Islamic Art Treasures at the Metropolitan Museum

MV: “Art? What do you mean Art, Art is haraaaaam?” Not that type of controversial Art, its the art that portrays Islam’s real beauty. I’m not here to debate about the Fiqh of Art in Islam (as in drawing living beings on paper or not) but what I do want to do is show the art designs of Muslims in the past. When you think about Art in the Muslim world, not much comes in mind besides beautiful Masjids around the world. However, the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, could change that whole perspective. Check out and read about the newest addition of Islam Art Treasures at the Metropolitan Museum: 

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In one of Washington Irving’s tales from “The Alhambra,” the short-story collection that rooted the great 14th-century Moorish landmark in the American imagination, a

poor Spaniard and his daughter discover a hidden chamber deep within the abandoned palace’s crumbling walls and spirit away the treasure inside.

A 14th-century prayer niche, or mihrab, from a theological school in Isfahan, Iran.

Over the last three years in a suite of galleries concealed from public view on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is as if Irving’s fable of Islam’s rich past has been unfolding in reverse. Treasures, in this case more than a thousand pieces from the museum’s extensive holdings of Islamic art, have been slowly populating newly constructed rooms, taking their places in gleaming new vitrines with Egyptian marble underfoot and mosque lamps overhead, amid burbling fountains and peaked arches framing views of 13 centuries of art history.

When this 19,000-square-foot hidden chamber is finally opened to the public on Nov. 1 with the unwieldy but academically precise new name of the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia, it will not only represent the culmination of eight years of planning and work. The reinstallation and enlargement of the collection — one of the most important outside the Middle East — also promises to stand as a watershed moment in America’s awareness of the visual culture of the Islamic world, at a time when that world looms as large as ever on the international stage and in the American psyche.

Over the last year and a half the museum allowed a reporter to watch the galleries come into being, as bare brick walls were slowly transformed into visions of ninth-century Baghdad, medieval Iran and early Islamic India, and as the museum found itself in a transformed position. It had long harbored ambitions to put its Islamic holdings in a

bigger spotlight. But it had little idea when it began rethinking the galleries almost a decade ago that it would be doing so against such a culturally loaded backdrop: the American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the escalating tensions with Iran and the outbreak of the Arab Spring. For an institution that seems to exist as a sanctuary from geopolitics, and often operates in isolation from them, the project became a delicate diplomatic as well as curatorial undertaking.

With advice from the State Department, the museum has reached out to more than 20 countries whose regions are represented by artifacts in the overall collection,

including ones in the throes of regime change or revolt, like Libya, Egypt and Syria. It has sought advice from more than 40 Islamic-art scholars from around the world throughout the course of the project. It has worked with New York City officials to make contacts in New York Muslim organizations and has given early peeks of the project to groups as multifarious as the Arab Bankers Association of North America and the regional offices of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Thirty years ago there was just a small group of specialists interested in this material and a few people who collected rugs and objects,” said Sheila Canby, who was recruited from the British Museum to lead the Met’s Islamic department and oversee the completion of the reinstallation. “Now there’s much more attention and anticipation, though I think it’s driven by news events that are focused mostly on war. The history and culture represented by the objects in these galleries is still not known nearly as much as it should be, and the goal here is to change that.”

The museum has also had to confront the question — much more in the public eye now than it was when the original Islamic galleries opened in 1975 — of whether to display art that depicts the Prophet Muhammad. (It will, though the rare pieces on paper that do, like a folio from a 16th-century illuminated manuscript showing Muhammad on his winged steed Buraq, cannot be shown continuously because of their sensitivity to light.)

“We hope that it does not become a lightning-rod issue,” Thomas P. Campbell, the museum’s director, said in June, as the galleries began to take final shape. “These are not 20th-century cartoons setting out to be confrontational. They’re representative of a great tradition of art.” He added, of the issue: “We could duck it, but I don’t think it would be the responsible thing to do. Then we’d just be accused of ducking it.”

The closing of the original Islamic galleries in 2003 to make way for the enlargement of the Greek and Roman galleries below them on the first floor came at an awkward time, an almost symbolic displacement of Islamic by Western art in the wake of Sept. 11. But many experts inside and outside the museum had felt for years that the 1975 galleries — opened with great fanfare, by far the largest such permanent display in America — were showing their age. Two pre-eminent American scholars described the rooms as “somewhat dim and mysterious.” The mostly chronological arrangement, many felt, presented too narrow a picture of the Met’s overall collection, and scholars had long complained that too much of that collection — some 12,000 objects — was not sufficiently cataloged, making study difficult.

One of the first objects to greet visitors to the new galleries will be a 1,000-year-old Iranian earthenware bowl whose edge is circled with elegantly elongated Kufic script spelling out a kind of Poor Richard’s Almanac maxim of its day: “Planning before work protects you from regret.” The saying might as well have been taken to heart by the museum, which originally projected that the galleries would reopen within four years. But with the rare blank slate that the renovation provided, curators’ and designers’ ambitions grew, as did the project’s timeline and cost, which now stands at $50 million, money that also covers a new endowment for the collection along with a new, expanded catalog and educational programming.

The project did not even move from the drawing board to the construction phase until late winter of 2009. But despite taking place during a period when the museum has been forced to lay off staff members and tighten its belt because of the economic downturn, the renovation has been notable for pulling out most of the stops.

It imported a group of highly respected artisans from Fez, Morocco, to build a Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard from scratch, a painstaking project that took several months. It recruited woodworkers in Cairo for special doors (delivered on time despite the upheaval there) and glass blowers in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to make new mosque lamps based on ancient designs. It put textile conservators to work for more than three years for an inch-by-inch restoration of “The Emperor’s Carpet,” a renowned 16th-century Iranian rug believed to have belonged to Peter the Great and then to Leopold I, which has been displayed briefly only twice since the Met acquired it in 1943 because of its worn condition.

(“With most 16th-century Western tapestries, the yellows are almost gone,” said Florica Zaharia, the conservator in charge of the textile department, surveying the carpet in a lab in the summer of 2010. “But here you still somehow have these wonderful, bright yellows. I think it’s going to be a revelation to a lot of people.”)

The new galleries have gained 5,000 more square feet through deft architectural annexing of former offices and restrooms. As their title suggests, the 15 rooms will now present the works more by the map than the calendar, showing the catchall term “Islamic art” to mean little because it means so many things depending on how and where it is applied: art made in regions where Islam might have been the dominant but by no means the only religious culture; art made by Muslims for religious purposes but more often for secular, luxury ones, sometimes for non-Muslim patrons; art made by Muslims that so absorbed non-Muslim influences as to be almost indistinguishable from its Chinese or European cousins.

The galleries will triple the space given over to the Ottoman Empire. They will give a more central stage to one of the collection’s blockbusters — a brilliantly colored prayer niche from a theological school in the Iranian city of Isfahan — previously installed in a small side gallery. An entryway leading from the Islamic galleries into an adjoining European paintings gallery will provide a new, unusually literal West-meets-Near-East vista, allowing viewers looking at Orientalist fantasias like Gérôme’s 1871 “Prayer in the Mosque” to see all the way across to the deep blue and turquoise of the prayer niche, a genuine devotional article.

The new setup will also emphasize more strongly how the visual trademarks of Islamic art — geometric abstraction and calligraphy, as both language and decoration — have co-existed over the centuries with lively figuration, from the form of a leaping hare on an 11th-century Egyptian lusterware bowl to painted scenes of bourgeois splendor in 17th-century Iran that look as if Manet could have dreamed them up.

On some days over the last several months the galleries have seemed like a surreal conflation of the ancient and the postmodern: the Moroccan workers microwaving their lunch kebabs on a break from incising intricate stucco patterning that reaches back centuries; a radio pumping out Sly and the Family Stone as conservators put finishing touches on another of the collection’s masterpieces, the Damascus room, a nearly intact 18th-century wood-paneled reception chamber from a wealthy Syrian residence. (Some small pieces of this room remain in Hawaii, where Doris Duke acquired them for her Islam-theme Honolulu mansion, Shangri-La.)

One day last May a New York City imam, Abdallah Adhami, an American-born cleric who runs a nonprofit educational center, came to visit the galleries with his staff. And while standing with Ms. Canby, the curator in charge of the Islamic department, Mr. Adhami looked at the inscriptions on the Damascus room’s walls, recognized them as being inspired by the 13th-century Egyptian poet al-Busiri and showed her how to read them in their proper sequence. “It was a wonderful surprise,” she recalled.

Mr. Adhami — who was for a brief period chosen to direct religious programming for the proposed cultural center and mosque near ground zero — said he hoped the new Met galleries would not only help bridge cultural differences between America and the Muslim world but serve as a nucleus for American Muslims, whom he sees as woefully unaware of the riches of their cultural past. (On the question of works from that past presenting representations of Muhammad, Mr. Adhami holds a nuanced view. “Theologically it’s unacceptable, and that’s pretty straightforward.” But he added that he believed the images should be seen in context, as pieces of centuries-old history. “Let’s say that I would leave the room on a vote on this kind of question, figuratively speaking,” he said.)

To ask art and artifacts — even magisterial examples from a sweep of more than a millennium — to make a difference, or even a dent, in American anti-Muslim sentiment might be expecting too much. But the opening of the new galleries, less than two months after the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, comes at a time as propitious as the 2003 closing was unfortunate and holds the possibility at least of reshaping many Americans’ views about the deep affinities between Western and Islamic art.

And maybe it could do more, Ms. Canby said. Over half of the collection comes from Iran — in part because of Met excavations there in the 1930s — and those objects will now stand as a powerful counterpoint to preconceptions about a country that has come to symbolize Islamic antagonism.

“There is always a tendency to vilify a people as if they have come out of nothing,” she said in an interview in the galleries in August, with more than a third of the objects installed. “But these things are humanizing. They show the beauty and achievement and even the sense of humor of a great culture. Whether people apply that to their view of public affairs is their own business. But at least they will be able to use their eyes and draw their own conclusions.”


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