Col­lec­tion helps to build a bridge

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

NASSER David Khalili was ahead of this time. As early as the mid- 1970s, shortly af­ter mov­ing to Amer­ica from Iran, he had be­gun to col­lect and deal in Is­lamic art in New York - well be­fore oth­ers had recog­nised its value. An self- taught col­lec­tor and born art dealer, Khalili had a strong sense of mar­ket val­ues and was also pre­scient, buy­ing against mar­ket trends and col­lect­ing or­di­nary ob­jects such as coins and manuscripts from farflung places. By the mid- to- late 1980s, Khalili was con­sid­ered the most im­por­tant Is­lamic art col­lec­tor in the world - and the Khalili Col­lec­tion of Is­lamic art is the fruit of his labour.

‘‘ It is the most com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tion of Is­lamic art in the world,’’ the col­lec­tor says. ‘‘ In re­gards to value, all the ex­perts say it is un­ri­valled. The fi­nan­cial value ( about $ 12 bil­lion) is ir­rel­e­vant. What’s im­por­tant to me is all the aca­demics’ and ex­perts’ ad­mis­sion that the col­lec­tion is ir­re­place­able. An in­fi­nite amount of time and money can­not re­place it.’’

The col­lec­tion is one of the most thor­oughly re­searched and pub­lished ( it is be­ing pre­sented in an im­por­tant 27- vol­ume se­ries, of which 17 are now pub­lished) in the world. Works from it have been ex­hib­ited in North Amer­ica, Rus­sia, Is­rael, most Euro­pean coun­tries and now Aus­tralia.

Un­like most na­tional mu­se­ums, which tend to con­cen­trate only on the arts of their coun­try, Khalili has col­lected pieces from al­most all pe­ri­ods of Is­lamic his­tory and from across the Is­lamic world.

Al­though largely sec­u­lar in na­ture, a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the col­lec­tion is de­voted to books and manuscripts, and there are out­stand­ing col­lec­tions of Ko­rans and Per­siana and In­dian minia­tures.

‘‘ The Ko­ran it­self was trans­mit­ted and taught orally,’’ says Michael Rogers, an em­i­nent Is­lamic scholar and the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tor. ‘‘ Peo­ple are taught to mem­o­rise it, they don’t learn to read it in the book. In a way, the writ­ten books are su­per­flu­ous. How­ever, from our point of view, they are im­por­tant be­cause they guar­an­tee the text.’’

The col­lec­tion is also highly re­garded for its em­pha­sis on cal­lig­ra­phy and ex­quis­ite manuscripts such as the Jami’ al Tawarikh or Com­pen­dium of Chron­i­cles by Rashid Al- Din, for which Khalili paid US$ 10 mil­lion ( A$ 11.8 mil­lion) at Sotheby’s in 1990. It is in­cluded in the AGNSW’s The Arts of Is­lam ex­hi­bi­tion and is widely ac­knowl­edged to be one of the finest manuscripts from the Is­lamic world.

The il­lus­tra­tion Rakhsh Slays a Dragon, also in The Arts of Is­lam, forms part of an­other im­por­tant man­u­script. ‘‘ It has some­thing like 280 il­lus­tra­tions in it, of which there are 10 on ex­hi­bi­tion here [ in The Arts of Is­lam]. Very few col­lec­tions have more than one. The de­tail, bril­liance of colour, the won­der­ful tech­nique are all ex­em­pli­fied to the high­est de­gree,’’ says Rogers.

The gold and enam­elled jew­elled works of the Moghuls, a small emer­ald box of 103 Columbian emer­alds and a group of metal images de­pict­ing crea­tures, all fea­tured in The Arts of Is­lam, are also ex­quis­ite, says Rogers.

‘‘ The metal images are ex­traor­di­nar­ily nat­u­ral­is­tic. Ev­i­dently they rep­re­sent hunt­ing an­i­mals in the rulers’ menageries. They are done with ex­tra­or­di­nary live­li­ness and charm.’’

The quest to as­sem­ble the col­lec­tion has played a cen­tral role in Khalili’s life and while he em­ploys aca­demics to write the cat­a­logues and re­search the col­lec­tion, he main­tains con­trol of it and says he has per­son­ally sourced ev­ery item.

He plays an ac­tive role in ex­hi­bi­tions such as the Art Gallery of NSW’s The Arts of Is­lam, en­sur­ing the breadth and pur­pose of the Khalili Col­lec­tion is prop­erly re­flected.

Khalili’s long- stand­ing in­ter­est stems from his be­lief that Is­lamic art was largely over­looked yet had all the hall­marks of a great in­ter­na­tional art and cul­ture. Slowly he be­gan to re­alise the Khalili Col­lec­tion could help pro­mote a cause close to his heart: in­ter­faith tol­er­ance and greater un­der­stand­ing be­tween Mus­lims and Jews.

‘‘ My re­al­i­sa­tion that cul­ture has a big role to play came grad­u­ally as I was col­lect­ing,’’ says Khalili. ‘‘ I started to think that maybe col­lect­ing would build a bridge.’’

His aim now is to make the col­lec­tion ac­ces­si­ble to the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence through de­tailed cat­a­logues and in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions at the world’s most pres­ti­gious mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing the Vic­to­ria & Al­bert mu­seum in Lon­don, the Is­rael Mu­seum in Jerusalem and the Musee Rath in Geneva.

Khalili’s goal is to open his own mu­seum, ‘‘ whereby the world will be able to see the col­lec­tion,’’ he says.


ABOVE: FLASK Ori­gin: Ot­toman Turkey, Is­nik, c1560- 80AD. Stonepaste body, dec­o­rated un­der­glaze in black, blue, green and bole- red. 46 x 22.8cm di­am­e­ter LEFT: CROWNED HEAD Ori­gin: Cen­tral Asia, 8th or 9th cen­tury AD. Lime­stone, carved and painted. 30 cm ( height). Is­lamic royal cer­e­monies, which grew in splen­dour as the power of the Caliphate waned, were al­ready highly de­vel­oped at the Ab­basid court in 9th- and 10th- cen­tury Bagh­dad. This head, which was at­tached to the ma­trix rock at the back, must be from a frieze of slave sol­diers which dec­o­rated the au­di­ence hall of a ruler’s palace.

ABOVE: SIL­VER- GILT FIL­I­GREE CABI­NET Ori­gin: Goa, prob­a­bly 17th cen­tury AD. Sil­ver- gilt fil­i­gree pan­els, set in a gilt metal skele­ton. 57 x 40 x 32 cm. The hinged gabled lid lifts up to re­veal a shal­low drawer, while the doors at the front open to re­veal two fur­ther draw­ers. Both the up­per and lower sec­tions could be locked, sug­gest­ing that the cabi­net was used to hold jew­els.


The page is signed Ya Sahib al- Za­man ( O Lord of Time), an in­vo­ca­tion to the 12th Shi­ite imam that was used as a crypto- sig­na­ture by the painter Mo­ham­mad Za­man, who flour­ished un­der the Safavid ruler Shah Su­lay­man I ( 1666- 94). Six of his com­po­si­tions on bib­li­cal sub­jects sur­vive from the years 1678 and 1689.

Iran, 1211AH ( 1796/ 97 AD). Pa­pier- mache body, with hinged lid. 42 x 29.2 x 19.4 cm

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