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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Revisiting Islamic art in the West
By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service arts correspondent


Britain's national museum of design, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has opened a new showcase for its huge collection of Islamic art.

The Jameel Gallery has been paid for in part by a wealthy Saudi business family.

When the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) opened in 1852 it was meant to improve standards of commercial design in Britain.

From the outset it turned its eye to Islam - the Victorians realised they had a lot to learn from Middle Eastern traditions of ornament, especially in carpets and ceramics. And over the years the V&A has accumulated more than 10,000 artefacts representing Muslim culture.

Now it has massively improved the way it displays the collection's highlights, thanks largely to 5.4m from the wealthy Saudi Arabian Jameel family.

Contentious term

The Jameels are a well-known business dynasty in Saudi Arabia, with varied interests including a long-established relationship with the Japanese car-makers Toyota.

The Jameel Gallery will be permanent home to around 400 objects, from paintings and vases to gorgeous items of clothing.

Ottoman furniture from about 1560. (pic courtesy V&A images/Victoria & Albert Museum)
This gallery shows the art of that Islamic empire and its successor states rather than of Islam as a faith
Tim Stanley

In one big, high-ceilinged space you can admire anything from a huge wooden minbar - or pulpit - made in the 1470s or 1480s for an Egyptian mosque to a little tile-top table fashioned in Turkey a century later.

The table is the personal favourite of the man in charge of the new gallery, the V&A's Tim Stanley.

Mr Stanley acknowledges the very term "Islamic art" can be contentious.

Outside strictly devotional contexts, after all, you don't often encounter the label "Christian art".

"Most people will expect the Jameel Gallery to show the art of Islam as a religion," he said.

"In fact Islam is different from other religions because in founding it Muhammad also founded a political system.

"Those who came afterwards took Islamic power all the way from Spain and Morocco in the West to the banks of the Indus in the East. So this gallery shows the art of that Islamic empire and its successor states rather than of Islam as a faith."

Western influence

At the exhibition's centre is an enormous 16th century carpet which it is thought was commissioned by Shah Tahmasp for the shrine at Ardabil, now in north-west Iran.

The carpet, measuring 10m x 5m, is so delicate it can be illuminated only intermittently to protect its colours.

It makes a wonderful focus for the gallery and every 30 minutes when the lights come up museum visitors stand outside its glass cage to admire this, the oldest dated carpet in any museum. It is inscribed 946 in the Muslim calendar (1539-40 AD).

The Islamic civilisation of the past was very self-confident and open to the outside world.
Tim Stanley

Among the smaller treasures are a lustreware bowl from the Malaga of the early 1400s and a rock-crystal jug made 1,000 years ago in Egypt for the treasury of the Fatimid caliphs.

More recent and perhaps more surprising are four 19th century oil paintings of scenes from the Tehran court of Fath Ali Shah - these provide a rare example in the gallery of the depiction of the human form.

The paintings show the influence of Western artists - one of the Jameel's great delights is examining the way Western and Islamic cultures have interacted.

Model civilisation

Tim Stanley acknowledges that in a broad sense there is a political impulse behind the new venture.

"It's very important at the moment that people get a balanced view of the great Islamic civilisation of the medieval and early modern periods to see what a wonderful civilisation it was.

"We hope people will see that the Islamic civilisation of the past was very self-confident and open to the outside world. I think that's a model for us all," he said.

But even if you don't care about the politics, the new Jameel Gallery can be enjoyed simply for the many beautiful things it contains.




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