Saturday, August 11, 2007

A brilliant and subtly subversive exhibition

The Houghton Shahnama, courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network

You realise just how stupid a decision it was for London to refuse the Aga Khan planning permission to build a museum in the city at the Ismaili Centre's exhibition of artefacts from the Aga Khan's collection, entitled Spirit and Life. It only runs until the end of the month and, as the illustration above suggests, it is superb - and free to see. The items on display range in age from a page from a ninth century Cufic Qu'ran to a quirky twentieth century Sufi hat.
The exhibits - which are beautifully displayed - are quietly controversial. There are the familiar abstract geometric and foliage patterns that have come to epitomise Islamic art. But, to challenge that perception, there are dozens of different representations of the human form, as in the illuminated Shahnama above, many of them from Iran. In London they do not look as extraordinary as perhaps they should.
Further afield in the Islamic world, the sudden appearance of the human form is more arresting.

This picture shows one of the thirteenth century Bayil stones, which I saw in Baku last month. Taken from a nearby castle, they can now be found in the courtyard of the Shirvan Shahs' palace in the wonderful old city. The only other place where I have seen similar depictions of people in Islamic art is at Qasr Amra, in eastern Jordan. There the ceiling frescoes of this eighth century hunting lodge of the Umayyads have been badly damaged - whether by malice or the weather I am not sure - but, as you can see below, the energetic dancing girls painted to amuse the Caliphs can still be made out.
One connection links all three: all these representations were private art, bought by the seriously wealthy to be enjoyed beyond the general public's gaze. Thanks to the Aga Khan, we can now see many of them for ourselves - and savour their collector's poke in the eye for the petrodollar-fuelled Wahhabi extremists who would like to ban them. What a pity it is for London that the collection will be permanently housed in Toronto.

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