Splendour of the spiritual at Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia


The 'Alif Lam Ra: Contemporary Muslim Calligraphy' exhibition, spread across two halls at IAMM, features the works of 42 contemporary Islamic calligraphers from various countries. Photo: The Star/William Gary

On a recent Tuesday morning, barely an hour after its doors opened, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur had steadily filled up with a stream of visitors eager to immerse themselves in two captivating exhibitions. These shows were put together to celebrate the museum’s 25th anniversary.

The morning scenes were a refreshing sight – considering how most museums and cultural institutions in Malaysia are ghost towns – as enthusiasts and curious patrons gathered at the entrance, forming a diverse tapestry of individuals united by their shared interest, or curiosity, in the showcased collection.

Twenty five years is a long enough period that has given the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) many milestones and memorable exhibitions, but there is definitely a resurgence of interest for this institution, located in the leafy surrounds of the Lake Gardens. Notably, among the new generation of culture vultures and history buffs.

And not to forget its destination status for high-profile visitors, including Monaco’s Prince Albert II, who visited last November.

IAMM is showing two double-header exhibitions - 'A Journey Through Islamic Arts' and 'Alif Lam Ra: Contemporary Muslim Calligraphy'. These exhibitions are presented in conjunction with IAMM's 25th anniversary celebration. Photo: The Star/William Gary IAMM is showing two double-header exhibitions - 'A Journey Through Islamic Arts' and 'Alif Lam Ra: Contemporary Muslim Calligraphy'. These exhibitions are presented in conjunction with IAMM's 25th anniversary celebration. Photo: The Star/William Gary

Last years’ IAMM exhibition Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage? (June to October, 2023) was the museum’s first major post-pandemic show and it set the momentum for bigger things ahead.

It attracted over 50,000 visitors, underlining the museum’s place as a major art destination in Malaysia.

The twin 25th-anniversary shows – A Journey Through Islamic Art and Alif Lam Ra: Contemporary Muslim Calligraphy – look to surpass that number this year. They will run through June 30.

This Saturday (May 18), IAMM is celebrating International Museum Day, with a one-day free admission treat. A list of activities - 10am to 5pm - have been planned, including gallery trails, a conservation corner, cultural events, traditional arts booths and children's programmes.

An astrolabe, signed by Diya al-Din bin Muhammad Qa’im, Mughal India, dated 1068 AH/1657 AD. Photo: The Star/William Gary  An astrolabe, signed by Diya al-Din bin Muhammad Qa’im, Mughal India, dated 1068 AH/1657 AD. Photo: The Star/William Gary

Marking a quarter-century of cultural stewardship (since December 1998), the main IAMM exhibitions offer an insightful journey through the diverse and profound artistic traditions within the Islamic world.

Four IAMM curators supervised by Dr Heba Barakat and Rekha Verma, the head and deputy of IAMM’s Curatorial Affairs Department respectively deliberated and worked through the museum’s vast inventory to shape the exhibitions.

“We are incredibly proud to reach this significant milestone in our journey,” says Rekha Verma.

“Over the past 25 years, the IAMM has been a beacon of cultural exchange, preserving the rich legacy of Islamic art and sharing it with the world. This anniversary celebration is a testament to our commitment to promoting understanding and appreciation of Islamic art,” she adds.

A compendium of astronomy and astrology, signed by Mufaddal ibn Haydar and Mas’ud ibn As’ad, Shiraz, Persia, dated 748 AH/1347 AD. Photo: IAMMA compendium of astronomy and astrology, signed by Mufaddal ibn Haydar and Mas’ud ibn As’ad, Shiraz, Persia, dated 748 AH/1347 AD. Photo: IAMM

The museum’s collection of artefacts and artworks, carefully curated over the years, is a treasure trove that spans centuries and geographical regions, featuring masterpieces in calligraphy, ceramics, textiles, manuscripts, and more.

“The demand for visiting the IAMM increases year after another, and it is expected that the number of visitors to this exhibition will increase due to the distinctive exhibits that combine the ancient artefacts and the modern calligraphy panels,” says Dalia Mohamed, Arabic researcher, from IAMM’s curatorial department.

The A Journey Through Islamic Art exhibition reveals its purpose from the title, covering 14 dynasties from the first Hijri century (7th AD) while the accompanying calligraphic show offers a contemporary spin on Islamic art.

The collection represents a Muslim world, from China and South-East Asia to the Iberian Peninsula, with Andalusia and Spain, and also highlights the important Islamic eras in India, Egypt and Africa.

An exhibit of four Mughal Empire-era swords is seen at the exhibition at IAMM. Photo: BernamaAn exhibit of four Mughal Empire-era swords is seen at the exhibition at IAMM. Photo: Bernama

There are over 160 artefacts in the A Journey Through Islamic Art exhibition, with some key works that serve as starting points for discussions, including a 17th-century Chinese Quran in 30 volumes, produced during the Qing Dynasty.

Four royal swords from the Mughal Empire in India, dating from the 15th to the early 18th century, belonging respectively to Emperor Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605, Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627), Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1666), and Emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707), are among the main hall highlights.

Also on display is the golden finial that once adorned the throne of Tipu Sultan, famously known as the Tiger of Mysore, from the Mysore Sultanate in Seringapatam, south India, during the 18th century. It is believed to have been seized by the British forces after Tipu Sultan’s defeat to the East India Company in the Anglo-Mysore War.

Closer to home, one of the more interesting artefacts to look out for is a unique copy of the illuminated 19th century Terengganu Quran.

A general view of the 'A Journey Through Islamic Art' exhibition, now showing at IAMM. Photo: The Star/William Gary A general view of the 'A Journey Through Islamic Art' exhibition, now showing at IAMM. Photo: The Star/William Gary

“The state has a reputation for its skilled calligraphers during that period. The use of gold and mineral-based pigments in the illumination produces vibrant green and red colours that are long-lasting. The high quality of the illumination with gold and the size of the Quran suggest that it was created for the royal court in Terengganu,” says Dalia.

For further regional discussion, there is the “Kitab al-Mawlid al-Nabawi”, from the Arabian peninsula, with the calligrapher from South-East Asia.

“His name is Ibrahim Wud al-Jawi al-Simbawi, a skilled calligrapher who served in the Ottoman sultanate in Hijaz, showing a bridge connection between the South-East Asia and the Arabian peninsula. Many more (regional) artefacts and keris can be found in the (IAMM’s) Malay permanent gallery,” says Dalia.

The main exhibition is also not categorised by region, but by themes and objects such as vases, weapons, assorted bowls, poetry books and a wide array of common objects.

“What makes each of them special is that each tells a story of the maker which considers the afterlife in his daily routine, referencing the Quran. There are ceramic bowls which indicate verses of thankfulness. Sword hilts which have verses about sacrifice. Vases which highlight prosperity,” says Dalia.

For visitors, the 'A Journey Through Islamic Art' exhibition offers a treasure trove of historical artefacts from the IAMM collection. Photo: The Star/William GaryFor visitors, the 'A Journey Through Islamic Art' exhibition offers a treasure trove of historical artefacts from the IAMM collection. Photo: The Star/William Gary

The Alif Lam Ra: Contemporary Muslim Calligraphy exhibition, also spread across two halls, features the works of 42 contemporary Islamic calligraphers from various countries, including notable calligraphers such as Fuad Kouichi Honda from Japan, Azra Aghighi (Iran), Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (Iran), Ahmad Moustafa (Mesir), Nasser Al-Aswadi (Yaman), Nja Mahdoui (Tunisia) dan Khaled Al Saai (Syria).

“From the traditional pen and paper, the sublime art of beautiful writing has found new expressions in the brush strokes, canvasses and even sculptures of contemporary times,” says Dalia.

“Calligraphy has always been at the apex in the field of Islamic art. It reflects the Muslim teaching that stresses the importance of the spoken and written word.

“Being a certified calligrapher was also the only way for one to produce a copy of the Quran. And royalty, in most time periods prized skilled calligraphers. Only the best would be able to produce the Quran, with illuminations and gold covers, some of which are present in this exhibition,” she adds.

Among the featured calligraphers, Fuad Kouichi Honda captivates with his intricate and harmonious strokes, seamlessly blending tradition with modernity. Azra Aghighi Bakhshayeshi’s contribution is marked by a delicate balance of precision and artistic innovation. Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, a luminary in the realm of contemporary calligraphy, is celebrated for pushing artistic boundaries.

The exhibitions A Journey Through Islamic Art and Alif Lam Ra: Contemporary Muslim Calligraphy are showing at Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia till June 30. Open daily: 9.30am to 6pm.

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