Six 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 Nov. 1, 2011.
The long-awaited $50 million renovation took eight years to complete. These 15 new galleries, linking 3,000 miles and 1,400 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.
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 intermingling of art 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 1,200 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. Some of the stunning artifacts on exhibit include miniatures from the most famous series of paintings in Islamic art, the celebrated 16th century “Shahnama” (Book of Kings) by the Persian Shah Tahmasp, ornamental doors from the ninth century royal residence at Samarra in Iraq, a monumental 12th century Seljuk feline incense burner from Iran 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. Turkish visitors will be pleased to learn that the Ottoman galleries, thanks to a generous gift from the Koç Foundation, have tripled in space, displaying an array of carpets and İznik ceramics that rivals the Museum for Turkish and Islamic in İstanbul.
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 home, 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 qibla orientation -- the direction towards the Kaaba in Mecca, toward which Muslims turn when performing the daily prayer), 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 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 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.
A respectful reconciliation
The revised perspective of these galleries, filled with a respectful, reconciliatory motivation, allows visitors to appreciate how Islamic artists sought to depict the divine and mundane in ways different, yet just as powerful, as those in Western art: Flowing calligraphy soars off Quran 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.
Many examples here illustrate the universal human aspirations towards beauty and refinement 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 Quran: “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 hand in hand closely to produce such a masterpiece. On an İznik plate from 16th century Ottoman Turkey, the artist has depicted four 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 judiciously situated doorway pulls visitors out of the Egypt/Syria gallery into the room containing the Met's “Orientalism” collection. These paintings depict the Middle East as seen through the eyes of 19th century European painters. Pausing to look at these colorful and often fanciful interpretations forces us to ask ourselves how we view these same 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.” By providing objects illustrating universal human aspirations, we are led to reassess our present relations to these cultures accordingly. Instead of blaring headlines on a newspaper article, perhaps scrutiny of the elegant calligraphy of a Quran page can offer grounds for reflection of the other face of the story and help close some of the chasms that continue to plague Muslim-West relations. 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. It is a perfect spot for we nations and tribes to come together and know one another in beauty -- and leave in 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.