Published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, Reflections on Islamic Art is a far cry from the usual stuffy exhibition guides put together by academics and art historians.
One book's aim to share the inspiration of Islamic art
In the three years since the Museum of Islamic Art opened in Doha, IM Pei's cubist masterpiece built on its own island has certainly been a success. The venue, which has so far attracted 700,000 people, was set up specifically to reflect and document the vitality, complexity and diversity of Islamic art from across the centuries. But one of the major objectives was to be a "museum for the world" - a laudable aim, but incredibly difficult to achieve, particularly when more established institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have recently opened their own dedicated spaces to the form.
Which is where a new book based on the collection at MIA, Reflections on Islamic Art, comes in. Recently published internationally by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, it's a far cry from the usual stuffy exhibition guides put together by academics and art historians. Instead, the editor Ahdaf Soueif - the Egyptian author currently enjoying high praise for Cairo, My City Our Revolution - gathered together 27 novelists, poets, actors, filmmakers, artists and thinkers from across the world, brought them to Doha, and let them loose in the museum.
The results are fascinating. The British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed (also known as Riz MC) is captivated by a 15th-century Turkish/Iranian war mask, which provokes him to write a poem about his grandad's attic and its "trove of cluttered war spoils". The Lebanese novelist Jabbour Al Douaihy, who has just been shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is intrigued by the presence of a portrait of St Jerome, setting off on a journey of discovery that begins with his childhood and takes in India and the Mughal Sultans. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, meanwhile, finds a truth in a simple 10th-century earthenware dish inscribed with a sentence asking people to choose their own fate.
"Islamic civilisation at its peak was global and did encompass every discipline," says Soueif. "So we wanted to acknowledge that not just in where the writers we chose were from, but also what they did. Take Riz Ahmed: because of what he does with his poetry and his position as a British Muslim, I was just really interested in what he came up with, which piece spoke to him."
In letting the writers make their own choices, Soueif hoped Reflections would be less about highlighting why a piece of work in a museum was historically important, and more about its emotional charge. "I think, that way, the pieces stand more chance of being relevant to a reader," she says. Which is certainly true of the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw's piece on the 12th-century Iraqi astronomy tome, Book of Fixed Stars. In the museum, it's open to a page depicting a winged figure. It was the eyes of this figure - "narrow, feline, mischievous" - that first seized him. But it ended up inspiring Aw to think directly and intimately about his own identity.
"I was intrigued by which part of the Islamic world it came from," he says. "You don't initially know whether it's a figurative work or a scientific manual. And what I liked about it was that it poses so many questions without giving you exact answers."
But Aw soon learnt that the circles on the figure are there for a reason. They are the positions of the constellations, used by seafarers for navigation.
"And that really spoke to me. The first of the Arab sea traders must have used manuscripts like this to navigate their way to what is now Malaysia. We forget that centuries ago, the Muslim expansion into South-east Asia wasn't just religious. It was also about trade, intermarriage, discovering new lands. All those things made Malaysia and therefore made me. The Book of Fixed Stars is part of this grand narrative of inclusiveness."
Interestingly, Aw's piece also talks of the MIA building itself, which "weighs sneakily on the senses before one even begins to contemplate the objects". Soueif, too, calls Pei's design a stroke of genius, feeling, to her, both immediately Islamic yet contemporary enough to make the ancient objects in the collection feel like they're still important, still at the heart of the culture. You'd expect Palestinian architect-turned-writer Suad Amiry to make similar connections, and indeed her piece, Aniconism, Huntresses and Men's Jewellery, actually begins by marvelling at the five-storey glass atrium of MIA.
"The building is beautiful," she says. "Pei has done some serious research about the Middle East, and Arab and Islamic architecture. So it has this nice combination of looking inward but there are points in the building where, like in the window I describe, you're connected with the water and the outside world. I felt I had to write about it because it makes a statement about the past and the future."
And she didn't stop there. Amiry's other choice - a 17th-century Iranian Safavid silk and velvet panel depicting two women who appear to be indulging in falconry - is actually the cover of the book, too. Yet, as she somewhat sheepishly admits, she was first drawn to it by the presence of a dog - which reminded her a little of her own much-loved pet.
"I know nothing about textiles, but it's extremely elegant," she says with a laugh. "And it also seemed to represent how my own relationship with Islamic art has changed over the course of this project. My knowledge was limited to growing up in an old house in Damascus where there were inscriptions everywhere, and there is the general view that Islamic art is concerned with calligraphy, has no figurative element, is all about geometrics. But you walk around this museum and it's amazing how many animals you see depicted. The breadth of work is incredible."
This sense of changing perceptions is shot through the entire book. Amiry thinks one of its great successes is that even if you have no intention of visiting Doha, Reflections encourages its readers to look closer next time they go to any museum or gallery, to find personal connections with work rather than rush to see the famous stuff.
"You know, what struck me over and over again in MIA was how many of the pieces were actually made to be used," says Soueif. "Art, in the Muslim world, was part of daily life. And in a way, I hope this book brings their usefulness back again. It's just that now, they're being used as a starting point to reflect on things that are relevant to all of us today."
- Reflections on Islamic Art (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation) is out now. To read excerpts from the book, see The National's Review section on Friday
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Correction: In the first paragraph this article erroneously referred to the Museum of Modern Art rather than the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was changed on February 2, 2011.