As The Art of Islam is exhibited in Paris, Hannah Westley looks at the city's reaction to the show and the collector behind it In the country with Europe's largest Muslim population, a large exhibition of Islamic art might be expected to attract attention - and this time the host institution, Paris's Institut du Monde Arabe, has not been disappointed. In Paris following shows in the UAE and Australia, the remarkable exhibition The Art of Islam is compiled from the collection of the London-based, Iranian-born millionaire Professor Nasser D Khalili. Containing 471 items (including manuscripts, carpets, glassware, ceramics, jewellery, boiserie and precious stones), it looks at the relationship between art and the sacred, how work carried out for the ruling elite set fashions for the people, and at creation as a means of satisfying the senses, or a forerunner of paradise.
In the hope that the exhibition will help visitors understand and better appreciate Islamic art, the organisers are eager to point out that although it is referred to as Islamic, the art is not religious; its references, however, are anchored in Islamic philosophy. Coverage in the French press has been overwhelmingly positive. L'Express magazine calls the exhibition not only an invitation to journey and dream, but also an invitation to tolerance. The curators, Aurélie Clemente-Ruiz and Eric Delpont are quoted as saying: "At the beginning of the 21st century, Islam is at the heart of many misunderstandings and we want this exhibition to challenge people's preconceptions."
L'Express reports that the show is full of surprises, not least the discovery that much Islamic art is both figurative and multicultural. Another surprise is the diversity of the art on show: traditional calligraphy is exhibited alongside works that represent men, women and animals. The review Jeune Afrique highlights Khalili's desire to use his collection - the most complete privately-owned compilation of Islamic art today - to fight prejudice and facilitate better understanding between cultures. "Many of the art objects, both in their very nature as well as their decoration, relate to life and its pleasures. The exhibition demonstrates that Islamic culture is far from being austere or closed." The collector is also quoted as saying: "Ignorance is the true weapon of mass destruction."
Khalili, 64, has attracted as much attention as his collection. L'Express ran a profile of him concurrent with its exhibition review, calling him "the humanist with the golden touch". According to the article, Khalili is one of the 10 richest people in the UK, and his wealth is as intriguing as his philanthropy: "If there is one man capable of changing the image of the egocentric millionaire it is him."
The article informs us that Khalili distinguished himself early by writing a book on geniuses at the age of 13. A few years later, he left for the United States with $750 (Dh2,755) in his pocket. It was there that he started to amass his wealth and began collecting. He settled in London in the 1970s and since then, the "warm man has not ceased to exhibit his collection and to work for a better understanding between religions".
The Journal du Dimanche ran an interview in which it credits Khalili with a directness and simplicity "surprising in someone whose destiny was so remarkable". The story is peppered with Khalili's messages of wisdom: "Morality and honesty form the backbone of everything I undertake in life." He also describes his philosophy behind collecting: "One has the right to call oneself a collector only when you fulfil five conditions: you have to accumulate, conserve, research, publish and exhibit. Hanging a Picasso in your dining room is not enough. That's just expensive shopping. My aim is pedagogic and all the glory goes to the artists. I am the shepherd gathering the sheep."
Agence France Presse reports Khalili as saying that art is a remedy to multiple problems and a bridge between people. The "surprising personality" is a force for peace and culture who has published around 40 works on his collection, it says. He also finances a chair in Islamic art at the University of London and a centre for research into Middle Eastern art and culture in Oxford. The daily newspaper Le Figaro ran an article praising the beauty of the artwork and Khalili's generosity. Elsewhere, Le Monde's website contains a slide show of the exhibition, and readers can debate the usefulness of such a show.
One reader claims that an exhibition of contemporary Islamic art would provide a French audience with a greater insight into the culture. However, as far as this exhibition goes, his would appear to be a voice in the wilderness. The Arts of Islam is on show at the Institut du Monde Arabe until March 14, 2010.