Just a short one-hour drive from Washington, D.C., more than 120 exquisite pieces of Islamic artwork, including paintings, calligraphy, textiles, ceramics, decorative objects and jeweled luxury objects, are on display at The Walters Art Museum.
This beautiful, thought-provoking exhibition is a poignant reminder of a time when Muslim, Jewish and Christian intellectuals and artisans were encouraged to work together by their rulers.
“Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts,” showcases artwork from these great Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman courts.
What makes this exhibit unique is not only the gorgeous pieces on loan from around the world, coming from both private and public venues, but also that this exhibit explores the personalities of these writers, poets, artists, and craftsmen who created such beauty for the ruling elite.
“Pearls on a String seeks to broaden public engagement about the cultural histories of Muslim societies by demonstrating how human imagination and collaboration can ignite extraordinary artistic creativity,” Amy Landau, associate curator of Islamic and South Asian art and curator of the exhibition, told Arab News.
“We were thinking about new ways to present Islamic art, about how to introduce the general public to geographies, languages, religions that may seem unfamiliar,” said Landau. “One often misses stories about people and through a biographical lens, we’re able to do this.”
The metaphor behind Pearls on a String
Pearls on a String is a metaphor about individuals “connected to each other in the great Islamic courts centuries ago. The exhibit does not give a broad, sweeping narrative,” said Landau, “but rather focuses on individual stories of that time.”
Three historical personages are used to chronicle three centuries of enlightenment at the exhibition.
Abu’l Fazl, the 16th-century writer at the Mughal court in India, and author of a three-volume biography of Emperor Akbar, the Akbarnama, outlines the world of the Mughal court in fine and colorful detail.
As described by Abu’l Fazl, Emperor Akbar wielded the knowledge and power to establish universal peace among the religious communities of Mughal India, which had a predominantly Sunni government.
Abu’l Fazl affirms that Akbar was a protector of all his subjects regardless of religion and served as a spiritual guide fostering brotherhood in his empire, which is now Indian, Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.
The Book of Hamza, dated 1562–65, was the Mughal emperor Akbar’s first major commission from his manuscript workshop.
And, in the preface to the Razmnama (the Book of War, exhibited at this exhibit), a Persian translation of the Sanskrit Mahabharata (an epic story from ancient India) Abu’l Fazl writes: “Having observed the fanatical hatred between the Hindus and the Muslims and being convinced that it arose only from mutual ignorance, the enlightened emperor rendered the books of the former accessible to the latter.”
Epic Translations: The Painter as Storyteller
Muhammad Zaman is next to be showcased in the exhibition.
In 1675, the renowned painter from the Safavid court of Shah Sulayman in Isfahan, Muhammad Zaman completed a series of manuscript paintings. These were added to a copy of the Khamsa (Quintet) made for Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76) and a Shahnama (Book of Kings) made for Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1588–1629), these illuminated manuscripts of the previous century treasured in the royal library.
Lastly is the Ottoman Empire’s Sultan Mahmud I, renowned for ruling with stability during tumultuous periods in the 18th century, Mahmud used art and architectural patronage to stress his royal lineage and to communicate his vision of a technologically advanced empire engaged with Europe.
An active patron of the arts and architecture, this once-forgotten sultan commissioned sumptuous jeweled objects as well as lavish libraries and mosques that remain landmarks in Istanbul today.
The exhibit’s success is that it is not limited to visual art, as here there is a musical “listening station” of renowned musician Tansen.
When Abu’l Fazl named the greatest musicians of Akbar’s court in his Akbarnama, he began with Tansen, proclaiming: “A singer like him has not been [heard] in India for the last thousand years.”
This music played at the exhibit comes from Tansen’s Raga Bhairava, performed by Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha, leading present-day singers of Dhrupad.
Abu’l Fazl also names a calligrapher, Muhammad Husayn of Kashmir, as one of the great talents of his day. Muhammad Husayn’s skills earned him the title zarrin qalam, or “golden pen.” While Abu’l Fazl valued the art of painting, it was the calligrapher’s art he praised above all others, reflecting a common point of view in Islamic art that calligraphy is most-often valued above all else.
Throughout history, jealousy often proves one’s undoing: Abu’l Fazl’s liberal views and elevated status aroused ill feeling among certain nobles, including Akbar’s rebellious son, Prince Salim, who ordered him killed. Akbar lost not only an able statesman and visionary but also a dear friend.
Using the exhibition as a biographic lens on Islamic art
The essence of the project is to employ a biographic lens to Islamic art, said curator Landau. “We wanted to bring forth stories of people to humanize it. The exhibit is apolitical, and adopts a humanistic lens. And also, we wanted to present a different portrait than what is put forth in the media.”
Visual and listening lens aside, the exhibit also offers a tactile aspect of these ancient painting.
Craftsmen in the Mughal workshops made paper from linen and hemp fibers that were boiled and then beaten into a pulp. They cast sheets onto a wooden mold covered with a flexible mat made of grass strips.
One is encouraged to feel the difference of papers used to paint here, while being educated on the origins of these astonishing bright and colorful paints.
Colorants such as indigo, madder, and safflower yellow came from plants, while Indian yellow was purportedly made from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves. The rare mineral lapis lazuli was used to make ultramarine, a pigment more valuable than gold.
The artists made other pigments from metals: vermillion was made from mercury and sulphur; red lead was created by exposing lead to vinegar; and verdigris, by exposing copper to vinegar. At different stages, the artist burnished the painting from the reverse to compact the paint layers and achieve the desired gloss.
And yet conserving these colors comes at a price. “These folios can only be shown every three to five years, as they must be stored in darkness to preserve them,” said Landau.
Serendipity also aided the exhibit. The jewel-in-the-crown of this exhibition is, for many, the jewel-encrusted gold rifle made around 1732.
Sultan Mahmud I had a fondness for diamonds, rubies and emeralds, all of which envelop this rifle, and includes a writing set and dagger concealed in special compartments within it. Several of the pieces were found in storage at the Walker Art Museum, and through great luck and a knowledgeable hunch or two, the piece was pieced back together and made complete.
A similarly jewel-encrusted gold pistol completes the set, which Landau said, “…is on loan from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and brings the set together on display for the first time ever.”
The effect is so breathtaking that it is easy to understand why, aware of the envy such a gorgeous collection would bring, the creators had “Masha’Allah” engraved on both sides of the rifle.
Masha’Allah is an Arabic phrase that expresses joy, appreciation and thankfulness, and in some Muslim cultures, Masha’Allah is used to protect one from jealousy, the evil eye, or a jinx. In Islam, it is understood protection comes only from God (Allah).
Indeed, Masha’Allah is the word that should be used to summarize this exhibit — a full sensory experience of beauty and inspiration.
After all, such beauty and harmony was created during times of discord and destruction hundreds of years ago, certainly enlightenment can come from darkness at any time.
For more info, log onto: http://thewalters.org/exhibitions/pearls-on-a-string/
This exhibit at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum closes Jan. 31, 2016; it can next be viewed at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco between Feb. 25–May 8, 2016.
Source: Arab News