and grays. Dollops of sunlight spill from the door at back left across the floor and walls. A panel toward the top right suggests calligraphic inscription while roughly defined boxes and circles on the walls and floor allude to the space’s decor. Two worshippers face a minbar, or pulpit, which emerges from shadow.
Tanner was no stranger to travel himself. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop and a formerly enslaved woman who came to Pennsylvania via the Underground Railroad, he was the only Black student at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1880. In 1891, he moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian as well as escape the racism of American society. He traveled to the Middle East and North Africa for inspiration, sketching and painting there for a number of months in 1897.
When I see Interior of a Mosque, Cairo, I can imagine the temperature change as one comes from the building’s sunny exterior into its shaded interior. I can hear footsteps on the floor, perhaps the whisper of a conversation. Tanner positioned the viewer to the side as a respectful observer, quietly marveling at the mosque’s beauty. Unlike some of his fellow 19th-century artists, Tanner avoided exoticized tropes and a fetishized depiction of other cultures. This is perhaps an unfamiliar setting for some, but here it is in no way unwelcoming. The atmosphere of spirituality does not discriminate. The painting emphasizes commonality rather than exploits difference.
The pandemic has shrunk my world, but I’m grateful that works such as Interior of a Mosque, Cairo can transport me someplace else and remind me that despite the distance and difference of people around the world, we’re all in this together.
If you find yourself in need of a journey, Tanner’s work is featured in both Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Guide to the Collections and Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. No passport required.