A col­lec­tion of Is­lamic art on show in Syd­ney is breath­tak­ing in its beauty, writes Se­bas­tian Smee The Arts of Is­lam: Trea­sures from the Nasser D. Khalili Col­lec­tion Art Gallery of NSW, Syd­ney, un­til Septem­ber 23.

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

WHEN you get past the cru­di­ties of po­lit­i­cal rhetoric and the stereo­types of news­pa­per head­lines, the world is noth­ing short of mar­vel­lous. You prob­a­bly know, for in­stance, what Iran’s hard­line Is­lamic Gov­ern­ment thinks of Is­rael and Jews in gen­eral. But did you know the world’s most com­pre­hen­sive private col­lec­tion of Is­lamic art is in the hands of a Jew? And that this col­lec­tor, born and reared in Iran, has been de­scribed by a for­mer Ira­nian for­eign min­is­ter and the present Ira­nian am­bas­sador to Bri­tain as a ‘‘ cul­tural am­bas­sador of Is­lam’’?

It’s fan­tas­tic, re­ally: al­most enough to pro­vide a glim­mer of hope. Nasser David Khalili, the col­lec­tor in ques­tion, is, among other things, the co- founder and chair­man of the Mai­monides Foun­da­tion, cre­ated to pro­mote greater peace and un­der­stand­ing be­tween Mus­lims and Jews.

‘‘ I see Jews and Mus­lims as cousins,’’ he has said, ‘‘ and I con­sider my ac­tiv­i­ties as a col­lec­tor of Is­lamic art a con­tri­bu­tion from one mem­ber of the hu­man fam­ily to an­other.’’

Khalili holds dual Bri­tish and US cit­i­zen­ship. He left Iran in 1967 and fur­thered his ed­u­ca­tion in the US and Bri­tain ( he has a de­gree in com­puter science, as well as var­i­ous hon­orary de­grees). He be­came a prop­erty mogul, a mi­nor art dealer and then a large col­lec­tor.

The latest rich list of The Sun­day Times ranks him as Bri­tain’s fifth rich­est man, which in it­self is some­thing of an enigma, since the pre­vi­ous year he was ranked 99th. The leap is based al­most en­tirely on a re- eval­u­a­tion of his art col­lec­tion, from £ 500 mil­lion in 2006 to ‘‘ a ten­ta­tive £ 4.5 bil­lion’’ ($ 10.7 bil­lion) this year. ( As The Art News­pa­per ’ s Ge­orgina Adam wrote re­cently, no one can quite make sense of this dras­tic up­ward re­vi­sion, since the mar­ket for Is­lamic art has re­mained flat dur­ing the pe­riod in ques­tion.)

But all this is pe­riph­eral to the fact that it is the cream of Khalili’s as­ton­ish­ing col­lec­tion that has been lent to the Art Gallery of NSW for an ex­hi­bi­tion called The Arts of Is­lam. The pre­sen­ta­tion is gor­geous: the de­sign of the show was mas­ter­minded by ar­chi­tect Richard John­son and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing recorded mu­sic by Kim Cu­nio — not­with­stand­ing a skip­ping CD on the day I vis­ited — is sen­si­tive and sub­tle.

There are about 25,000 ob­jects in Khalili’s col­lec­tion, which in­cludes smaller sub­cat­e­gories de­voted to Swedish tex­tiles, Span­ish met­al­work, Ja­panese art from the Meiji pe­riod and enam­els. Al­most 350 ob­jects from his Is­lamic hold­ings are shown here.

Parts of the col­lec­tion have been dis­played in a num­ber of ex­hi­bi­tions over the years. But this ex­hi­bi­tion in Syd­ney is su­pe­rior in size, range and pre­sen­ta­tion to pre­vi­ous show­ings, and may only be eclipsed when Khalili suc­ceeds in open­ing a mu­seum, or part of a mu­seum, ded­i­cated to show­ing the col­lec­tion on a per­ma­nent ba­sis.

What does it mean to have a show of Is­lamic art? As a re­sponse to news­pa­per head­lines and a per­va­sive cli­mate of ig­no­rance and sus­pi­cion, it makes ter­rific sense. Here is a show to re­mind us, very sim­ply, of the achieve­ments and splen­dour of the var­i­ous civil­i­sa­tions, all shar­ing a com­mon creed, that spread across great swaths of ter­ri­tory in the wake of Mo­hammed.

But re­mem­ber: they were civil­i­sa­tions, in the plu­ral. Just as it makes lit­tle sense to talk about Asian art ( ob­vi­ously, huge things dif­fer­en­ti­ate the arts of Ja­pan, China, In­dia, Korea, In­done­sia and so on) it is a con­ve­nient catch- all bor­der­ing on lazi­ness to talk about ‘‘ the arts of Is­lam’’.

Only last year, Cres­cent Moon — a ground­break­ing show or­gan­ised by the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia and the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia in Can­berra — de­voted it­self to Is­lamic art from South­east Asia, and what it re­vealed was that this re­gion, home to one- quar­ter of the world’s Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, has artis­tic tra­di­tions of its own, de­spite strong links to tra­di­tions from the Mus­lim Mid­dle East.

Wher­ever Is­lam has taken hold, the art that has flour­ished sub­se­quently has drawn on lo­cal tra­di­tions that pre- date Is­lam, be they Byzan­tine, Per­sian, Mon­gol or Hindu. Such art has also been fer­tilised, through trade, by art from dis­tant con­tem­po­rary cul­tures: from China, Europe, In­dia, and so on.

Hap­pily, work af­ter work in the Khalili col­lec­tion not only ac­knowl­edges this but boldly trum­pets it. Di­ver­sity and the won­ders of crosspol­li­na­tion are in ev­i­dence ev­ery­where. So we have the odd para­dox of a big ex­hi­bi­tion based on a du­bi­ous sim­pli­fi­ca­tion ( the arts of Is­lam) con­tin­u­ally re­mind­ing us of the dan­gers of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

Ex­plana­tory wall texts and a hand­some cat­a­logue do their best, but with­out prior ex­per­tise it re­mains nearly im­pos­si­ble to put ob­jects in mean­ing­ful con­text, to make real sense of the suc­ces­sion of dy­nas­ties, dis­parate lo­ca­tions and lines of in­flu­ence. But never mind: there’s some­thing in­her­ently ex­cit­ing about a vast, panoramic ex­hi­bi­tion filled with star­tlingly beau­ti­ful ob­jects. Just be pre­pared to lurch abruptly be­tween cul­tures, styles and pe­ri­ods.

Some of the in­di­vid­ual works do their own lurch­ing be­tween pe­ri­ods and cul­tures. The prime ex­am­ple — and one of the star hold­ings in the Khalili col­lec­tion — is a por­tion of a man­u­script known as the Jami’ al- Tawarikh, or com­pen­dium of chron­i­cles. This work was pro­duced by Rashid al- Din Fad­lal­lah, a Mus­lim con­vert from a Jewish fam­ily in 13th- cen­tury Ha­madan, a city near the border of mod­ern- day Iran and Iraq, at that time un­der Mon­gol rule.

Rashid al- Din, who was fab­u­lously rich, was com­mis­sioned by Mah­mud Ghazan, the Mon­gol ruler, to com­pile a his­tory of his reign. The project was en­larged af­ter Ghazan’s death into a more am­bi­tious work, di­vided into four parts: a his­tory of the Mon­gols; a uni­ver­sal his­tory en­com­pass­ing Adam, the Bib­li­cal pa­tri­archs and Per­sian kings right through to Mo­hammed and the caliphs; a his­tory of the ‘‘ five dy­nas­ties’’ of the Arabs, the Jews, the Mon­gols, the Franks and the Chi­nese; and a ge­o­graph­i­cal com­pen­dium.

Of th­ese, the world his­tory was the most ex­ten­sively il­lus­trated. To­day, half of it is in Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity Li­brary and the other half

in the Khalili col­lec­tion. The pages on dis­play here in­clude scenes from the life of Mo­hammed, the Old Tes­ta­ment sto­ries of Noah and Joseph, Chi­nese em­per­ors, scenes from Hindu epics and from the life of the Bud­dha. What a com­bi­na­tion!

Liv­ing in a part of the world criss­crossed by trade routes, Rashid al- Din would have had texts in Latin, Ara­bic, Per­sian, Syr­iac, Mon­go­lian, Chi­nese and San­skrit to draw on for his mag­num opus, as well as a host of dif­fer­ent vis­ual tra­di­tions. Even the brief glimpse of the com­pen­dium on dis­play adds up to an as­ton­ish­ing panorama, ex­e­cuted in an idio­syn­cratic vis­ual style clearly ow­ing a great deal to Chi­nese paint­ing, but also late Byzan­tine styles.

Else­where in the show are such cul­tur­ally dis­ori­ent­ing ob­jects as a minia­ture il­lus­trat­ing Alexan­der the Great visit­ing the Ka’bah in Mecca and a Mogul minia­ture show­ing peo­ple who ap­pear to be from the sub­con­ti­nent build­ing Noah’s Ark.

An iden­ti­fi­able Is­lamic style did not re­ally emerge un­til the 10th cen­tury un­der the Ab­basids. It is moot to ar­gue whether a stun­ning wa­ter­melon- shaped bot­tle made from el­e­gantly in­cised emer­ald- green glass qual­i­fies as Is­lamic art ( es­pe­cially since it may have been made be­fore Mo­hammed’s birth). But it is un­prece­dent­edly large, re­mark­ably beau­ti­ful, and since it is from Me­sopotamia, it points to one of the artis­tic tra­di­tions Is­lam in­her­ited.

Is­lam’s pro­hi­bi­tion on rep­re­sen­ta­tional im­agery ap­plies only to re­li­gious con­texts. It is, in any case, more nu­anced than many as­sume. Those ex­pect­ing to see an en­tirely ab­stract and dec­o­ra­tive ex­hi­bi­tion will be sur­prised to see hu­man and an­i­mal images through­out this show.

And yet in Is­lamic cul­ture, it is true the word is front and cen­tre. Ap­pro­pri­ate, then, that the show opens with a dis­play of Ko­rans, big and small, from Iran, China, North Africa, Egypt and Si­cily. Later on, there is a frag­ment from a Ko­ran be­lieved to have been in­scribed by a one- handed, left- handed cal­lig­ra­pher from the cen­tral Asian city of Sa­markand. Try­ing to im­press the great ruler Tamer­lane, he had writ­ten a Ko­ran so small that it could fit un­der a signet ring. The ploy failed so he turned around and made a gi­ant Ko­ran: each page al­most 1m long and 1.8m high, with only seven lines per page.

A sin­gle line is on show here. Im­pres­sive as it is, it serves as a re­minder that many of Is­lam’s great­est cul­tural trea­sures — a high pro­por­tion of them in book form — have been split up or oth­er­wise tam­pered with in the name of profit. The prac­tice con­tin­ues un­abated to­day, with ran­dom pages from pre­vi­ously whole manuscripts and in­di­vid­ual tiles ripped from the walls of build­ings ap­pear­ing at auc­tion on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

This is an ex­hi­bi­tion of al­most over­whelm­ing riches. Ev­i­dence of ma­te­rial wealth reaches a crescendo in the fi­nal room, which is filled with spit­toons, daggers, cas­kets and cab­i­nets made from sil­ver, teak, mother- of- pearl, lac­quer, gold, ru­bies, emer­alds and sap­phires. Two fly whisks from the In­dian state of Ra­jasthan are stud­ded with di­a­monds. The han­dle of a dag­ger is made from jade in­laid with gold, ru­bies and emer­alds. Wow, is about all you can say.

Still, so much of the rest of the show is char­ac­terised by re­straint and el­e­gance and by forms of beauty so sub­tle and ir­re­sistible that they leave you gasp­ing. Look out for the 16th- cen­tury silk cha­suble from the Turk­ish city of Bursa, its stun­ning bold de­sign in red, cream and pale blue be­com­ing richer and more cap­ti­vat­ing the fur­ther from it you stand.

See also the steel hel­met in the form of a tur­ban from 17th- cen­tury In­dia; the fig­urine of a seated man with a long, straight beard and hooded eyes, pos­si­bly a chess piece, from 13th- cen­tury Iran; the nar­row- necked flask from Iran that sets turquoise birds and flo­ral mo­tifs against a deep, drench­ingly beau­ti­ful blue; the amaz­ing ar­ray of lus­tre­ware; the four tiles dec­o­rated in black with verses from the Ko­ran against a su­per- in­tense, bot­tle- green ground; and the vel­vet coat with a stu­pen­dously beau­ti­ful de­sign in weft ikat from cen­tral Asia.

Strangely, works from South­east Asia are al­most en­tirely omit­ted. It’s a glar­ing ab­sence, but hap­pily, it makes this show the per­fect com­ple­ment to Cres­cent Moon. We are for­tu­nate in­deed to have had two such stun­ning shows of Is­lamic art in the past 12 months.

This is an ex­hi­bi­tion worth trav­el­ling to see. In fact, you’d be mad to miss it.

Cross- cul­tural fer­til­i­sa­tion: From left, pages from an Ira­nian Ko­ran, 12th or 13th cen­tury; nar­row- necked flask from Iran, later 15th or 16th cen­tury; crowned head from cen­tral Asia, 8th or 9th cen­tury; Jonah and the Whale , by Rashid al- Din; and a brass plani­spheric astro­labe from Iran, 1650- 51

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