ARTICLES of FAITH
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.
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