Magical ‘ forest’ to share with the whole world
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