This summer the Victoria and Albert Museum in London opened its new Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art following a three-year renovation and re-design. The gallery displays around 400 of the museum's renowned collection of 10,000 Islamic objects. Charlotte Collins reports
From Spain in the west to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in the east, the exhibition covers the region of the former Islamic caliphate and includes items from the 8th to the early 20th century. Both religious and secular life are represented, with decorated silver plate and glassware, clothing and wall hangings, carpets and Korans. There are many exquisite ceramics on display that show how production and decoration techniques developed across different regions.
The renovation of the Victoria and Albert Museum's (V&A's) Islamic Gallery was made possible through the sponsorship of Saudi businessman Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel and his family. In view of his declared "commitment to increasing understanding of the Islamic world", Mr Jameel was keen for people who would not normally come into contact with Islamic art to be given the opportunity to view the collection during the gallery's three-year closure.
A touring exhibition went to Washington, Texas, Tokyo and Sheffield, and was seen by more than 285,000 people.
Not just the art of religion, but of empires
Tim Stanley, Senior Curator of the V&A's Middle Eastern collections, explains that the new exhibition was designed knowing that, for many visitors, this would be their first encounter with Islamic art. "We've tried to make it as simple as possible," he explains.
"It's important to convey that Islamic art is very beautiful, and is not just the art of religion, but of empires. We have four sections representing the Mamluk, Qajar, Safavid and Ottoman empires, while near the entrance there are exhibits illustrating the four main constituents of Islamic art." The simple labelling system employed by the V&A in the past has also been replaced by explanatory, informative texts providing useful background and contextual information.
Sections entitled "Calligraphy", "Geometry", "Inspired by Plants", and "Images and Poetry" explain how these elements came to be common to all Islamic art. The exclusion of living creatures from religious imagery and the importance of the written tradition led to the development of Arabic calligraphy in particular as a high art form, not only in Koran manuscripts but on everything from ceramics to silk hangings.
In the secular realm poetry was also popular subject matter. Religious buildings, furniture, books and garments are traditionally decorated with Koranic calligraphy, complex geometric patterns, or abstract plant-like arabesques.
Varied interpretations of the hadith
However, as this exhibition demonstrates, different regions at different times varied their interpretations of the hadith regarding the ban on the portrayal of living creatures, at least as far as secular art was concerned. Tim Stanley explains that, while the religious rulers of the Ottoman Empire saw themselves as guardians of the true faith and were accordingly strict in their application of religious law to secular art, the rival Safavid and Qajar empires in 17th and 19th century Iran were less so.
The influence of European portraiture is clearly apparent in large oil paintings of religious figures, or 'imaginary' portraits of members of the royal harem. A fragment of cloth from Safavid Iran is embellished with two large figures of young men, while gazelles and leopards chase across another.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the famous Ardabil carpet. Commissioned as one of a pair by the ruler Shah Tahmasp for a shrine in Ardabil, north-west Iran, it is the world's earliest dated carpet: "946" in the Muslim calendar (1539-40 A.D.) is woven in to the pattern at one end. Measuring 10.5 x 5 metres, it is also one of the world's largest. The carpet previously hung on the gallery's far wall, where it was difficult both to light and to view. The curators decided to position it on the ground as the centrepiece of the exhibition, and commissioned the building of a special case to display it to its best advantage.
It is decorated with a unified design in a complex layered pattern of blossoms and tendrils woven on a single loom. The designer William Morris, who recommended its purchase by the British Department of Science and Art in 1893, described it as a remarkable carpet of "singular perfection", and it is generally regarded as a masterpiece of Islamic art.
© Qantara.de 2006