Eight months have passed since the "New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia" of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City opened on November 1, 2011. The long-awaited $50 million dollar renovation took 8 years to complete. These 15 new galleries, linking 3,000 miles and 1400 years of artistic production on several continents, are an increasingly popular attraction for the culture-hungry New York public, often unfamiliar with the history and culture of the Islamic world.
Art, on its quest for refinement, is the expression of the ethos and values of society. It serves to remind us that life must be permeated with physical, spiritual and emotional beauty. The objects in these Met Galleries are the memoirs of civilization, yet they are not cast in the amber of the past. They pulse with life. They help us to understand how the cultures touched by Islam were built and evolved through the present day. A balanced display of objects of all types and techniques leads the visitor on a rich ride through the artistic, cultural and religious contexts of regional spheres stretching from Rabat to Ulan Bator, from Trabzon to Jakarta.
A paradise of artistic delight
Selecting these outstanding pieces must have been an emotional and challenging experience for the curators. How to choose only 1200 pieces from the Museum's vast collections of 12,000 objects to tell the story of the interlinking themes across centuries and continents? The galleries explore the richness of Islamic art in objects big and small: from monumental bronze salvers of princely palaces to humble ceramic bowls, from stylish illuminated manuscripts to Qur'an pages filled with graceful calligraphy, from steel sabers to gardens of textile delights.
Some of the stunning artifacts on exhibit include miniatures from the most famous series of paintings in Islamic art, the celebrated 16th century Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, ornamental doors from the 9th century royal residence at Samarra in Iraq, a monumental 12th century Seljuk feline incense burner from Iran, a 12th century astrolabe from Yemen, and carved stucco panels from a 10th century house in Nishapur, Iran. Turkish and Mamluk carpets are presented in a room under a newly-assembled wooden ceiling from a 15th century Spanish monastery crafted by Muslim artisans, offering visitors a constellation of stars above and below.
Architecture, one of the most visible and unifying manifestations of the Islamic heritage, has a place here as well. Peeking into the Damascus Room, an intact 18th century reception room from an upper-class Syrian Ottoman house, gives insight onto the daily life of the era. The 11-foot high turquoise tiled prayer niche from a 14th century theological school in Isfahan has been moved to a more prominent place in the galleries (and respectfully reset to its correct kibla orientation), which allows visitors to feel its architectural impact. One of the most popular attractions is the Moroccan Courtyard – a room built from scratch to resemble a 14th century home interior, with intricately carved niches and a bubbling fountain. This graceful gem was created by craftsmen from Fez brought in especially for the project.
A desire to rethink the presentation of the galleries prompted the museum to close them for renovation in 2003, two years after the events of 9/11. The curatorial staff set out to sensitively join the galaxy of cultures touched by Islam, and to make its appreciation more accessible by the general public through a judicious intermingling of art objects. The curators chose three major strategies to achieve this monumental task.
Firstly, the official name change from the former reductive "Islamic Galleries" was a bold one. The new name is indeed a mouthful, but it removes the stigma of Islam as opposed to the West and alien, as well as the stereotype of an art produced only in relationship to religion. It effectively dismantles the notion that Islamic art is a single, uniform production.
Secondly, intelligent architecture, using an open plan, created more square footage and brightened the former dim and mysterious rooms into a light and positive space. Lattice screens made in Egypt point the way and provide awareness of the mutual visibility of the cultures. The floors are paved in a different stone for each section, ranging from Egyptian marble inlaid with stars to soft Indian sandstone. Created as well are two new galleries, one linking Spain and North Africa, and the second for the South Asian sphere. The circular path though the galleries encourages visitors to make intuitive cultural interconnections as they rove.
Lastly, and most importantly, the curatorial approach is groundbreaking. The galleries are arranged not in a chronological order, but attempt a more geographical transverse. Particular attention is paid to display objects that emphasize the exchange of artistic influences with surrounding cultures. One gallery is devoted to depicting the imprint of the late Roman, Sassanid and Coptic traditions on the formation of this art. Objects from the Byzantine Empire, China, and Europe are skillfully sprinkled in the cases to highlight the interplay of cultures. Particularly intriguing is portrayal of the hybrid Buddhist-Jain-Hindu-Muslim-Colonial context of the Indian subcontinent. Effort was also paid to present objects which highlight secular and cosmopolitan aspects, not just those exclusively linked to liturgical needs.
In this fashion, the Met galleries help us break with the idea of art compartmentalized solely in reference to a single religious or cultural tradition. Our eyes are lifted towards a more universal vision. The voyage through trans-regional history presented in these Galleries opens new lines of conversation and leads us to contemplate the artistic and historical traditions of our own practices in relation to those of a different civilization.
A reinterpretation of misconceptions
Interpretation of Islamic art in the past by the Western world has often dismissively focused on the visual differences of this art: Islamic art "bans human representation," Islamic artists "did not understand perspective" in their miniature painting, Islamic art is limited only to the "flat surface" and to the production of the "minor arts," and "uses only geometry and calligraphy" to express the aesthetic, and so forth. The current presentation allows visitors to see the contrary, persuading them to make up their own mind about how these artists sought to depict the divine and mundane in ways different, yet just as powerful, as those in Western art: flowing calligraphy soars off Qur'an pages as high as the arches of Gothic cathedrals, glass mosque lamps sparkle with the intensity of a king's gold treasure, colossal wall tiles shine forth with the same inspiration as stained glass windows, and carpets sing as brightly as a Cezanne or Klee painting.
The revised perspective of these galleries, filled with a respectful, reconciliatory motivation, allows visitors to appreciate the distinctive themes and the monumentality of this production, as well as the complexity and diversity of artistic expression. By providing objects illustrating the universal human aspiration towards beauty and refinement in society, we are led to reassess our present relations to these cultures accordingly.
Many examples here illustrate universal human aspirations and the interconnection of the peoples of the earth. Through excellence in craft, these objects poignantly illustrate the hope-filled quest of the honored verse of the Qur'an: "We created you nations and tribes that ye may know one another." (49:13). The first piece visitors view upon entering the galleries is a large, 10th century white ceramic bowl from Nishapur in Iran, inscribed in a boldly powerful black calligraphy. It sets the tone for harmony, for the potter and the calligrapher needed to work closely hand in hand to produce such a masterpiece. On an Iznik plate from 16th century Ottoman Turkey, the artist has depicted 4 types of flowers – a rose, a hyacinth, a honeysuckle sprig and a tulip – all gracefully springing from the same clump of roots. A special grouping of manuscripts side by side explores the triple traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity that lived together harmoniously in medieval Spain. A folio illustrating the preparation of medicine from honey, copied in Baghdad 1224 from the Greek medical manuscript De Materia Medica by Discorides, illustrates the respectful heritage of scientific thought from one culture to the next. A judiciously-situated doorway pulls visitors out of the Egypt/Syria gallery into the room containing the Met's 19th century "Orientalism" collection. These paintings depict the Middle East as seen through the eyes of European painters. Pausing to look at these colorful and often fanciful interpretations forces us to ask ourselves how we view these cultures today.
A Courtyard of Hope
The mainstream portrayal of Islam is not always kind, and does not usually deal with transcendent beauty, refined ornamentation, or intricate arabesques. Yet one of the most famous hadith, or sayings of the Prophet declares: "God is beautiful and He loves beauty." Should it thus come as a surprise that this culture has led to the creation of so many great works of art? Perhaps the art at the new Met Galleries will close some chasms and conflicts that plague Muslim-West relations, especially over the last 10 years. Instead of blaring headlines on a newspaper article, perhaps scrutiny of the elegant calligraphy of a Qur'an page will offer grounds for reflection of the other face of the story and provide hope for well-needed harmony. The spiral of galleries ends in the serene Moroccan courtyard. Visitors are invited to linger there a moment and take home with them its restorative light and spirit of tranquility.
A new game
One of the most engaging pieces on display is a 12th century chess set from Iran, one of the earliest to come down to us. Crafted from glazed clay, the modern-looking pieces challenge us to a game. Yet, we cannot play because one piece is missing. Somewhere along the march of time, through earthquakes, Mongol invasions, wars and strife, one pawn has gone missing from this stunning set.
Looking at this chessboard, one cannot help but reflect on the still-charged game of misunderstandings which pits East and West on opposing sides. Does the loss of this representative of castles and conflicts auger a more peaceful society? Perhaps this missing foot soldier can presage the beginning of a new game, one where we are all on the same side of the chessboard; a game without confronting pieces and with reconciliation as the victor.
May the art in these Met Galleries inspire us to write the rules for this new Game of Peace.
Katharine Branning is the author of a series of essays on Turkey, "Yes I would love another glass of tea" and the curator of the exhibit "Song of Stones" dedicated to Seljuk art held at the Turkish Cultural Center in New York in the fall of 2011.