Arts & Culture


The British Museum has announced that the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World will open to the public on the 18th of October, 2018. Conceived as a major re-display of the Museum’s world-class Islamic collection, the new gallery will be a comprehensive presentation of the Islamic world through art and material culture.
According to a press release by the British Museum, the new gallery will feature objects that give an overview of cultural exchange in an area stretching from Nigeria to Indonesia and from the 7th century to the present day. The place and role of other faiths and communities including Christians, Jews and Hindus will be reflected throughout the gallery, showing their significant contributions to the social, economic and cultural life of the Islamic world. The collection includes archaeology, decorative arts, arts of the book, shadow puppets, textiles and contemporary art that showcase the peoples and cultures of the Islamic world, as well as the ideas, technologies and interactions that inspired their visual culture.

In the gallery’s first room, the great medieval dynasties up to about 1500 highlight connections within nearby galleries relating to Byzantium, the Vikings, the Crusades and Islamic Spain. A 13th-century incense burner made of intricate inlaid metalwork from Damascus combines techniques developed in Mosul, with decoration depicting Christian scenes demonstrating that such objects were made for a variety of patrons both Christian and Muslim.

Rarely seen archaeological material discovered at two major cosmopolitan centres will bring to life the inner workings of two early Islamic cities: Samarra in present-day Iraq, a vast palatial city on the banks of the Tigris, and Siraf a port city on the south coast of Iran. 20th-century excavations yielded an extraordinary richness of material, from 9th-century wall fragments with painted faces to coveted Chinese porcelain traded across the Indian Ocean

The gallery will introduce the three major dynasties dominating the Islamic world from the 16th century: the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. Their patronage saw the production and trade of magnificent objects, including ceramics, jewellery and painting. A new approach in this gallery is to also include 19th- and 20th-century objects and textiles from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and South and Southeast Asia, many of which have not been displayed before. From elaborate 19th-century mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden Turkish bath clogs to a brightly decorated Uzbek woman’s robe with Russian lining, juxtapositions of objects will continually draw attention to the cross-fertilisation between regions and time periods.

The new gallery will accommodate a permanent presence for light-sensitive objects such as works on paper and textiles which will be regularly changed. These will include stunning 14th century illustrated pages from one of the most celebrated oral traditions, the Persian epic “Shahnama” (the Book of Kings) which will be shown alongside monumental folios of the 16th-century Indian Mughal emperor Akbar’s “Hamzanama” These belong to the Islamic literary tradition, which stems from a rich and diverse history of storytelling that pre-dates the advent of Islam, featuring epics about real and mythical kings and heroes, as well as romances and religious narratives.

The arts of the book and calligraphy will be displayed alongside musical instruments, including an outstanding 19th-century lyre from Sudan and 20th-century shadow puppets from Turkey. Works on paper by artists from the Museum’s growing collection of contemporary art will be presented in dialogue with the cultures of the past. An exciting collaboration with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts will also emphasise continuing traditions of paper-making, painting and illumination alongside masterpieces of Persian and Indian painting. An area dedicated to temporary displays will open with an exhibition from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia exploring the idea of the arabesque; an abstract vegetal motif that spread across the Muslim world for over 1000 years.

The displays are enhanced by a new program of digital media that comprises a series of introductory films focusing on topics such as architectural decoration, ceramic technology, arts of the book and music. An accompanying website will allow for further research and exploration of the collections on display. Visitors to the Museum will also have the opportunity to engage directly with objects at a dedicated handling desk

The Albukhary Foundation is a non-profit organisation based in Malaysia. For the past forty years, it has been promoting goodwill through education and cultural heritage. With the objective of nourishing a world that is more equitable and tolerant, the Foundation has also been improving the lives of underprivileged and neglected communities, spearheading humanitarian projects, widening windows of educational opportunities, as well as promoting scholarship among muslims and non-muslims alike. The Albukhary Foundation initiated and continues to support the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur which is now the largest museum in Asia Pacific dedicated to the arts, culture and heritage of the Islamic world.

Designed by Stirling Prize-winning architects Stanton Williams and in close collaboration with the British Museum, the new gallery has been created by opening up and significantly refurbishing two historic, 19th-century spaces on the first floor of the Museum. Adjacent to recently renovated European galleries, these spaces have been closed to visitors for several years. The curatorial team consists of Venetia Porter, Ladan Akbarnia, Fahmida Suleman, Zeina Klink-Hoppe, Amandine Mérat and William Greenwood.

Inlaid incense burner
Inlaid incense burner

Inlaid incense burner (c.1250–1300) Syria, probably Damascus. Made from brass, pierced at the top and inlaid with silver,its shape developed from a type popular in the Byzantine period. It is richly inlaid with silver, a legacy of the styles developed in the workshops of Mosul in the early 13th century. On the lid and around the body stand ecclesiastical figures who hold censers and other objects associated with Christian church ritual. Although uninscribed, it is likely to have been made for a Christian patron.

Enamelled glass mosque lamp. (c.1330–45). Egypt or Syria. Gilded and enamelled glass. This object is one of a pair of lamps that bear the name of the Mamluk amir Sayf al-Din Tuquzdamur. He was governor of Hama in Syria and Amir of the Assembly (amir al-majlis) for the Mamluk sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala’un (r.1293–1341). The inscription at the mouth of the lamp comes from the ‘Light verse’ from the Qur’an (24:35): “God is the light of the heavens and the earth, the likeness of His light is as a wick-holder wherein is a light, the light in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star”. Two symbols, a cup and an eagle, are enclosed within a pointed shield: the cup indicates Tuquzdamur’s position of cup-bearer (saqi), while the eagle is his personal emblem. Such lamps would have been suspended with chains inside a mosque or shrine,a narrow tube inside the base containing oil and a floating wick.

Seated youth reading. (c.1625–26). Isfahan, Iran. Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. While this figure’s face and the vegetation surrounding him recall other works by Riza Abbasi, features such as the sitter’s slender proportions, his seat, and an intriguing Persian inscription suggest that the painting may pay homage to Muhammadi, a 16th-century artist from Herat: The inscription also references the effaced royal seal below the figure’s seat, suggesting the work may have been commissioned by the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas I (r. 1588–1629).

Uzbek woman’s robe with Russian lining
Uzbek woman’s robe with Russian lining

Uzbek woman’s robe with Russian lining (1870s–1920s). Cotton and silk. Bukhara, Samarqand and Marghilan were primary centres of the Central Asian textile industry in the 19th century. “Ikat”- dyed and woven silks- were produced in numerous specialised workshops, tightly controlled by weavers’ guilds. High-quality silk robes served as status symbols and were worn in layers for added ostentation. A woman would have worn this robe over a dress and trousers during important rites of passage, from weddings to funerals. This robe is woven with stylised rams’ horns and pomegranate flowers – symbols of strength, abundance and fertility. By the 1870s, machine-printed cottons from Tsarist Russia, like the brilliant red lining in this coat, had flooded the bazaars and supplanted locally woven, block-printed varieties. Everything changed, however, with the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922, after which private workshops were gradually transformed into state-run industrialised factories, engaged in mass production.

The Hamzanama. (c.1558)An epic romance inspired by the legendary adventures of the prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Hamza. The Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) enjoyed reciting and listening to tales from the Hamzanama so much that he commissioned an illustrated version in Persian, the language of the court. Taking fifteen years to complete, the final work encompassed 14 volumes with 1,400 paintings by Indian and Iranian artists, less than 150 of which survive today. The exceptionally large-scale format of the pages, which were painted on cloth with a paper backing (each illustration backed with a page of text), might have once been held before Akbar or another audience during narration. This image depicts the Old Testament prophet Ilyas (also known as Elijah or Elias) rescuing Hamza’s drowning grandson, Nur al-Dahr (Arabic for Light of the Age). Attributed to Basawan, one of Akbar’s finest court painters, it is flooded with vibrant colours and textures that bring to life the tension of the scene.

Sudanese lyre (tanbura). Sudan, late 1800s. Wood, skin, glass, cowrie shells, metal and animal gut. With the oldest-known example (from around 2600 bc) excavated from the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq, the lyre (known as a “kisser” in northern Sudan and a “tanbura” elsewhere) has great antiquity. The instrument illustrated here is both a remarkable item as a whole, and a conglomeration of single objects, strung with coins, beads, shells and other miscellaneous items. The coins were mostly minted in Cairo and Istanbul in the second half of the 19th century. Amongst them are three British coins (one dated 1861 and two dated 1832), reflecting the growing power of the British Empire in northeast Africa. There is also a coin dated 1804 from the Dutch colony of Sumatra, and a number of cowrie shells, harvested in the Indian Ocean and used as currency across Africa. Similarly, the multicoloured beads that cover almost the entire surface of the arms and crossbeam were used by Europeans as a medium of trade throughout the continent, mass-produced first in Venice and later in France and England.

Keris and sheath. 19th century, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, Bugis people. Metal, wood, gold, ivory, diamonds, silk and silver-wrapped thread. This keris or ceremonial dagger was made by the Muslim Bugis people of south Sulawesi, Indonesia’s third largest island. The keris is valued by Islamic societies throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. It is also used by men of other faith communities in these regions. The dagger’s hilt (handle) and sheath (cover) indicate the specific region in which they were produced, and this high-status example has an ivory hilt and metal collar inlaid with diamonds. The spiritual essence and embodied power of a keris is believed to be in its blade. A blade-smith constructs blades using layers of iron ore and meteorite nickel which are folded dozens or hundreds of times, creating distinct damascened patterns called “pamor”.

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