Tuesday, August 08, 2006

An Essay in the NYT about the newly opened Victoria & Albert Jameel Gallery

An essay by Alan Riding in the NYT

In London, the Victoria and Albert’s New Gallery Shows the Islamic World as Oasis, Not Caldron

Published: August 9, 2006
LONDON, Aug. 7 — It was not a happy coincidence that the Victoria and Albert Museum’s splendidly refurbished Islamic art gallery opened here in late July, just as the Middle East was once again going up in flames.
After all, one of the gallery’s aims is to present a largely Western audience with a different image of the Islamic world, one that dwells on its artistic sophistication rather than on the radical stereotypes often reinforced by newspaper headlines.
Certainly it was with this in mind that Mohammed Jameel, a wealthy Saudi, paid the $9.8 million bill for reinstalling the Victoria and Albert’s Islamic collection for the first time in half a century. The display area on the museum’s main floor has now been renamed the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art in memory of Mr. Jameel’s parents.
Yet political turmoil in Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond only underlines the challenge of using the past to illuminate the present. Put differently, can 400 carefully chosen objects, some dating to the 11th century, provide us with any fresh insight into what is happening in the Middle East today?
The question is pertinent because, notably since 9/11, many museums in Europe and the United States have begun highlighting collections and exhibitions of Islamic art as a way of promoting greater understanding and bridging the cultural gap between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds.
In Western Europe this strategy also implies recognition that, because of heavy immigration from North Africa, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Islam is now also a European religion, and it is therefore important both for Europeans to show respect for Islamic culture and for Muslim immigrants and their children to take pride in their past.
But are we asking too much of art, giving it too much political weight?
Clearly, culture has always served as a political tool. Like European art’s dependence on court and church until the Renaissance, Islamic art from the seventh century until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I was inseparable from political and religious systems of power.
Even today, for instance, France is unblushingly courting goodwill in third world countries by devoting its new $295 million Musée du Quai Branly to non-Western art. And with its eye on Muslims at home and abroad, the Louvre is also spending $60 million on an ambitious new wing, scheduled to open in 2009, to house its Islamic collection.
The Victoria and Albert’s aim is more modest: to tell the story of Islamic art in a concise and digestible fashion, without addressing the present. Yet this approach is also instructive: through the peephole of art, we can see a more complex and subtle world than the rigid, oppressive and inward-looking theocracies promoted by some Muslim extremists today.
During the construction of the Jameel Gallery, the Victoria and Albert showed part of its Islamic collection in the United States, Japan and northern England in a traveling exhibition called “Palace and Mosque.” And this title provides the conceptual framework of its new display here: serving both palace and mosque, Islamic art took secular as well as religious forms.
“The political character of Islamic art arose because, in the absence of a priesthood, the formative role in its development fell to those who were politically powerful,” Tim Stanley, senior curator of Middle East collections at the Victoria and Albert, writes in a catalog accompanying “Palace and Mosque.” In other words, Islamic art always reflected political realities.
These variables included the world outside of Islam. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632, Islamic art inherited two distinct artistic traditions: those of Christian Byzantium, to the west, and of the Sasanian empire, to the east. Then as the new Muslim empire swept west as far as Spain and, later, east into Asia, it absorbed new influences, notably from China.
Most of all, though, Islamic art reflected the whims of successive regimes, from the early Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates to the later Safavid, Qajar and Ottoman dynasties. And at these courts, the perceived Islamic ban on figurative art was interpreted differently.
Religious art invariably respected that rule, relying on calligraphic citations from the Koran and abstract, often geometric, ornamentation. But secular art, which included utilitarian objects like carpets, ceramic vases, ivory caskets, glass jugs and metalwork, frequently showed flora and fauna. Some Muslim rulers even commissioned portraits of themselves. And while calligraphy remained important, it rendered poetry as well as the Koran.
Such eclecticism is well illustrated in this small selection of the Victoria and Albert’s 10,000-piece Islamic collection. The Jameel Gallery itself, though, has been designed around the so-called Ardabil carpet, which the museum describes as “the world’s oldest dated carpet.” Measuring 36 by 16 feet and comprising 30 million hand-tied knots, it was made about 1539-40 for the Ardabil mosque in what is now northwest Iran.
In the past the carpet was hung vertically and was hard to appreciate. Now it has been laid out in the center of the gallery and placed inside a specially constructed case with appropriate lighting. As a carpet destined for religious use, it has an elaborate, nonfigurative design in 10 colors. In contrast, the so-called Chelsea carpet, hanging nearby, also from 16th-century Persia, is alive with flowers, fruits and animals, as if evoking earthly paradise.
More unexpected is a 17th-century Christian vestment portraying the Crucifixion, which was made in the style of Islamic art for the use of Armenian priests living in the Persian city of Isfahan. This is also a reminder that the Islamic world included large populations of Christians as well as Jews.
Other objects require no explanation to be admired: an 11th-century rock crystal ewer from Egypt; a 16th-century Iznik pottery mosque lamp from Istanbul; a 15th-century bowl depicting a Portuguese sailing ship, made in Spain using the lusterware technique invented in Iraq centuries earlier; a 19-foot-high wooden minbar, or pulpit, made in the late 15th century for a Cairo mosque.
Through this display, then, a contemporary spotlight is thrown on a long-neglected culture.
Yet, for the Victoria and Albert, this is not exactly new: inspired by the aesthetics of this art, eager to learn from its exquisite designs, the museum acquired most of its collection in the 19th and early 20th centuries, long before the Middle East became a world trouble spot. The Prophet himself is quoted as saying: “God is beautiful, and he loves beauty.” In these ugly times, this too may be worth remembering


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