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Sunday April 15, 2012

Grandeur and finery

The travelling show from the Aga Khan Museum presents functional items and devotional paeans.

MUCH of the appeal of the 100 artefacts in the Treasures Of The Aga Khan Museum exhibition lies in their innate beauty and rarity, and the wonder they evoke while throbbing with the pulses of Muslim civilisation.

The objects of grandeur and finery are representations of Islamic architecture, with its myriad nuances in philosophy, spirituality, intellect, way of life, literature, arts and culture, from the ninth century to the 18th century.

Entertainment In A Palace, signed ‘Faizullah’ Faizabad, India, circa 1765-1770.

With the subtext, “Architecture In Islamic Arts”, the show, currently on at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, comprises selected works which represent a 10% component of the great Islamic repository of the Aga Khan and his family.

It is a rare opportunity to glimpse and marvel at part of the famed Aga Khan treasures. If nothing else, it will whet the appetite for the inevitable grand feast when the Aga Khan Museum makes its scheduled official opening at its permanent home on a 10,000sqm structure in Toronto, Canada, in October 2013. The museum complex, a fount of elegant austerity, is designed by Fumihiko Maki, the 1993 winner of the Pritzker Prize (for architecture).

This exhibition has chalked up stops at prestigious venues like the Louvre in Paris, with the last two being the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, and The Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia.

The travelling repertoire includes ornamental doors with Sufi inscriptions from ninth century Iran; an iridescent wooden door inlaid with mother-of-pearl and metal fittings (Gujerat, India, 18th century); stalactite-like Muqarnas carved wooden “chandelier” inversely reflected on the floor mirrors (Islamic Spain, 15th/16th centuries); rare Spanish Umayyads bronze lamp and carved marble capitals (Eastern Syria or Iraq, 13th century and Islamic Spain, circa 950-970); Iznik tiles from 16th century Turkey with one that is star shaped and another in fused five hexagonal tiles (15th century); a tabouret ceramic stand (Iran, c.1170-1200) and an Andalusian Spain cast bronze lamp holder (10th century).

Other interesting functional items include a kilga (porous clay jar stand) carved marble “water filter” from the River Nile (Egypt, 12th century); a candle stand with repousee designs (Iran or Afghanistan, 12th/13th centuries); a red Moroccan leather with gilt tooling (Turkey, late 16th/early 17th centuries); a 17th century Iranian silk wrap and weft carpet; mudejar wooden corbels (Toledo, Spain, 14th century), and two cast-copper alloy inkwells (12th/13th centuries).

Carved marble Kilga (jar stand) from Egypt (probably Cairo), possibly from the 12th century.

More than half of the works are folios from manuscripts, ranging from parchments to paper (including coloured and marbled), which in later periods were mostly illustrated like miniature paintings.

These are both poetry and prayers – devotional paeans in embellished angular Kufic scripts which glorify God and spread the religious doctrines, but they can focus on mundane everyday life, like a marketplace fight, as shown in one exhibit at this Kuala Lumpur stop.

Some are single-page/double-page works, dispersed or in bound albums from the epigraphy of the Anwar-I Suhayli (Light Of Canopus); Kulliyat (Collected Works) of Sa’di, Shahnama of Firdawsi; Falnama (Book Of Divinities), Dalail Al-Khajrat, Akbarnama (Book Of Akbar); Akhlaq-I Nasiri (Ethics Of Nasir), Tuhfet Ul-Leta’if (Gifts Of Curiosities) and the mystical romance of Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami.

There is also an illuminated double-page frontispiece, Diwan of Sultan Ibrahim Mirza (Iran, 1582-1583).

Chased and beaten brass candlestick with Repouseé Designs Khurasan (north-eastern Iran/Afghanistan)

Entertainment In A Palace (Faizabad, India, c. 1765-1770) provides interesting insights into place life from a bird’s-eye view perspective. There is also a still-life oil on canvas, from Qajar, Iran (19th century).

The most valuable item in the collection is the Folio 53v of the manuscript, the Shahnama of Firdawsi titled Salm And Tur Receive The Reply Of Faridun And Manuchihr, on fratricidal intrigue (opaque watercolour, ink, gold and silver on paper, Tabriz, Iran, c. 1522-1535). It is one of five illustrations created for Shah Tahmasp.

The inscriptions are also on ceramic tiles (glazed fritware with polychrome underglaze painting and lustre overglaze decoration) and wooden beams and steles (oak, plane-tree wood, sycamore, pine and teak).

The exhibition’s orientation is not chronological or geographical, but the exhibits on show are grouped under six categories, namely Sacred Topographies; Religious and Funerary Architecture; the Fortress and the City; the Gardens; Pavilion and Tents, and the Written Word.

It shows that despite Islam being monotheistic, it is greatly enriched with a startling pluralism, artistic merit and syncretic infusions like the Hispano-Mauresque in Spain. Islamic cultures have evolved and progressed greatly from diverse places, like from the Iberian peninsula and the Maghrib to South-East Asia and China, within a time frame of over a millennium.

The exhibition offers glimpses into the turbulence of medieval societies with the enclosed palisades for spheres of influence and administrative hubs.

Muqarnas element Islamic Spain (carved wood, from late 15th or 16th century).

The exhibition offers glimpses into the turbulence of medieval societies with the enclosed palisades for spheres of influence and administrative hubs, from different periods like the Mongol/Safavid/Samanid Iran, Fatimid/Tulunid/Mamluk Egypt, Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India.

There is also an interactive Children’s Corner at the exhibition.

The Aga Khan, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community. The 75-year-old is most noted for initiating the eponymous award for architecture, which has been given out in three-year cycles since 1977.

Six buildings in Malaysia have won the Aga Khan Architecture Award. They are the Petronas Twin Towers (in KL), Tanjung Jara Beach Hotel (Terengganu), Menara Mesiniaga (Selangor), Salinger Residence (Selangor), The Datai (Langkawi, Kedah), and Universiti Teknologi Petronas (Perak).

> Treasures Of The Aga Khan Museum is on show till June 29 at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Jalan Lembah Perdana, Kuala Lumpur.

Viewing from 10am to 6pm daily; admission fees apply. For more information, call 03-22742020 or visit iamm.org.my.

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