Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Art offers window into Islam

Expand Messages
  • Zafar Khan
    Art offers window into Islam With works spanning more than a thousand years, a museum exhibit aims to give visitors a new appreciation for Muslim culture By
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 31, 2007
      Art offers window into Islam

      With works spanning more than a thousand years, a
      museum exhibit aims to give visitors a new
      appreciation for Muslim culture

      By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
      Tribune staff reporter
      Published March 30, 2007


      In the early 1970s, the game of table tennis led to a
      thawing in U.S.-Chinese relations. Curators of an
      Islamic art exhibit at Chicago's Smart Museum hope art
      can work the same magic, opening doors to greater
      understanding between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

      "If you say Islam to most Americans, they say
      terrorist," said exhibit co-curator Jonathan Bloom, a
      professor of Islamic art and architecture. "We want to
      show there's a different side to Islam. That it has a
      very rich and long culture."

      Few U.S. residents realize the contributions of Islam
      to modern civilization, such as introducing Arabic
      numerals and papermaking to Europe, said Sheila Blair,
      exhibit co-curator and Bloom's wife.

      Bloom and Blair, who are professors of Islamic art at
      both Boston College and Virginia Commonwealth
      University, hope the intricacy and beauty of the
      displayed pieces will lead visitors to read more about
      Islamic culture. The artifacts come from the David
      Collection in Copenhagen, considered one of the finest
      Islamic art collections in the world.

      "In some way art creates an opening," Bloom said. "Our
      main focus is that people enjoy it and want to learn

      Blair added: "We wanted to affect their eyes, and that
      would lead them to then use their brains."

      Islamic art, as defined by the curators, encompasses
      both secular and religious works in the Muslim world
      from the early days of Islam in the 7th Century until
      the influence of European colonialism began to be seen
      in the 19th Century. It was produced from Spain and
      West Africa to China and Indonesia.

      Unlike familiar art forms like paintings on canvas or
      sculpture, Islamic art leaned toward a smaller scale
      and focused on everyday objects that were both useful
      and beautifully decorated. Decoration was its most
      distinctive aspect, found on everything from the
      wooden pulpit in a mosque to a ceramic bowl at home.
      Thus, the exhibit is named "Cosmophilia," or "the love
      of ornament."

      Objects on display include an ink and gold fragment
      from a Koran manuscript; panels of tiles that could
      have lined Topkapi Palace in Istanbul; a kaleidoscopic
      17th Century door from Iran with several types of
      wood, ivory and brass inlay; a 14th Century silk
      tapestry roundel depicting an enthroned Mongol prince
      surrounded by his courtiers; and a stunning Iranian

      Barak Rosenshine, 70, a retired educational psychology
      professor, was visiting Chicago from Urbana recently
      when he dropped by the Smart Museum of Art at the
      University of Chicago. He seemed mesmerized by the
      painstaking work put into the 17th Century door.

      "Given the prejudice against Muslims today, it's
      wonderful to see this and reflect on the glory of that
      culture," he said. "We're bombarded with the fear that
      this country is going to be invaded by terrorists from
      the Middle East. Nothing positive is coming out of the
      Middle East. This is another side."

      From the minute they walk into the exhibit, visitors
      will grapple with their misconceptions. The first
      section is devoted to artifacts that depict the human

      "The one thing everyone seems to know about Islamic
      art is that it doesn't have human figures," Bloom
      said. "It's not true. Here, there's a whole section of

      Because the Koran, the Muslim scripture, bans the
      worship of idols, pictures of people are not found in
      mosques and other religious settings. And though
      conservatives frown on figurative art, other Muslims
      enjoy depictions of people and animals in their
      everyday lives, Bloom said.

      The next section of the exhibit focuses on writing and
      calligraphy. Bloom said the central miracle in Islam
      is the Koran, which Muslims believe was revealed to
      the Prophet Muhammad. Reverence for God's word and
      efforts to make it as physically beautiful as its
      content made calligraphy the major art form throughout
      the Muslim world, he said.

      "For conservative religious types, calligraphy is the
      noblest of the arts," Bloom said. "Manuscripts of the
      Koran and objects of religious writing and secular
      writing all are treated with great care."

      Geometry is the next theme. Artists combined dots,
      lines, polygons and circles to create endless
      patterns. To the secular admirer, they presented the
      artisan's cleverness; to the religious, the
      never-ending patterns spoke of God's infiniteness,
      Bloom said.

      Vegetation and decoration made up of vines, leaves and
      flowers dominate the fourth section. It was an
      ornament the Islamic world inherited from the
      Mediterranean region and ancient Persia, but Muslims
      developed it into the arabesque -- in which plants and
      leaves grow according to geometry, not nature. The
      final section includes pieces with multiple forms of

      Dermatologist Juliana Chyu, 53, came to the exhibit
      with members of her book club. The group has been
      reading Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red,"
      a tale centered on the world of book illustrators in
      16th Century Istanbul. They figured the artifacts
      would give them a window into the time period and

      They found book illustrations similar to those
      mentioned in Pamuk's novel. By the end, they felt they
      understood Islamic culture a bit more. But what made
      them feel closer to Muslims, they said, were two
      objects at the end of the exhibit: a whimsical pitcher
      in the shape of a rooster and a bronze incense burner
      in the form of a lion. They read that smoke from the
      incense burner came out of the lion's nose, and the
      liquid in the ewer poured from the rooster's mouth.

      "They're just like us," Chyu said. "They had humor in
      their day-to-day living."

      "Cosmophilia" runs through May 20 at the University of
      Chicago's Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave.,
      Chicago. Call 773-702-0200 for more information.

      Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

      The Republic of Beauty, Melding West and East
      Published: March 30, 2007


      Told often enough that the West and Islam are natural
      enemies, we start to believe it, and assume it has
      always been so. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art
      argues otherwise in “Venice and the Islamic World,
      828-1797,” a show that, with classic Met largesse,
      recreates the spectacle of two different cultures
      meeting in one fantastic city, where commerce and love
      of beauty, those great levelers, unite them in a
      fruitful bond.

      At its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries the Most
      Serene Republic of Venice was a giant, clamorous
      Costco-on-the-Rialto. All the necessities of life and
      most of the luxuries flowed into and through it from
      every direction, and in bulk, filling open-air stalls
      and salesrooms, piling up on piazzas.

      Wood, metal, grain, furs and leathers from northern
      Europe were shipped from Venetian docks to Near
      Eastern and African cities, many formerly Christian
      and now Muslim controlled. In return came
      ultra-refined Islamic luxury goods: Turkish velvets,
      Egyptian glass, Transcaucasian carpets and Syrian
      brass work of a quality that matched and exceeded the
      finest of Europe. Although much of this retail kept
      moving westward into Italy and beyond, Venice skimmed
      off the cream to adorn its churches and merchant
      palaces. And so thoroughly did the city absorb the
      cultural essences of these imports that it gained a
      reputation for being the most un-European town in
      Europe: a floating, glinting pipe dream of a
      metropolis with a style and a story entirely its own.

      Visually the Met show, organized by Stefano Carboni, a
      curator in the department of Islamic art, presents
      Venice exactly this way. At the same time it
      acknowledges the tough entrepreneurial history running
      under the dazzle and glow.

      The most famous early transaction between Venice and
      the Islamic world was not an exchange but a theft. In
      A.D. 828 two Venetian traders stole the body of St.
      Mark, the evangelist, from its tomb in Alexandria and
      brought it home with them.

      The pretext was piety: to remove a revered Christian
      relic from Muslim hands. The rewards, however, were
      practical. With a single act of derring-do, Venice
      advertised its mercantile reach, reaffirmed its
      religious loyalties and gained a pilgrimage-worthy
      trophy saint to boot.

      The accumulated chips would come in handy with the
      Vatican. In future centuries, when Europe was
      repeatedly forbidden by papal decree to do business
      with Muslim powers, Venice went right ahead, and got
      away with it, staying in touch with the larger world
      on which it depended for economic survival (it had no
      natural resources) and in which it took delight. That
      world is sketched out in the show’s opening gallery.

      A 15th-century navigational chart of the eastern
      Mediterranean defines its coordinates. A Venetian
      merchant’s handwritten diary supplies some
      on-the-ground data. (In Egypt, for example, the
      merchant saw pyramids, giraffes and the interiors of
      elegant Muslim homes.) Two paintings, one large and
      one small, bring his experiences to life.

      We see Venice itself in a 15th-century illustrated
      manuscript of Marco Polo’s “Travels.” A bird’s-eye
      view, it is a mirage of crenelated rooftops,
      watered-silk lagoons and jumbo swans, with Marco Polo,
      festive in pink, about to embark for Persia. This is a
      storybook picture by an English artist who most likely
      never laid eyes on the city.

      The Syrian city of Damascus looks far less outlandish
      in an oil painting done a century later of Venetian
      ambassadors being received at an Islamic court. Minus
      the minarets and towering turbans, this could be a
      European scene. Islamic culture was by this point as
      fully integrated into Venetian consciousness as Arabic
      words were into the local Italian dialect.

      In a sense this entire show is an essay on how that
      integration played out in art. Sometimes the dynamic
      is straightforward, a simple matter of placement. An
      exquisitely illustrated 17th-century manuscript made
      in Shiraz, in Persia, ends up in Venice. Fragments of
      a painted Venetian glass beaker lie in a Jewish
      cemetery in Syria. How? Why? Things traveled; that’s

      Frequently, though, cultures are overlaid. The
      gold-patterned cloak worn by the Virgin in a
      14th-century altarpiece by Stefano Veneziano is
      modeled on sumptuous textiles then entering Venice
      from Persia. This reference to a luxury import would
      surely have tickled the painting’s merchant-patron.
      That the cloth depicted was “foreign” made it exotic
      enough for heaven.

      Elsewhere the play of influence is more complex. One
      of the exhibition’s oldest objects, a glass cup from
      the treasury of St. Mark’s cathedral, has a
      multiethnic pedigree. Its emerald-green bowl was
      probably made by Islamic craftsmen in Egypt or Iran.
      It then traveled to Constantinople, where a Byzantine
      metalworker fitted it with a gilt-silver mount.
      Finally this cup that might well have had secular
      origins found a sacred home in Venice.

      Original meanings were often lost in translation and
      new ones acquired. An inlaid brass bucket designed as
      a bath accessory in the Near East became a holy water
      dispenser in Venice. Showy silk brocades used as
      slipcovers in Turkey were tailored into ecclesiastical
      robes in Venice.

      Nor was Europe always on the receiving end of such
      borrowings. Venetian glassmaking techniques and styles
      were so scrupulously emulated by Islamic craftsmen
      that it is often impossible to tell the source of
      specific objects. And some of the most magnetic items
      in the Met’s exhibition were created by Western
      artists expressly for Islamic customers.

      One of the most celebrated is Gentile Bellini’s 1480
      oil portrait of the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II.
      Commissioned during Bellini’s two years in
      Constantinople, it turns an easily sensationalized
      subject into an empathetic likeness, idealizing but
      naturalistic, an approach that would have its effect
      on Islamic painting to come.

      For sensationalism, however, there is another
      portrait, an early-16th-century Italian print of
      Emperor Suleyman in a multitiered crown created, at
      fabulous expense, by Venetian goldsmiths. With its
      Carmen Miranda superstructure the headpiece was all
      but unwearable; and in the print the emperor, known as
      the Magnificent, seems to shrink comically within it.

      Yet symbolically it meant a lot to him. He considered
      it an emblem of his sovereignty over all the
      tiara-wearing rulers of Europe. And he affirmed this
      entitlement, first by taking control of trade between
      Islam and the West, then by initiating an Ottoman
      conquest of the European territory.

      As these threats became reality, the image of Muslims
      in European art changed. When the Venetian artist
      Vittore Carpaccio painted a scene of the stoning of
      St. Stephen, he made all of the executioners Ottoman
      Turks. That was in 1520. Nine years later Suleyman’s
      army reached the gates of Vienna.

      Venice, pragmatic as always, put business before
      politics and tried to sustain a connection to the
      Ottoman court. But by then Venetian trade was in
      decline — Portugal had found a route to India; Spain
      had tapped into the New World — and Europe’s
      relationship with Islam had irrecoverably soured. One
      of the show’s final objects is a carved figurehead
      decoration for a 17th-century Venetian battleship used
      in war against the Ottomans. It depicts a Muslim,
      bare-headed, half-naked, humiliated, in chains.

      But even when old commercial ties failed, a bond of
      beauty between Venice and the Islamic world held. So
      long and intimately had the two mingled that Venetian
      art had become, if only superficially, “Islamic” by

      It’s important to acknowledge the superficiality of
      the interaction, to remember that one culture never
      really became the other. The Met exhibition is a
      European, not an Islamic, show. Despite the Islamic
      material included we learn little about Islam or about
      the Islamic meaning of objects or, even in a general
      way, about Islamic views of the West.

      Some future exhibition will flip this perspective
      around. That is a show we need, and I look forward to
      it. Perhaps Mr. Carboni, a scholar of depth and
      breadth, will do it. In the meantime we have his Met
      show to savor: historically pointed, visually
      magnificent and a timely demonstration of differences
      reconciled through art.
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.