The New Albukhary Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum.

The New Albukhary Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum.

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The British Museum’s fine collection of Islamic art treasures, once located in an obscure gallery, has been displayed again in a splendid, new gallery which will be its permanent home. The Albukhary Foundation has made this possible with significant support. This new gallery is a shared project and shows the diverse cultures of the Islamic world, from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South and Southeast Asia.

The Albukhary Foundation is a non-profit organisation based in Malaysia with an international presence. It believes good will can be promoted through education and cultural heritage. The Foundation has led to many commendable, humanitarian projects in underprivileged and neglected communities. It initiated and supports the  Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, expressed his gratitude to the Albukhary Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum for their very generous support of the new Gallery.

Stanton Williams worked with Arup’s lighting team on the design of the Gallery. Roof lights control the direction and intensity of the light. Artist and designer, Ahmad Angawi created the effective Mangour window screens in walnut wood. They are made of interlocking components and lattice work and they are a gift from the Albukhary family, dedicated to their parents, Syed Nor Albukhary and Sharia Rokiah Albukhary.

Visual arts of the Islamic world are extremely diverse and impossible to define by a single style or one form of aestheticism. Admittedly, certain elements do often appear on objects, either alone or in combinations, from differing regions. This recurrence is noticeable in calligraphic inscriptions, shapes and symmetry of geometry and natural abstract forms of fruit and vegetables.

It was a huge challenge to showcase Islamic art and material culture from Africa to China. The Gallery has material from the Rise of Islam in the 7th Century AD to the present day. The curating team are Venetia Porter, Ladan Akbarnia, Fahmida Sulman, Zeina Klink-Hoppe, Amandine Merat   and William Greenwood. They rose to the challenge and have created a successful, informative display.

There are two Galleries, the first covers the region from the rise of Islam in 7th century up to 1500, while the second gallery represents the height of creativity under the Ottoman, the Suavid **??and Mughal dynasties. The display includes archaeology, decorative arts, metal -work, the art of the book, ethnography, jewellery, textiles, epigraphy and contemporary Middle Eastern art.

The pervading theme is the link between Islam, the ancient world, the Mediterranean regions and Europe. European artists were much influenced by Islamic art.

The influence of this art was far-spread and can be seen in other objects in the museum from Byzantium, the Viking period, the time of the Crusades and Islamic Spain. The juxtaposition of these objects in nearby galleries draws attention to the source of their inspiration and illustrates the continuous connectivity that took place.

The display has not overlooked the Pre-Islamic period and its art which flourished in South Arabia. The non Muslem communities have not been forgotten, Christians, Jews and Muslems all trace their origins to Abraham whom they consider to be the first monotheist. These three Faiths share aspects of belief, the concepts of one creator, guidance of divine scriptures, charity, pilgrimage and prayer. Jerusalem, the Holy City, is respected by all three Faiths.

Modern media technology plays a part in the displays. Further research can be done which is good in the technology of metal work for example. Light sensitive material rotates every so often which is necessary in the conservation and protection of calligraphy, paintings and organic material.

1600 objects are displayed, among them a 13 century incense burner, made of intricate, inlaid metal, from Damascus. Its decorations depict Christian scenes which reveals there were Christian patrons. Also there is rarely seen Archaeological material from Samarra in Iraq and from Siraf in Iran. This comes from recent excavations. Much coveted Chinese porcelain  traded across the Indian Ocean is on view. Never before displayed are 19th and 20th century textiles from the Middle East, Central Asia, and South and Southeastern Asia. As part of works on paper, displayed are illustrated pages from ‘The Book of Kings’ the Shahnama’. This come from a celebrated Persian tradition of oral epic. Islamic literature developed from ‘storytelling’. The stories were about Kings, real or mythological, heroes, religious themes and romance, not unlike the Serbo Croatian oral epic or Homeric Epic traditions.

This display reveals the connectivity of the Islamic World extremely well.

Do not miss the Turkish Shadow Theatre Puppets known as ‘Karagoz’. This entertainment is very popular today and has spread to Europe. The Ottoman ceramics from Iznik are impressive and the enamelled glass from Syria is attractive.

The ‘Arabesque’ is an early floral decoration and an important element in Islamic art. It appears as a scrolling and undulating stem with leaves. Sometimes the leaves are split and they grow into future stems. These stems grow continually towards one another. The ‘Arabesque’ is versatile, the rhythmic and repetitive quality of this motif can make a frame or fill an empty space.

One would imagine that to make a display of such a magnitude of diverse material would lead to anarchy, but this has not happened. Connectivity has prevailed and the display tells a fascinating story.

Art transcends political unrest. Like the stems of ‘the Arabesque’ perhaps the leaders of Nations must try to grow towards each other.

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