The British Museum’s new Islamic world gallery is a triumph

The Louvre’s Islamic art section, renovated and expanded some 10 years ago if I recall correctly, is also impressive:

IT IS a striking object. The lyre (pictured below), dating from the 19th century, was used in Sudanese Zar ceremonies, in which individuals thought to be possessed by spirits (jinn) were exorcised. Its arms are adorned with items that might appease spectres: multi-coloured beads, traded by Europeans; assorted currencies from Cairo, Istanbul, Britain and Sumatra; and shells. The instrument may not be the obvious draw for a prospective visitor to a gallery of the Islamic world, but in its wonderful complexity it illustrates the diversity of the works, places and ideas on display at the British Museum’s new Albukhary Foundation Gallery.

The gallery, which was opened on October 18th, explores the geographical spread of Islam chronologically, from the 7th century to the modern day. Islam is wisely presented not as a monolithic culture, but a global one with many centres and peripheries; artefacts range from Spain to Nigeria to Indonesia. The displays are devoted to themes such as science, calligraphy, fashion and storytelling, and the visitor is led through historical periods and regions, reflecting the movement of art and ideas between cultures. A case displaying Islamic lustreware reveals a glaze perfected by Iraqi ceramicists in the 9th century; it is juxtaposed with a dish created by Italian potters in the 15th century, who had later mastered the same technique. Other skills were learnt and spread from one place to another: a 13th-century flask from Syria is decorated in gold and intertwining vegetation, a Byzantine style.

The new space lets the curators display more of the museum’s collection than was previously possible—archaeological finds as well as newly commissioned contemporary art—and create beautiful, expansive displays. This is particularly true of the “Reading the Skies” case, containing items related to astronomy and astrology. An astrolabe, considered the computer of the 10th century, has been taken apart and its composite layers arranged to show their design. The intricacy of the mechanism is staggering. According to William Greenwood, one of the curators, “one 10th-century astronomer estimated that there were a thousand possible applications for an astrolabe, ranging from the position of the stars to finding the direction of Mecca.” The design of this display, and many others throughout the gallery, elevates the objects. The lighting for a celestial globe, for example, is so subtle that it seems as if it might be lit by its own heavenly design. The “exploded astrolabe”, meanwhile, casts planet-like shadows across the wall.

This thoughtful marriage of scholarship and design is striking, even unconventional. A turquoise dish from 17th-century Iran has been turned over to reveal the labels of the previous exhibitions it appeared in. One is for a showcase of Persian art held at Burlington House in London in 1931, then the largest the city had ever seen, and visited by 250,000 people. The exhibition was organised as a “symphony of pure form” and focused solely on the decorous beauty of Islamic art; a New York Times correspondent of the time said it was “like stepping into a recreation of the Arabian nights”. The touch reveals the curators’ willingness to show how the objects have been acquired by the British Museum, as well as the clichéd perceptions of the Islamic world that have surrounded them.

The location of the new gallery makes a statement, too. Where the artefacts were once isolated in restrictive rooms in the northern section of the building, the exhibit is now on the second floor of the museum. It is next to the Sutton Hoo collection, a prestigious collection of treasures from an Anglo-Saxon burial, and alongside the rooms on medieval Europe, Greece and Rome, and the ancient near east. The relocation puts the Islamic world in conversation with the rest of global history.

The British Museum’s new gallery avoids the “Orientalism” of past exhibitions—essential given that the institution is facing intense criticism for the colonial provenance of some of its collection. The curators have created displays that approach the subjects and the artefacts with nuance, sensitivity and skill. At a time when Islamophobia and misconceptions about the religion are prevalent, it is a vital corrective.

Source: The British Museum’s new Islamic world gallery is a triumph

Drawing the prophet: Islam’s hidden history of Muhammad images

Interesting article on the history of devotional Islamic art that depicts the prophet Muhammad. Again, a sad forgetting of some of the rich traditions within Islam:

To many Muslims, any image of the prophet Muhammad is sacrilegious, but the ban has not always been absolute and there is a small but rich tradition of devotional Islamic art going back more than seven centuries that does depict God’s messenger.

It began with exquisite miniatures from the 13th century, scholars say. Commissioned from Muslim artists by the rich and powerful of their day, they show almost every episode of Muhammad’s life as recounted in the Qur’an and other texts, from birth to death and ascension into heaven.

Intended as private aids to devotion and prayer, these detailed scenes were made for both Sunni and Shia worshippers, and surviving examples can be found in dozens of major museum and library collections.

They also laid the foundations for a popular, if minority, tradition of devotional and inspirational images that still exists today, from icons cherished in homes to a five-storey government-commissioned mural in the heart of Tehran and even to revolutionary street art in Cairo – although the prophet’s face is obscured in both those public drawings.

In the wake of the murder of cartoonists at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, many Muslims and non-Muslims have argued that Islam has always banned any representation of the prophet, in part because of strong warnings in the Qu’ran and other religious texts against idolatry or anything that could be seen as a pathway towards idolatry.

This position is rarely challenged, perhaps because the existence of images of Muhammad is little known and almost never discussed outside communities that create, study or buy them. But their obscurity frustrates experts who see them as a rich part of Islam’s artistic heritage and resent the misconception that the only depictions of the prophet are mocking or racist creations by non-believers. “It’s really important for audiences that have never seen the pietistic images of Muhammad to make a radical distinction between the mystical and beautiful images that have been produced over the last 1,000 years by Muslims and for Muslims, and the offensive and sometimes pornographic images [currently in the news],” said Omid Safi, director of the Islamic Studies Centre at Duke University in North Carolina.

Drawing the prophet: Islam’s hidden history of Muhammad images | World news | The Observer.

Aga Khan Museum will prove to be of historic significance: Siddiqui

Look forward to visiting it during one of our visits to Toronto:

The museum was planned for London but ran into bureaucratic hurdles. The Aga, spiritual leader of Shiite Ismaili Muslims, could have located it anywhere — in Europe, which is where he lives and works France and Switzerland or Africa or Asia which is where much of his nearly $1 billion development and cultural work is done or the United States. He chose Canada instead as a tribute to our pluralism and also to make a contribution to it “in the best way possible.”

England’s loss is Canada’s gain.

This is no ordinary museum.

  • It has not cost Canadian taxpayers a penny.
  • It is an architectural jewel, inspired by great Islamic structures and taking its inspiration from the Qur’anic theme of light, “God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth,” light that basks all humans equally, and that lights up the heart and soul, etc.
  • It uses the familiar geometric patterns of Muslim lands to let in all the light possible. But it has no minarets and no huge domes.

“His Highness did not want this building to use overtly Islamic forms or references,” reveals architect Fumihiko Maki of Japan. “He wanted to have a modern building appropriate to its context.” References to Islam are “sublimated.”

Aga Khan Museum will prove to be of historic significance: Siddiqui | Toronto Star.