Honoring Islamic Art: The Louvre

Honouring Islamic art

 Elegant: Ornate Islamic artworks displayed in the new Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre Museum in Paris. — EPA picElegant: Ornate Islamic artworks displayed in the new Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre Museum in Paris. — EPA pic

The Louvre opens new wing to restore ‘full glory to Islam’.

IN its boldest development in a generation, the Louvre Museum in Paris has a new wing dedicated to Islamic art, a nearly €100mil (RM398mil) project that comes at a tense time between the West and the Muslim world.

Louvre curators tout their new Department of Islamic Art, which took 11 years to build and opened to the public in September, as a way to help bridge cultural divides. They say it offers a highbrow and respectful counterpart to the recent unflattering depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Western media that have sparked protests by many Muslims.

The project was a brainchild of former French President Jacques Chirac and dates back to 2001. It is funded by the French government and supported by handsome endowments from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman and Azerbaijan.

The new wing groups 18,000 treasures from an area spanning from Europe to India and includes the oldest love missive in the Islamic world. The exhibits are spread across 3,000sq m over two levels and will be rotated.

France is home to at least four million Muslims and leaders of the community say incidents of Islamophobia are on the rise against a background of confrontation with the authorities and rising suspicion of Muslims. The tensions were highlighted by Sophie Makariou, head of the Louvre’s Islamic Art department, who said the aim is to show “Islam with a capital I”.

“That means the civilisation as a whole, not with a small ‘i’ designating just the religious sphere. We must give back the word Islam its full glory … and not leave it to the jihadists to tarnish it. Islamic art is not confined to the art of the Muslim community. It is the art of all those who comprised the Islamic world and in it there were Christians and Jews,” Makariou said, referring to mixed populations in several Islamic empires.

Set in a courtyard commissioned in the 18th century, the new department is housed under a giant undulating gold-coloured aluminium canopy pierced with tiny holes to let daylight filter through and change the mood and the ambience with the sun’s rays.

A partial view of the roof of the new Islamic Art department of the Louvre Museum, designed by Italian Mario Bellini and French Rudy Ricciotti.A partial view of the roof of the new Islamic Art department of the Louvre Museum, designed by Italian Mario Bellini and French Rudy Ricciotti.

“You can call it a flying carpet, a huge tent, a luminous veil or simply golden clouds,” said the canopy’s designer, Italian architect Mario Bellini.

The canopy consists of 2,350 netted triangles fitted together. “The challenge was not to overwhelm the Western language of the courtyard with the collection,” Bellini said. “It had to be discreet and in tune with one of the world’s best-known monuments.”

The artefacts from the Louvre’s own collection and other private ones include Moghul-era carpets from India, miniature paintings from Iran showing depictions from the Thousand And One Nights and an astounding silver and gold inlaid basin from Egypt or Syria and datingbetween 1330 and 1340. The basin was used for the baptism of France’s King Louis XIII and bears the inscription “Work of Master Muhammed ibn al-Zayn”.

Makariou pointed to a delicate alabaster-like vase from Syria with Islamic calligraphy as one of the highlights. “It is from Susa and goes back to the ninth century. It is a love letter penned on a vase as was the custom then. It is the oldest known love letter from the Islamic world.”

The collection brings together pieces from Spain, Egypt’s Mameluke “slave” dynasty, the Moghul empire in India, Persia and Central Asia.

It also recreates the grandeur of Baghdad, the founding of which in 762 was a major event in urban planning history, with a reproduction of two huge mosaics adorning the Grand Mosque there. There is also a teak door from a palace in Samarra on the banks of the Tigris with an Art Nouveau-style fan-shaped motif ending in a lobed leaf.

A myriad of calligraphic styles are also on display with stunning turquoise and white tiles from Central Asia, bejewelled ornaments and ivory objets d’art and enamelled glass objects – an art form conceived and perfected by Muslims.

The collection’s organiser decided to include images of Prophet Muhammad to show the evolution of Islamic art. In one instance, He appears as a veiled character in a 16th century manuscript. And in a multimedia projection, the Prophet is shown in three separate images with his face exposed – something almost unheard-of today.

“I think Muslims will be shocked,” said Charlotte Maury, a historical consultant for the Louvre. “That’s why we put it on the side. We felt we had to use them, to illustrate (Islamic) history the way we see it.”

Maury said Muhammad’s face was only covered up in Islamic art starting in the 15th century, when Muslim scholars decided to interpret the veiled figure as a more respectful image.

The new wing is the latest modernisation project after the glass pyramid in the Louvre’s main courtyard by Chinese-US architect I.M. Pei which was commissioned in 1984 and completed four years later.

Saudi Prince Waleed Talal’s Alwaleed Foundation, which gave US$20mil (RM60.7mil) for the project, said it hoped the “space shall bring much-needed understanding and tolerance by offering visitors … a glimpse of Islamic civilisation and culture.” – Agencies

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