‘A Positive Understanding of Islam’

Museums around the world are showcasing Islamic art in an effort to promote understanding and engage immigrant communities.

Young Portuguese, 1634, by the Persian painter Riza-i ’Abbasi, rendered in ink, gold, and watercolor on paper, from the Detroit Institute of Arts.


In July 2005 the Louvre announced that it had received one of the largest gifts in its history. The €17 million ($26.8 million) donation from Prince al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia, supports the construction of a €62.2 million ($98.2 million), 260,000-square-foot wing for Islamic art, which will quadruple the display space for the museum’s 10,000 Islamic objects. Other contributors include the late emir of Kuwait and the sultan of Oman, who each gave €5 million ($7.9 million).

The new wing, designed by Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti and scheduled to open in 2010, will have a symbolic resonance as well as a practical function. According to Prince al-Waleed, the addition, which will also display objects from the adjacent Museum of Decorative Arts, has the potential to “assist in the understanding of the true meaning of Islam, a religion of humanity, forgiveness, and acceptance of other cultures.” Among the masterpieces in the collection are a 14th-century bronze platter created for the sultan of Yemen and a tenth-century ivory box from Córdoba, Spain.

The Louvre is just one of many cultural institutions around the world that are spotlighting their Islamic holdings. Museum officials say that in an era when many people know little about Islam beyond the struggle against the Taliban and Islamic extremism, there is a pressing need to present the full richness of Islamic culture. Institutions in the West, from the Detroit Institute of Arts to the David Collection in Copenhagen, home to the largest Islamic collection in Scandinavia, are in the midst of refurbishing their Islamic galleries and updating their educational components. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, recently launched a $35 million campaign to build an entirely new Islamic collection.

Islamic art is a sweeping category that encompasses a vast range of objects created in regions as diverse as Spain, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa since the establishment and spread of Islam in the seventh century. At the height of its influence, Islam covered a vast area of the globe over a millennium, observes Philippe de Montebello, director of the Met, which will reinstall its 12,000 Islamic objects as part of its master plan. A highlight of the renovated galleries will be the lavishly decorated Nur al-Din Room from an 18th-century house in Damascus. De Montebello emphasizes, however, that the renovation was not politically inspired.

Over the next three years the Asia Society in New York will explore contemporary and traditional Islamic culture in Asia, with programs including “New Painting from Pakistan,” an exhibition opening next year, and, in 2010, “Islam and the World of Film,” featuring works by filmmakers from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Afghanistan, among other regions.

At the same time plans are under way to bring Western art to the Persian Gulf, alongside projects that highlight the area’s own cultural history. Doha and Abu Dhabi are sparing no expense to construct cultural hubs with breathtaking museums that will showcase both Islamic and Western art, along with five-star hotels and restaurants, business districts, and outposts of American universities.

According to Nasser David Khalili, who has amassed one of the world’s largest private collections of Islamic art, the current activity is entirely a result of world politics. “All of this, from the Louvre to Qatar, has happened because of 9/11,” the London-based Khalili says. “You open the newspaper every day, and all you read about is what is wrong with Islam. It’s time for people to understand what is right with Islam.”

Khalili, who is of Iranian Jewish descent, regularly lends parts of his collection to museums around the world. A founder of the Maimonides Foundation, which promotes peace between Jews and Muslims, Khalili often lectures on the power of art to foster understanding between cultures. Most recently 500 objects from his collection were on view at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi, including an 1843 panoramic watercolor of Mecca, the earliest known visual portrayal of the city. It was the first time his objects had traveled to the region.

In Doha, Qatar, the much-anticipated Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I. M. Pei, will open in November. At Pei’s request the facility was constructed on a man-made island offshore, so that no future buildings would overshadow it. Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Arts, and Heritage hired the British Museum, which is also home to a renowned Islamic collection, to assist in the planning and operation of the new 115,500-square-foot facility.

In Abu Dhabi the ambitious cultural district being created on Saadiyat Island will feature the 75,000-square-foot Jean Nouvel–designed Louvre Abu Dhabi, costing a reported $520 million to build and scheduled to open in 2013, and a 450,000-square-foot branch of the Guggenheim, its largest museum in the world, conceived by Frank Gehry and slated to open in 2012. Also on the drawing board are a maritime museum, designed by Tadao Ando; a performing-arts center, by Zaha Hadid; and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, by Norman Foster.

Over the next 30 years, the government of Abu Dhabi will pay the Louvre an additional €400 million ($630 million) for the use of its name and for art loans from its collections. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be overseen for 15 years by the Guggenheim Foundation, which will train staff and develop an exhibition program. Foundation director Thomas Krens says the foundation’s agreement with Abu Dhabi fundamentally differs from the Louvre’s. “The relationship with the Louvre was a matter of national policy, since the collections are owned by the state,” he says. “The Guggenheim is an independent nonprofit organization.”

In Krens’s opinion, there is a “certain amount of plausibility” to the idea that the cultural activity in the region involves an effort to raise the global profile of Islamic culture. “These situations are complicated,” he says. “At what point do you make a distinction between national cultural pride and sharper political calculations? There is also a financial perspective. A situation like Abu Dhabi speaks to all of these concerns and more.”

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which owns 10,000 Islamic works, launched a renovation of its Islamic gallery after a Saudi benefactor, Abdul Latif Jameel, offered to underwrite the project. “The Islamic gallery had been open for 52 years and was in dire need of renovation,” says Tim Stanley, the V&A’s curator of Islamic art, and previously deputy curator of the Khalili collection. “Mr. Jameel wanted to provide a large donation, so we acted rapidly.”

Jameel wrote in a catalogue for the renovated gallery that when he first saw the V&A’s Islamic holdings, “events had conspired to create an overwhelmingly negative image of Muslims and their faith in the world media, and I felt it was important for people to gain a more positive understanding of Islam and what it had contributed to the world.” The Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art is dedicated to the donor’s mother and late father, founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel Company in Saudi
Arabia, now the world’s largest distributor of Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Stanley calls the gallery, which opened in 2006, a “space in which people can relax about the Middle East and look at something beautiful.” Its centerpiece is the Ardabil Carpet, made in Iran ca. 1539–40 and considered the world’s oldest dated carpet.

American museum directors say they are focusing on Islamic works in part to engage with growing Muslim populations in their communities. Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, says the institution is working closely with the city’s sizable Muslim community as it raises funds to develop its Islamic collection. “We started talking to various Islamic leaders and found that it would be important to show the very positive sides and the enormous diversity of Islamic cultures,” says Marzio, whose fund-raising efforts were aided by a $25,000 donation from Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim al-Thani of Qatar. “We are starting from the grass roots, figuring out how to make the museum directly meaningful to Islamic people. We will probably have an aggressive educational component, because I’m assuming that broader audiences in the Midwest have probably encountered very little Islamic art.”

The Detroit Institute of Arts, which reopened last fall after a complete renovation, is also reaching out to the local Muslim population. “The way a museum shows that it really values a culture—whether it’s African American, Latino, or Middle Eastern—is to put certain objects permanently on view,” says director Graham Beal. “We have a great influx of first-generation Islamics in the Detroit area. We’re trying to address these communities through programming.”

Beal says that the events of September 11, 2001, didn’t inspire the new focus on Islamic art, but those events do “make presenting extraordinary work important because the stereotypes of Islamic people have been so horrific.” In 2004 he hired Pedro Moura Carvalho, who like Stanley had been deputy curator of the Khalili collection, as the institute’s curator of Middle Eastern, Islamic, and Asian art.

In Denmark the David Collection, which houses 2,300 Islamic objects, is also under renovation and scheduled to reopen next year. Officials have been aggressively building the museum’s Islamic holdings since the 1960s. “I would say that in principle 9/11 had nothing to do with” museums’ current focus on Islamic art, says director Kjeld von Folsach. “But of course that is nonsense. You cannot open a Danish newspaper without seeing news about the Middle East, which was not true before.” Denmark in particular has been a target of Muslim anger since the publication of satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

With a total population of 6 million, Denmark has a Muslim population of 200,000, Von Folsach says, and the breadth and variety of Islamic art is often surprising even to Islamic museumgoers. “Our Muslim public is quite often as astonished and bewildered by our collection as the Danes,” he says. “I consider it one of my duties to show the positive sides of Islamic culture, but no more positive than the art of the Incas or the Chinese empires and so on. We are in no way trying to make propaganda.”

Islamic art, he adds, “is a justification in itself. It is a wonderful art.”

Sarah H. Bayliss is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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