The exhibition runs at the British Museum until 26 January 2020 (£12 for student concessions).
If you happen to be in London over the Christmas break, I would really recommend making a trip to this exhibition. The exhibition was laid out skilfully as you would expect from the British Museum, yet it is still worth carefully choosing your time to attend. Ideally go early or late so you have a chance to get close to the artefacts and are able to double back and see things in light of later objects. Some of the first pieces you see are drawings of Ottoman costumes which still have the vivacity of a contemporary sketch by a designer. These drawings, inspired by Ottoman models or drawn from life, work in brilliant concord with the later portraits. One particular portrait which stood out to me was of Sir Robert Sherley, by Anthony van Dyck, which shows an Elizabethan gentleman who was also the envoy to the Papal court for Shah Abbas I of Persia. As such you can see how complex identity can be and how fashion, as a form of art, expresses culture and social affiliations.
One of the most interesting things, I found, was the collection of patterned ceramic tiles. These examples of patterned tiles are astonishing, with tiles that were made 300 years and continents apart, yet continued to have such fidelity to the style – if you enjoy these tiles and the examples of how they were used, e.g. in the Alhambra, and have the time in London, I would suggest visiting Leighton House to see the Arab Hall decked out in William de Morgan’s elaborate tile work. Seeing such beautiful Islamic art, or work imitating it, shows how facile and jingoistic comments by the likes of Boris Johnson are, who stated that “there is nothing like [The Sistine Chapel] in Muslim art of that or any age, not just because it is beyond the technical accomplishment of Islamic art, but because it is so theologically offensive to Islam”. These two buildings are, of course, from two different artistic traditions, yet are both beautiful, intricate expressions of religions seeing beauty as holy, and both are staggering in their skill.
In a way, perhaps, the name of the exhibition is somewhat misleading, as the history of many of these designs includes cultural borrowing in all directions. For instance, the famous Iznik patterns might have originated in Turkey but are heavily influenced by Chinese pottery. Pottery displayed in the exhibition also shows the reciprocal nature of artistic influence as you can see European tableware that was inspired by Ottoman designs which, in turn, were originally borrowed from Europe.
As such, you could consider this exhibition as a tribute to the dragomans, key participants in Ottoman political and diplomatic life, who acted as a cultural conduit from Vienna to as far as Bactria. The proximity of the Ottomans can be seen by an Ottoman helmet, with metalwork so perfectly wrought as to be tender, captured during the second siege of Vienna (1683). As well as reaching central Europe, it is important to remember that Ottoman control covered much of south-eastern Europe and while tenuously bound by political identity, contained very different yet connected cultures with distinct artistic styles. Indeed, many of the ‘Orientalist’ paintings have a Graeco-Roman background, framing the equally ‘Orientalist’ foregrounds. Despite these connections between Ottoman and western European artistic forms, classical Greece and Rome now seem to have been co-opted, by many, into a ridiculous idea of pure, western European cultural continuity. The most egregious example of this I can think of is Donald Trump’s statement that he thinks “The United States and Italy are bound together by a shared cultural and political heritage dating back thousands of years to Ancient Rome”, whilst simultaneously considering the Middle East to be totally alien to ‘American’ culture. In showing how certain art forms were once categorised as simply ‘eastern’, this exhibition outlines how ridiculous thinking about clear boundaries between cultures is. Different cultures are constantly borrowing from and being inspired by others, and the boundary between them can blur significantly.
Finishing the exhibition is some contemporary art. After a series of photographs that play with expectations of Islamic art and engage with the history of artistic interchange, the show is finished with a video. The video, by Turkish artist İnci Eviner, plays with Antoine Ignace Melling’s 1819 drawing of the grand harem in Istanbul. The rather odd, cavernous image of the harem, which has strong echoes of a prison, is subverted by women playing and performing. These figures, with simple looped actions, bring a sense of the surreal, almost Dadaist in their incongruence.
In keeping with this idea of ongoing cultural interchange, the exhibition will go on display at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia from 20 June-20 October 2020.
– Ed Bedford