Mag­i­cal ‘ for­est’ to share with the whole world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

WHEN the for­mi­da­ble Nasser D Khalili started col­lect­ing Is­lamic art, he had no vi­sion for the fu­ture. ‘‘ It was very much like when you buy a house, and you have a lit­tle gar­den and you think I’m go­ing to plant this hand­ful of seeds and hope that they grow,’’ he says. ‘‘ That hand­ful of seeds that I threw in that lit­tle gar­den has now turned into a for­est.’’

His ‘‘ for­est’’ now in­cludes more than 20,000 Is­lamic art pieces, many of them mas­ter­pieces in a given field, pe­riod or tech­nique.

‘‘ The com­bi­na­tion of his pas­sion, vi­sion and cul­tural her­itage has brought him to be the cus­to­dian, as I’m sure he would have it, of the most com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tion of Is­lamic art in private hands,’’ says the di­rec­tor of the Art Gallery of NSW, Ed­mund Capon.

Khalili, 61, is clearly a high achiever. A de­vout, Ira­nian- born Jew who fea­tures reg­u­larly in the an­nual Sun­day Times Rich List, he has been able to fi­nance his art col­lect­ing through suc­cess­ful busi­ness ven­tures in real es­tate and other in­vest­ments.

He is an em­i­nent scholar who holds chairs and pro­fes­sor­ships at var­i­ous univer­si­ties, and writer and bene­fac­tor of in­ter­na­tional stand­ing. Khalili has as­sem­bled and man­ages three other sig­nif­i­cant art col­lec­tions: Ja­panese art of the Meiji pe­riod; In­dian and Swedish tex­tiles; and Span­ish dam­a­scened met­al­work ( a tech­nique in­volv­ing in­tri­cate dec­o­ra­tion with pre­cious met­als, said to orig­i­nate in Da­m­as­cus).

Since 1992, he has pub­lished 32 vol­umes of the Is­lamic col­lec­tion cat­a­logue, writ­ten by some of the world’s most ac­com­plished ex­perts and also found time to write The Time­line His­tory of Is­lamic Art and Ar­chi­tec­ture, which was pub­lished in 2005.

‘‘ Col­lect­ing is like a book. Once you write it, it has a life of its own. It be­comes a legacy,’’ he says.

An­other of Khalili’s lega­cies is his phi­lan­thropy and in­ter­faith work as chair­man of the Mai­monides Foun­da­tion, for which he was made Knight of the Eques­trian Or­der of Pope St Sylvester in 2004.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­motes peace and un­der­stand­ing be­tween Jews and Mus­lims, and re­flects Khalili’s be­lief that there is more that unites the two reli­gions than di­vides them.

He be­lieves art, in par­tic­u­lar, can break down po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural bar­ri­ers and build in­ter­faith tol­er­ance, which is why the Khalili Col­lec­tion of Is­lamic art is so im­por­tant.

‘‘ The world has now come to un­der­stand that the great­est tool for bring­ing na­tions to­gether is cul­ture,’’ he says. ‘‘ At the end of the day, when you look at the world broadly you will see that re­li­gion and pol­i­tics have al­ways had their own lan­guages, but the lan­guage of art is uni­ver­sal.’’

Ex­hi­bi­tions such as The Arts of Is­lam il­lus­trate the com­mon cul­tural her­itage of the world’s great reli­gions at a time when there has never been a more press­ing need for them to un­der­stand each other’s faith and cul­ture, he says.

‘‘ Cul­ture now has a tremen­dous role to play to bring the reli­gions ( Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam) of the world to­gether.’’ He also wants to high­light what he be­lieves is one of the great ne­glected cul­tures of the world.

Al­though ‘‘ nearly 20 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion live in 50 Mus­lim coun­tries’’, Is­lamic cul­ture is of­ten mis­un­der­stood and un­der­val­ued, he says.

‘‘ The rea­son that I col­lected Is­lamic art is that I was born in a Mus­lim coun­try,’’ he adds. ‘‘ I col­lected it as an art, it just so hap­pened it was Is­lamic. I did not col­lect it be­cause it was Is­lamic. It had all the qual­i­ties of an in­ter­na­tional cul­ture.’’

Khalili’s child­hood in Iran, where he was born in 1945, also in­flu­enced his views on faith and tol­er­ance. Iran was a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety where there was no seg­re­ga­tion be­tween Mus­lims and Jews, he says.

‘‘ I was of the be­lief all the time that we are all the chil­dren of the Almighty . . . I looked at all the other reli­gions the same and I re­spected them.’’

Khalili left Iran for Amer­ica in 1967, af­ter com­plet­ing his school­ing and na­tional ser­vice, and com­pleted at BA in Com­puter Sci­ences at Queen’s Col­lege, New York, while also deal­ing in art. He com­pleted a PhD in 17th- 19th Cen­tury Per­sian Lac­quer at the Univer­sity of Lon­don in 1988, and set­tled in the UK 10 years later.

Hav­ing grown up in a fam­ily of art deal­ers, col­lect­ing was in his blood. ‘‘ Col­lect­ing is about re­search­ing, con­serv­ing, pub­lish­ing and ex­hibit­ing.’’ he says. ‘‘ We con­sider our­selves re­spon­si­ble col­lec­tors. We are buy­ing to share with the rest of the world.’’

Nasser D Khalili: Pas­sion and vi­sion

JAMI AL TAWARIKH MANUSCRIPTS: Pur­chased for $ 11.8 mil­lion, the manuscripts are ac­knowl­edged as among the finest works of their kind from the Is­lamic world

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