Arts of Islamic Cultures on View in New Gallery

MFA Collection, Among Most Important in the U.S., Has Been Reinstalled in Partnership with Islamic Community Groups

BOSTON (July 12, 2019)—Reinstalled and reinterpreted, the new Arts of Islamic Cultures Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), opening on July 20, 2019, is designed to expand how visitors see and understand the diverse arts of Islamic communities. The thematic installation of 69 objects is divided into distinct vignettes that reflect the richness of artistic traditions that evolved over 13 centuries, from Spain to India and beyond. The culmination of eight years of community consultation and engagement, the gallery represents a range of cultures, geographies and time periods, many of which vary widely. In the space, Arabic calligraphy is explored as an art form that is integral to all Islamic cultures, while the visual legacy of Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India are separately examined as unique traditions in their own right. The gallery also delves deeply into the history of singular objects in the MFA’s collection—among the most important holdings of Islamic art in the country—such as a remarkable door compiled for the first American world’s fair out of fragments of medieval Egyptian woodwork. In addition to historical objects, several contemporary works are included, one accompanied by a multimedia display where visitors can hear directly from the artist. Visitors can also listen to audio recordings of Qur’an recitation created in partnership with the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, one of many religious, artistic and scholarly communities whose members have contributed to the creation of this gallery.

“In the preparation of this gallery, rather than following a single chronological or geographic narrative, we created thematic spaces that emphasize the diversity and multiplicity of voices and traditions,” said Laura Weinstein, Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the MFA. “We hope visitors will leave the gallery with a richer knowledge of Islamic cultures, and a desire to learn more about the past as well as about contemporary Muslim communities here in Boston and around the world.”

Gallery Overview

The MFA’s collection of Islamic art encompasses works from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, as well as works created across the globe within Islamic communities or societies. Some of the objects served a religious need, but many are for secular use. The new gallery contains eight distinct spaces that emphasize various facets of the arts of Islamic cultures and reflect different ways of approaching them.

Two sections focus on religious themes, both of which mix objects of different media and time periods. Focusing on Arabic calligraphy and on the idea of light as a symbol for God, these groupings of works explore threads that tie together many Islamic cultures. Other spaces expose visitors to the overarching aesthetic of a particular time, place or form of Islamic art: Ottoman visual culture of the 16th century and the taste for Chinese ceramics in pre-modern Islamic societies. In the mid-16th century, the Ottoman court and its artists developed a form of floral ornament that crystallized collective taste within the Empire and was recognizable far beyond its borders. Ceramics and textiles on view hint at the dazzling colors and patterns that visually unified the vast empire. The section about Chinese ceramics is inspired by a form of Islamic architecture in which shelves and niches were built into walls to serve as a display space and a treasury for Chinese ceramics. Made between the 12th to the 18th century, the objects include examples made in China for the Middle Eastern market and others that were made in the Middle East in response to antique and contemporary Chinese wares.

Additional groupings of objects are dedicated to a specific medium: one focuses on arts of the book, while another features highlights of the MFA’s Islamic textile collection. Other sections of the gallery tell the story of a single extraordinary work of art, such as a door produced in the 19th century out of fragments of medieval Egyptian woodwork for the first-ever world’s fair held in the U.S. and a large sandstone arch that once belonged to a 17th-century palace in Mughal India.

Contemporary artists highlighted throughout the gallery include Wasma’a Chorbachi (American (born in Egypt), 1943); Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (Iranian, 1922–2019); Ambreen Butt (Pakistani, born in 1969); and Rachid Koraichi (French-Algerian, born in 1947). The MFA has also commissioned Bangladeshi-British artist Rana Begum (born in 1977) to create a site-responsive work that will go on view in the gallery in summer 2020. Begum’s sculptural glass screen will offer a contemporary response to the majestic arch from Islamic South Asia installed nearby.

The gallery also features objects reflecting that societies in which Islam is a major religion are, and have always been, religiously and ethnically diverse. For example, paintings made at the Mughal court depicting Hindu women reflect the multicultural nature of that society. A large Spanish dish made using a technique associated with Islamic ceramics but bearing a Christian symbol illustrates how artistic traditions have often been shared among Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in Spain. Finally, a Hanukkah lamp created in Algeria blends Islamic architectural motifs with functions that are specific to Jewish rituals.

Object Highlights

  • The first major work of art from an Islamic culture to be acquired by the MFA, an Egyptian Door (14th–15th century, with later additions), is a pastiche assembled in Cairo by a team of Egyptians and Europeans for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The door’s various woodwork elements were scavenged from the grand mosques and tombs built under rule of Egypt’s Mamluk sultans (1250–1517).
  • A monumental Tile lunette (Turkey (Iznik), about 1570–75) may once have appeared over a door or window in an Istanbul palace or mosque. The style of its floral decoration was developed in the mid-16th century as a way to create a distinct visual mode for the Ottomans. Instead of figures, the Iznik style emphasized a unique mixture of abstract floral motifs and recognizable species of flowers.
  • A large cobalt blue dish, Dish with dragon (China, late 13th–14th century) is one of only three like it known in the world. The other two have long been in collections formed by rulers of major Islamic dynasties: the Ottomans and the Safavids. The rulers of both of these empires collected Chinese ceramics, using them for serving food at state events and displaying them in a chini-khana (“China house” in Persian).
  • A glass Oil Lamp (Egypt, early 1320s), sponsored by a courtier during the period of the Mamluk sultanate, would once have been suspended from the ceilings of a Sufi retreat. As with many such lamps, its colorful enameled inscriptions would glow when lit, illuminating verses in the Qur’an that refer to God as “the light of the heavens and the earth.”
  • A Tombstone (Iran (Yazd) dated September–October 1138–39 (AH Muharram 533)) signed by Abu’l-Qasim al-Kharrat, exemplifies the beauty of Arabic calligraphy. It features angular and rounded styles of script used in alternating bands containing blessings and Qur’anic verses. At the center, nested arches evoke the shape and pious associations of a mihrab, the niche in the mosque wall that is faced during prayer.
  • A 2007 porcelain Plate by Boston-area artist Wasmaʾa Chorbachi creates a striking abstract pattern using the words of the bismillah (the opening phrase of nearly every chapter of the Qur’an). The black letters are not only highly stylized but also set at extreme angles, giving them a powerful sense of diagonal movement.
  • A monumental sandstone Arch (Northern India, late 17th century) with naturalistic floral imagery carved in high relief reflects a high point of the unique architecture of Islamic South Asia. The deeply cusped arch may once have belonged to the façade of a Mughal palace or elite home, and its imagery suggests that it might have faced a garden.

Interpretation

This gallery was developed through an eight-year process of dialogue and consultation with scholars, artists and members of Islamic communities in the Boston area, including the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community based in Sharon and many other individuals. Through small group meetings and larger roundtables, members of Boston’s communities shared ideas and gave feedback on interpretation and objects on view. Additionally, the MFA conducted robust visitor studies in order to guide the development of the gallery.

Conservation

Nearly every object on view in the gallery has recently undergone conservation at the MFA, with conservators carrying out extensive treatments on more than 100 of the most important objects in the collection. A multi-year project to research and conserve an Egyptian Door (14th–15th century, with later additions), represented the first comprehensive study of this complex object’s construction and manufacturing techniques. Various techniques, from X-ray, wood sampling, and Carbon-14 dating, to ultraviolet and infrared examination of the surface and components, helped answer many questions about the piece.

Publication

Ink, Silk, and Gold: Islamic Art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2015) explores the dynamic and complex traditions of Islamic art through more than 115 major works in an array of media, reproduced in full color and exquisite detail—manuscripts inscribed with gold, paintings on silk, elaborate metalwork, intricately woven textiles, luster-painted ceramics and more. These objects, which originated within an Islamic world that ranges from Western Europe to Indonesia and across more than 13 centuries, carry meanings that are inseparable from the materials of which they are made. Their colors, shapes, textures and techniques of production convey meanings that can be hard to discern when an object is behind glass. Enhanced by texts from an international team of scholars and drawing on the latest technical information, Ink, Silk, and Gold attempts to bring these facets of Islamic objects to life, and is an inviting introduction to the riches of the Islamic art collection at the MFA.

Islamic Art at the MFA

The Islamic collection began at the MFA the year the Museum opened its doors in 1876. The first masterpiece entered the collection in 1877 with the gift of a magnificent ivory-inlaid door made in Cairo. The collection grew considerably in 1914 with the purchase of the Goloubew collection—at the time the most comprehensive collection of Islamic paintings in the West—and continued to grow over the course of the 20th century. Today it is among the best in the U.S., consisting of about 5,500 paintings, textiles, ceramics, metalwork and glass from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and many other countries.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia; Art of Africa and Oceania; Art of Ancient Greece and Rome; Art of Ancient Egypt, Nubia and the Near East; Prints and Drawings; Photography; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–10 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10  days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25), while five Open Houses offer the opportunity to visit the Museum for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. For more information, call 617.267.9300, visit mfa.org or follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.