New Met Exhibit Displays the Glories of Islamic Art

Islamic Art
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A gorgeous salad-bowl-size ceramic dazzles the eye upon entry. The bowl suggests a highly refined and thoughtful curatorial choice as the first display in the reopened Islamic wing in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, as intentional as the galleries’ wordy new handle: “The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” Creamy-hued with wispy dark calligraphy beneath the rim, the 10th-century object neatly embodies the virtues of early Islamic culture: aesthetic purity, affluence with austerity, and a fierce commitment to simplicity. Rippling outward, Islam reinvigorated such forgotten places as Nishapur in northern Iran, the pottery bowl’s hometown on the edge of Central Asia. Within a century, the town could spawn a savant for the ages like Omar Khayyám. The galleries tell an overall story, and many ministories on the way. It’s worth paying close attention to their message.

Closed for renovation since 2003, the Islamic department’s reopening is a huge event in the annals of culture, so it’s safe to assume that no detail is left to chance. The overall design, the choice of objects, their order of display, the high-tech lighting, and much else will be pored over, imitated, and critiqued for years to come. There are 15 galleries, with 1,200 objects on show at any time out of 12,000 in the full collection. What the objects say individually, and the argument they make collectively, are a state-of-the-art manifesto of museum philosophy in the new millennium. According to Navina Haidar, the supervising curator, a consideration that differentiates the present from previous eras is the “global audience of a place like the Met these days, through the Internet and easy international travel. In earlier times they addressed more local audiences. Now we are conscious that our audience includes large numbers of Muslims worldwide.”

So, we can assume, as we look at the show, that Muslim eyes aplenty will be looking, too, not least the many Muslims who live in or near New York. The Metropolitan is their museum equally. The curators have kept that in mind. When you think that they’ve updated their mission from merely enlightening the West about a “foreign” tradition, namely Islam, to also enlightening Muslims about the complexity of their own heritage, the show’s narrative looks even more interesting. Behind and to the left of the bowl stands a nine-foot-high monumental page of Quranic calligraphy from about A.D. 800, likely the biggest-ever Quran until modern times: a straight, exquisite testament to bibliolatry as a central art form in Islam. But on either side stand sandstone Mughal screens across windows that look onto a later gallery from the Mughal era. In catching sight of a multicolored 16th-century Delhi tunic, you glimpse a much more sumptuous and sophisticated Islam to come 700 years later, that of the Mughal emperors in India. Subtly but indelibly, the galleries make their first argument: this is what Islam began with, and here is where it went in a far-off future as it settled into deeper cultural pastures.

The galleries proceed in a circle above a kind of atrium of preexisting Greek and Roman statuaries. If you drift close enough to the windows, you glimpse the marble figures down below and you catch another subtle contextual message, namely that a great deal of Muslim culture grafted itself onto classical soil. Haidar points out the juxtaposition as a happy accident. “We were given an extra 20 percent of space, which allowed us to turn a long gallery into a circular one above the classical galleries.” However serendipitous and sporadic the message, this “multiculturalism” seeps into the visitor’s vision—and, with luck, into the vision of Muslims worldwide.

Though clearly demonstrated, the argument is not forced, or too pointedly made, that Islam channeled many other traditions. Hence two other entrances (or exits) to the new wing connect to the South Asian and the Orientalist Painting departments. The floor plan merely illustrates a manifest truth about Islamic history down the ages that the modern puritanical variety of Islam relentlessly denies. Islamic culture was a collaborative and cumulative effort, achieved in tandem with other “convert” cultures. A number of the galleries also show pre-Islamic objects. All of which explains the convoluted new name for the department—a menu of geographical spaces that doesn’t even include “Islam” or “Islamic” in the title.

So much for overarching themes. In the end, any museum experience stands or falls on the quality of the exhibits. Most dispassionate experts would probably concede that the Metropolitan Museum’s collection doesn’t quite equal the British Museum’s in, say, ceramics or the Louvre’s in armor—both those museums, after all, are in countries with past imperial footprints in Muslim lands. However, the sheer stunning opulence of the best objects in the Met’s galleries are simply matchless and gradually build to a transcendent encounter with some of mankind’s highest aesthetic achievements. In the Egypt and Syria Gallery, which covers the 10th to 16th centuries, the glorious five-color Mamluk carpet—the “Simonetti” (named after an Italian owner)—-intoxicates the senses, breathing fiery reds and golds and luminous greens hemmed within integrated geometric medallion designs. If one knows nothing else about Egypt’s Fatimids than that they walked on such carpets, one can envy their lot.

Arguably, the Met’s collection is strongest in carpets and textiles, chief among them the Emperor’s Carpet, which once belonged to Peter the Great. It is a spectacular 16th-century Iranian knotted pile rug that interweaves, in reds, golds, and blacks, so many scintillations of detail—lions, tigers, serpents, palmettes, cloud bands, calligraphy—that the effect is like looking at a starry sky. Another celebrated textile can be seen in the Ottoman Gallery, a 16th-century kemha, or brocaded silk weave, featuring sinuous stems with protruding tulips and carnations, all in gold thread, kinetically swaying against a blood-red background. One can only imagine the ornate politesse of the human contemporaries of such fabrics.

Sometimes a single poetic object in its fractional way suggests the tenor of an entire era. The Met’s collection is full of such artifacts. Iznik chinaware from the Ottoman period, in particular the blue-on-white spouted jug with circular floral decorations, illuminates the tasteful elegance of its time; and the famed Damascus Room offers a kind of giant doll’s house for the imagination to inhabit. In the mimetic pictorial genre, the most outstanding artwork of its kind perhaps in the world is the Shah Tahmasp Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. Composed for one of Iran’s Safavid rulers who perennially sought legitimacy by comparing himself to the ancient kings of Persia, the radiant illuminations denote a pinnacle in the history of Islamic, indeed of any, art. They also precisely embody the message of the resplendent new galleries—that Muslim culture achieved its apogee as both a recipient and disseminator of broad influences from other cultures. The “Muslim” galleries belong to all of us, the Met’s message seems to say, for how else but through collaboration is such beauty born?

Melik Kaylan is a writer in New York.