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U.S.: In Nervous Times, Islamic Art In Museums Seen As Cultural Bridge

  • Robert McMahon

Prized by experts for its beauty and intricacy, Islamic art is attracting attention in the United States from a public seeking to learn more about Muslim culture. Museum curators say a series of special exhibits in New York and Washington have been well attended and, in the context of the post-11 September world, are helping focus needed attention on the accomplishments of Islamic culture throughout the centuries.

New York, 3 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At a time when Islam has been linked to terrorism and intolerance, art experts say it is more important than ever to draw attention to the contributions of Islamic culture.

The two cities targeted by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists last September -- New York and Washington -- have some of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world. The leading museums of Islamic art in both cities have used special exhibitions -- planned long before the attacks -- to educate museum visitors on Islamic culture.

Massumeh Farhad, a native of Iran, is associate curator of Islamic art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington (both are part of the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art). She tells RFE/RL that the gallery's lectures about various aspects of Islam, such as the role of the Koran, have proven very popular since 11 September. "We all look at anything from the Islamic world after 11 September in a slightly different way, whether we like it or not. Suddenly it's acquired a different significance in our lives, and I think the same applies to the works of art. And in that respect, I think, people want to know more about it."

The Freer and Sackler has one of the world's most significant collections of Asian art, including substantial pieces of Islamic art. It recently exhibited a collection of Persian miniature illustrations from the 16th and 17th centuries. The representation of human forms throughout these works dispels the misconception about Islam's supposed prohibition of figural art.

The illustrations are detailed and rich in color, depicting the blood-orange, blue, and purple gowns worn by the princes and princesses of the Safavid dynasty. The images were frequently combined with examples of calligraphy in lavishly prepared albums.

Two other exhibitions highlighting the accomplishments of Islamic artists -- in glass and jewelry -- recently concluded at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibits opened in October, when tourism and museum attendance was sharply down due to concerns over terrorism.

But officials at the Met, as the museum is known, found great interest on the part of New Yorkers, said Stefano Carboni, associate curator of Islamic art at the museum.

Carboni said the special Islamic art exhibits had been planned long ahead of 11 September, but their opening proved to be a positive coincidence. "The American public that came to the Met in those months wanted really to know more about the culture and the artistic achievements of the Islamic world, and they had a different way of listening to what we had to say during the gallery talks and during our presentations. And certainly for us curators, the role was a little bit less that of experts in the specific media that were presented there but also more like educators."

One of the exhibits, titled "Glass of the Sultans," displayed about 160 objects ranging from mosaic glass produced in 10th-century Iraq to enameled and gilded glass made in Egypt and Syria around the 14th century. The Met called it the first-ever museum survey of rare Islamic glass.

Another exhibit celebrated the handiwork of Indian artists in the Mughal period running from 1526 to 1858. It contained numerous examples of exquisitely cut rubies and emeralds, delicate sculptures in jade, and relief hammered into precious metals such as gold.

The Mughal jewels came from the collection of Kuwaiti Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Much of the collection had been removed from Kuwait and transferred to Baghdad after Iraq's 1990 invasion. But most of the items were recovered with the help of the United Nations.

From these exhibits emerges a view of the stunning level of artistic accomplishment that took place during the period of Muslim dominance from the eighth to 19th centuries, according to art historians. Carboni says the Met, which has nearly 12,000 items created by Islamic artists, is committed to highlighting their work. "Certainly looking at the artistic achievements is a great way to contemplate and to let people know that such civilizations really were able to produce great works of art and the inspiration was there. So, we have to look really at the good side of the achievements of the Islamic world."

Historians say that when Muslim armies advancing from Arabia conquered territory from Spain to Central Asia, they also absorbed a great deal of the knowledge and innovations from cultures such as the Greeks and Romans. This is evident in some ceramics and glassmaking. But the distinctive stamp of Islamic art is surface decoration, seen on everything from kitchen items and chess pieces to objects intended for a mosque. Artisans in the Islamic world favored flowing forms, abstraction and geometric patterns. Writing took the form of calligraphy. A well-known decorative motif was the arabesque, in which interconnecting vegetal ornamentation turned into complex, graceful patterns.

Scholars say the craftsmen of everything from carpets to clothes to vases were conscious of being artists but they also saw the hand of God in their work.

Associate curator Farhad of Washington's Freer and Sackler galleries says art under Islam's golden era was typically tied to a function, rather than created as an artwork in itself. "Every single object, in principle, has a function. So that sort of changes what we define as art within the concept of the Islamic world. Even some of the most elaborate illustrated manuscripts, they are books to provide you with certain knowledge. The illustrations are really there to help you understand."

Oleg Grabar is an expert on Islamic art and professor emeritus at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study. He says what we know as Islamic art was focused on many of the practical aspects of life such as textiles, ceramics, and city architecture. In this respect, Grabar says, formal religion played a much smaller role in influencing art than in Christian Europe, which lagged behind the Islamic world in a number of artistic achievements. "Most of it is just to make life more pleasant. A rug is something to make life more exciting. So creating the most attractive setting for life is something that the Chinese did before, but that the West only started during the Renaissance."

Historians say that central to the thinking of Muslim artisans was the notion that only God creates. But by inventing forms that underlie other forms, the craftsman can illustrate the way the divine being controls the universe. Geometry, for example, was a kind of ornament that could have been a way of representing the divine world, according to scholars.

Whatever their inspiration, Muslim artists should be credited with some significant innovations, says Grabar. The artisans of the Alhambra palace in Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages, says Grabar, may have instinctively discovered all of the mathematically possible symmetries that exist, far ahead of their formal discovery by mathematicians in the 19th century. Muslim artists continued to show this skill throughout the world they dominated, says Grabar. "From India to Spain, the geometric creativity is quite stunning. There is nothing comparable anyplace else."

The interest in that creativity continues, particularly at museums in New York and Washington. The Freer and Sackler galleries will continue their series of special exhibitions of Islamic art later this month (26 June) with a show featuring the adventure story known as "The Adventures of Hamza." The story, known especially in Iran and northern India, is based in part on the experiences of Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, who traveled the world spreading the doctrines of Islam. The new exhibit will display 60 large illustrations made at the end of the 16th century for the Mughal Emporer Akbar.

In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week (5 June) will begin an exhibit featuring the work of Ernst Emile Herzfeld, a prominent archaeologist of Islamic art in the first half of the 20th century. The exhibit will include Herzfeld's work related to Samarra, the temporary capital of the Abbasid caliphs in the ninth century. The site, considered one of the most significant for the study of Islamic art, is about 180 kilometers north of Baghdad.

(To view some of the exhibits described, see the following websites: http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/vpoetry.htm, http://www.metmuseum.org/special/Treasury_of_the_World/Mughals_more.htm, http://www.metmuseum.org/special/Glass_of_the_Sultans/Sultan_more.htm)

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