Entering the Islamic Art Gallery, with polished marble underfoot, towering ceilings above, and surrounded by magnificent displays of art, spanning over a millennium, I travelled through time and regions, following the rise and fall of empires, as I made my way through the 15 exquisite galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York, which reopened in November, after almost a decade.
The exhibition, aptly named, New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and later South Asia, takes visitors, in sequence, through the vast cultural heritage of the Islamic world.
The level of detail and effort that has lent to the authenticity of this exhibition is truly incredible. An intimate interior Moroccan court was constructed by highly skilled artisans from Fez, Morocco. They created intricate replicas of 14th century doors and worked painstakingly on scaffolding, resulting in a gorgeous tranquil sanctuary in the heart of the exhibit.
The Damascus room is even more authentic. Formerly a reception chamber in an upper-class home in Damascus, in the early 18th century, it travelled across the Atlantic, and after conservation treatment, was reinstalled at the MET close to its original layout centuries ago.
The room, a classic example of domestic Ottoman architecture, is appropriately positioned just off the galleries, featuring art from the Ottoman world. These galleries are a marvel in themselves. With towering Spanish wood-lattice ceilings, lined with an unparalleled collection of carpets, the gallery does justice to the Ottoman patronage of the time.
Most of the 1,200 pieces of art on display are secular in nature; plush carpets, jewelled weapons, decorative plates, among others. There are, of course, religious pieces as well. The beautiful 14th century mihrab from Isfahan, is decorated in blue and green glazed ceramic tiles. Numerous copies of the Holy Quran with beautiful styles of calligraphy are also on display. Ornate calligraphy, not limited to religious script, is a common thread running through time and regions, as are geometric designs. Although Islamic art shares a few common elements, the range of materials used in the creation of these masterpieces is striking.
The multiple influences on art, through trade and conquests, are also fascinating. In the first gallery there is a beautiful bottle from the Mamluk period in Egypt or Syria, but the figures painted on its side looked distinctly Asian. Such cross-cultural exchange is evident throughout the exhibition.
The opulence and diversity of Islamic art really impressed me. The beauty, intricacy, skills and toil led to the creation of masterpieces that conveyed richness without delving into garishness. People left the galleries in awe, with many vowing to return for a second time.
It is unfortunate that the galleries were closed during a period where such awe may have translated to a broader understanding of Islam. Even now, it may not dispel negative perceptions of the religion, but it could help in convincing people that there are several facets to Islamic heritage.
Sheila Canby, the curator in charge of Islamic galleries, in an interview with The Times, said that there was a tendency to vilify people as if they had come from nothing. She believes that such art is humanising and portrays the beauty and achievement of a great culture.
The beautiful galleries, with their stunning displays, stand to impress on their own, but if they make a dent in religious misperceptions, all the better.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2011.
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