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Arts of the Islamic World from Turkey to Indonesia

A Rich Assortment

The latest exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, “Arts of the Islamic World from Turkey to Indonesia", on display through March 1st in the museum’s Tateuchi Gallery, is an all-encompassing glimpse into the richness and variety of Islamic art, dating from the death of the prophet Muhammad to contemporary 20th and 21st century interpretations of Islam and the cultural and artistic forces that have continued to shape its reception on a global scale.

While a larger exhibit entitled “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” will open in October, “Arts of the Islamic World” provides a more general overview, offering 60 pieces of art (puppetry, ceramics, paintings, textiles, sculptures, metal works, and other artifacts) from areas as far-flung as Turkey and the Phillipines, many of which have never been on display before.

While the subject matter ranges from the mundane to the mystical, the works display an assortment of artistic and cultural traditions -- from the rococo flourishes of Persian textiles to the minimal beauty of Turkish calligraphy. Drawing from both Asia and the Near East, the pieces range from 10th century ceramics to 21st century drawings. But although many of the motifs remain consistent through time and across nations, it is difficult not to note the secular and cross-cultural elements that have inevitably merged with sacred Islamic symbolism to create a vocabulary of imagery that is complex and multifaceted.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in the year 632, Islam became one of the fastest growing forces to shape the cultural and artistic landscapes of the Middle East, parts of Asia, northern Africa, and southern Europe -- thus, as the exhibit clearly indicates, a specifically recognizable form of “Islamic art” is in itself a fallacy, given the intersection of local culture and folklore, secular elements, and the newly introduced religion. Perhaps, however, one of the most distinct and cohesive forms of Islamic art is architecture. Examples such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul reveal ordered repetition, radiating structures, rhythmic metric patterns, and the use of fractal geometry to create edifices that are both utilitarian and beautiful. Critics and art historians have said that Allah’s infinite power is evoked in the repetitive patterns of Islamic architecture (in which human and animal forms are rarely depicted given the subordinate position of the material world in Islamic ideology).

Generally, Islamic calligraphy, painting, textiles, and ceramics contain similar patterns that are both ideologically and artistically sophisticated. However, commerce and cross-cultural encounters have certainly affected the development of the Islamic aesthetic. A ceramic blue and white dish from 17th century Iran, at first glance, looks like a specimen of Chinese pottery. However, due to intense social upheaval in the early 1600s, porcelain production in China plummeted, and admiring Persian artisans decided to take up the mantle themselves to satisfy the region’s demand for the gorgeous pottery. While the eight-pointed star is similar to designs that might be found on traditional Arabian and Persian monuments, the delicate floral sprigs and illustrious patterns beneath the glazing are more imitative of traditional Chinese ware—revealing that obvious outside influences habitually coalesced with a more conventional Islamic aesthetic.

While cultural appropriation is perhaps one of the most common devices in art from any tradition (precluding the idea of an undiluted aesthetic), the exhibit also reveals examples of Islamic figures and motifs being inserted into a completely foreign mythos and artistic tradition. An Indonesian statue of wood, cloth, and mixed media depicting Umar Maya (a prominent figure in the Prophet’s life) is more aligned with Javanese puppetry, with its crudely elegant carvings, than the Arab-centered symbolism that has been at the center of most Islamic art. This is notable, given the primacy of animism and the mystical potency of the manufactured artifact in the pre-Islamic traditions indigenous to Indonesia.

Storytelling was a popular instructive device in both Islamic and pre-Islamic traditions, and an illuminated illustration from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh from 1750-1800, depicting a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, offers an educational guide on how to perform Hajj (the holy pilgrimage that all Muslims make to Mecca). Often, such guides acted as visual substitutes for those who could not make the pilgrimage from great distances. Naturally, the representation of the holy site in the illustration—with its minarets, gold domes, and marble screens—is more indicative of the cultural and artistic traditions of southern India than those of Mecca, which it doesn’t particularly resemble. It’s another potent example of how devotees culturally unfamiliar with Arab iconography may have used symbols from their own cultures as ways to apprehend and interpret scripture.

The lack of traditional paintings and aesthetic iconography in the exhibit is important, as the supremacy of the word in Islam can be recognized in much of the art, regardless of its cultural origin. This is why calligraphy has been such a prime art form in the Islamic word. The visual representation of script acts as a stand-in for the divine, which is why writing can be found on many of the objects in the exhibit, from furniture to ceramics. Arabic calligraphy in particular is thought to represent unity, beauty, and power.

A stunning example of this is Mohamed Zakariya’s “Garden of Happiness” piece (2004), which combines Arabic and Turkish Ottoman calligraphy. The verse, which comes from an old Turkish poem, refers to the attainment of knowledge and divine revelation. The decorative border around the poem, as well as the marbling effect, are traditional calligraphic techniques, but the idea of written language as having both literal and symbolic dimensions is a tantalizing concept that is both ancient and new -- and nonspecific to any one culture. In much the same way, the pieces in the exhibit, while pointing to a few meta-themes that figure prominently into Islamic aesthetics, point to an almost dizzying variegation in style, theme, and artistic tradition that would appear to be crucial to our contemporary understanding of the Islamic world.

The exhibit runs through March 1.