The city of Houston, Texas, is widely known for its achievements in energy, space and medical technology. During the past few decades, thanks to its excellent museums, restaurants and thriving international communities, this fourth-largest US city has also made a name for itself as a cultural capital.
The discovery of oil in east Texas in 1901 brought the prosperous petroleum industry to Houston. By 1950, American oil production and technology were foremost in the world. Arabian Gulf States including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait relied on US firms like Texaco for exploration and development of their highly profitable oil fields.
These business links have deepened and expanded over the years. Saudi Aramco, whose U.S. headquarters is located in Houston, sends at least 50 employees a year to earn prestigious degrees in petroleum engineering and related subjects at Texas A&M University. The University of Houston offers Arabic studies, and the University of Texas at Austin has a dynamic Middle Eastern Studies Program with more than 50 scholars offering nearly 300 courses. Partnerships exist between Texas A&M and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and between many American and Arab institutions.
The Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH), founded in 1900, is among the top 10 most comprehensive art museums in the USA. It features 63,000 works of art from six continents, ranging from ancient to contemporary, and offers many exciting programs and presentations. Over a million visitors enjoy the museum’s collections and activities every year.
In 2007, the MFAH launched its Arts of the Islamic World initiative, with the goals of mounting exhibits and educational programs, and building a permanent collection of Islamic art, found in cultures from Iberia and Africa to the Far East. Recent acquisitions given by generous individual donors include a 1797 illustrated copy of “Tasrish-i Mansuri” (Anatomy With Illustrations), originally compiled in 1396 by Mansur Ibn Faqir Ilyas, the first medical treatise in the Islamic world to depict the anatomy of the entire human body; and a 19th-century Turkish lute made of wood, ebony, ivory and mother-of-pearl intarsia. A splendid exhibit, “Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam,” originally organized by the Brooklyn Museum, visited the Houston museum in 2010.
The MFAH is currently hosting “Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts.” This groundbreaking international exhibit assembles priceless objects from 40 institutions worldwide. It was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) with support from the MFAH. The nearly 250 objects in the show date from the eighth to the 20th centuries.
“Gifts of the Sultan” is the first exhibit to view Islamic art through the lens of gift giving, and to explore the ways gift exchange fostered the development of art styles and techniques. All of the works on display were either fabricated as gifts or were offered as gifts in the course of their history. Some pieces were modified significantly after reception, as they moved from continent to continent, revealing interesting aspects of the various cultures in which they have “lived.”
Exchanging gifts is a universal human practice, and it was of essential importance to the Ottoman, Mogul, Fatimid and other Muslim civilizations featured in this show. Gifts were presented to celebrate personal or communal events and to demonstrate religious piety. They were also exchanged to further political interests, to advertise the wealth and power of the donor and to underscore the strategic importance of the recipient. Thus, an examination of the gifts, and the circumstances in which they were given, reveals the underpinnings of societies and the major historical currents and events of their time.
“Gifts of the Sultan” is arranged along three themes: Personal, state and pious gifts. Beyond the great beauty and wide diversity of the works, the presentation, reception and eventual modification of the gifts bring the viewer closer to daily life and thought in these exotic cultures of the past. The exhibition ends with three contemporary works commissioned from prominent Muslim artists of today.
Personal gifts included gold jewelry and coins, luxurious robes and textiles and finely-crafted ivory, metal or wooden chests. They were often part of dowries, or gifts to mark special occasions. Distinguished military chiefs were rewarded with costly arms and armor. Lavishly illustrated manuscripts and personal portraits were presented to honor the learning or high rank of the recipient.
An example of a personal gift on view in the exhibit is a pair of elegant gold bracelets made in Syria or Egypt in the 11th Century, on loan from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. Decorated with wire, granulation, and repoussé, these bracelets would seem thoroughly fashionable today. Besides their beauty as a personal adornment, their high value clearly announced the wealth and social status of the wearer.
Political and diplomatic objectives have motivated state gifts since ancient times, as they continue to do today. Rulers spared no expense to make a lasting impression, both in the choice of gifts offered, and in the formal, respectful way they were presented. These gifts were meant to instill respect for the wealth and power of the giver, and flatter the receiver whose loyalty, friendship, or services were desired.
A gilded 1633 folio from India, “Shah Jahan receives the Persian Ambassador Muhammad ‘Ali Beg,” shows the lavish atmosphere in which the Mogul ruler received an important emissary from Persia. This work is a page from the “Padshahnama” (Chronicle of the Emperor), an official visual history prepared for Shah Jahan. The haloed Shah is seated in the center, facing his visitor at the left of the scene. They are surrounded by elegant dignitaries, soldiers and horses, all standing at attention. Pages bearing food and gifts circulate along the lower register of the work. The pomp and formality of the meeting, conveyed by the gilding and bright colors, highlight the importance of the event. This work is lent for the exhibit by the Royal Collection at Windsor.
Generosity is one of the marks of the true believer, according to the Islamic tradition and generosity belongs to the dwellers of paradise. This esteemed quality inspired gifts given as pious acts to mosques, schools, hospices, and burial sites, usually through a local charitable trust known as a “Waqf.” These religious gifts ranged from a simple “kashkul,” or begging bowl, to a lavish carpet intended for a holy shrine, or a silver-gilt “sitara,” a silken drape for the door of the Kaaba in Makkah.
One of the many fascinating religious articles on display in “Gifts of the Sultan” is the spectacular “Ardabil Carpet,” made in Tabriz, Iran, in 1539 and bearing the signature of Maqsud Kashani. It was one of a matched pair of royal carpets commissioned by Shah Tahmasp for presentation to his ancestral shrine at Ardabil in northwestern Iran. Inscribed above the date and signature is a Persian couplet by the renowned poet Hafez Shirazi: “I have no refuge in this world other than thy threshold / My head has no resting place other than this doorway.” The “Ardabil Carpet” is now a part of LACMA’s permanent collection.
My favorite work on display combines elements of personal, state, and pious gifts, and illustrates perfectly the idea that gift-giving itself can influence art. It is a 16th-century gilded glass Mosque Lamp from Venice. The gold design looks thoroughly Italian, while the characteristic shape of the lamp follows the Islamic model of a tapered foot, a globular vase and a flaring neck. In the 1500s, Venice was the capital of a great trading empire, and the city became Europe’s most important link to the Muslim world through its sustained diplomatic efforts. Known for its glass, Venice sent gilded mosque lamps like this one to the Ottoman vizier, to insure favor at the Turkish court. If not for the interplay of Venice’s desire to obtain the favor of a foreign trading partner, and the Ottoman vizier’s desire to adorn a public place of worship, this exquisite work would never have been created. The lamp is on loan from the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul.
“Gifts of the Sultan” concludes by bringing the gift-giving experience into the present day. Three contemporary Muslim artists were commissioned to interpret the theme of the exhibit in a new work.
Sadegh Tirafkan, an Iranian born in Iraq in 1965, offers a multimedia view of Iranian cultural traditions. His sculpture “Always in Our Thoughts” is informed by memory and loss. As in “hijlah,” temporary shrines built in Iran to honor the dead, his loved ones are remembered through images, candles and thin strips of cloth, which visitors to Muslim shrines place near the tomb in homage.
Shahzia Sikander, an American born in Pakistan in 1969, presents a composition that resembles an open book adorned by a Persian miniature painting, but one in which the text and paintings overlap. “Untitled” quotes verses by an Urdu poet, in a work that reflects the different cultures in which Sikander has lived.
Ahmed Mater, a Saudi artist born in 1979, is also a practicing physician. The title of his “Illumination Diptych (Ottoman Waqf)” is reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts endowed to religious charities. But this diptych consists of two X-ray images of human torsos facing each other, both surrounded by a gold calligraphic border and placed on an antique-looking manuscript page.
These modern works remind the viewer that gift-giving is above all a timeless symbol of human interaction, and that every gift is a meeting point not only of a giver and a receiver, but also of past histories and hopes for the future.
“Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts” continues at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston until Jan. 16, 2012.
For more information, please consult the exhibition website: