Ranging from the tenth to the twenty-first century, the sixty artworks include paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, metal wares, historic photographs, and even puppets.
They originate from such countries as Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Many are on view for the first time. Coinciding with the run of the exhibition Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul (October 24, 2008 through January 25, 2009) which highlights artworks that pre-date the spread of Islam to Afghanistan, Arts of the Islamic World was conceived as a supplementary display for visitors interested in art from this region of the world. Arts of the Islamic World also is timed to coincide with the publication of the museum catalog, Persian Ceramics: From the Collections of the Asian Art Museum, scheduled for release in mid-September.
“The Islamic world is, and always has been, more diverse and complex than most outsiders have thought,” says Dr. Forrest McGill, chief curator and Wattis Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art. “One of our intentions with this exhibition is to give a sense—however uneven—of the richness and extraordinary variety of Islamic art.”
Islam has been an important cultural force in much of Asia for more than five hundred years, and in some parts for more than a thousand. After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, Islam expanded quickly from its homeland in Arabia. Within a hundred years it had reached Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the east; and Libya, Morocco, and southern Spain in the west. Sometimes Islam spread as Arab dynasties expanded, but more often populations embraced Islam after exposure to its tenets and culture through traders and teachers. Today far more Muslims live in other parts of Asia than in the Arab world.
The visual arts have played, and continue to play, important roles in Muslim societies. In particular architecture, calligraphy, painting, metalworking, textiles, and ceramics have reached heights of beauty and sophistication admired around the world. One of the ceramics on view is a large blue-and-white dish from Iran dated 1650-1670 which might be thought at first glance to be Chinese. During the height of the Safavid empire (1501-1722), Persia and China had admired each other’s artworks and luxury goods for many centuries, and each had at various times adopted forms and motifs for the other’s creations.
The early 1600s—the last decades of the Ming dynasty—saw China’s porcelain production disrupted by natural disasters and social disorder. Persian ceramic factories seized the opportunity and geared up for production to satisfy the enormous demand—not only in Persia but in Europe as well—for large, splendid blue-and-white dishes. Persian artisans did not have the materials or China’s technical secrets for making true porcelain, but they managed to make credible imitations. The decoration on the large blue-and-white dish on display, with its sophisticated elaboration of an eight-pointed star, sensitive painting of floral sprays, and delicately incised patterns under the glaze rivals the best that Chinese ceramic artists achieved.
In all the areas Islam has spread, local artists have created art reflecting both this new faith and the pre-Islamic traditions of the region. In Arts of the Islamic World, an example of this practice is an illuminated illustration from India dated 1750-1800 of the holy city Mecca. The illustration probably originates from a manuscript that functioned as a guide for Muslims who desired to perform the pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (Hajj). These manuscripts were frequently copied by and for communities a considerable distance from Mecca, many of whom may never have had the opportunity to perform this pilgrimage. In this artwork, the artist added features from the Indian subcontinent to this representation of the distant holy sites. Minarets, intricate marble screens, and bulbous gold domes depicted in the artwork were more characteristic of the architectural complexes of the southern central region of India than of Mecca.
Throughout Islamic history, master calligraphers have been highly respected people, lauded for their artistic accomplishments. Mohamed Zakariya (American, b. 1942), recognized as a master of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish calligraphy, represents how these artists continue to flourish to this day. In his 2004 rendering of an Ottoman Turkish poem “Garden of Happiness,” Zakariya demonstrates his mastery of Ottoman Turkish calligraphy.
The decorative border surrounding the poem also illustrates his expertise in the Turkish technology of marbling. Born in Ventura, California, Zakariya first studied calligraphy in North Africa and independently at the British Museum in the early 1960s. In 1984 he was invited to study with two world-renowned Turkish master calligraphers in Istanbul. Today Zakariya continues to practice his art in the U.S., and he regularly holds exhibitions across the country. -- www.asianart.org