New Islamic art shows at Boston Museum
NEWTON, Mass. - A woman with flowers in her hair, beaded necklaces and red lipstick picks up a blossom to smell. Birds, monkeys and insects surround her as she walks through a colorful forest.
This image from a 300-year-old velvet wall-hanging is not what usually comes to mind when most Westerners envision the Muslim world. But a new art exhibit at Boston College hopes to change that perception.
"When you see the word 'Islamic,' the first word you think of shouldn't be 'terrorist,'" said Jonathan Bloom, an Islamic and Asian arts professor at Boston College. "If we recognize that Islamic culture has made great contributions to world culture, then we're already a step ahead."
Bloom and his wife, fellow Islamic and Asian arts professor Sheila Blair, are curating "Cosmophilia: Islamic Art from the David Collection, Copenhagen," on view at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College through Dec. 31.
The term "Islamic art" describes both sacred and secular art created in places where Islam was the main religion. "Cosmophilia," or "love of the ornament," features 123 items that show the importance of decoration, one of the signature features of Islamic art.
The items in "Cosmophilia" are on loan from the C.L. David Collection, a nonprofit museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. The collection was established in 1945 by Christian Ludvig David, a wealthy lawyer and businessman who died in 1960. Because the collection is located outside of a major art center, it remains virtually unknown. This is the first time Americans will see any of the items featured in "Cosmophilia."
Bloom hopes the exhibit confronts a popular misconception that Islamic art is only about religion.
"If people know anything about Islamic art, which they usually don't, the one thing they think is that Islam prohibits images of people and other living things. This isn't true," said Bloom, gesturing to the many items in the exhibit that depict people and animals.
The items on display range in date from the seventh century to the 19th century, and originate from Western Europe to East Asia. Some items are secular while others are sacred, and they are made from materials including wood, ceramics, ivory, metalwork, stone, textiles and paper.
Bloom and Blair went out of their way to produce an exhibit they say is more "user-friendly" than traditional museum exhibits, which often lay out items according to chronology or medium. Instead, they divided the exhibit into five visual themes that the average viewer would notice when looking at each piece: figures (depictions of people and animals), writing, geometry (geometric patterns), vegetation-arabesque (floral patterns) and hybrids (items which display multiple themes).
"We're not trying to talk to art historians," said Bloom. "We don't want people to have to walk through the exhibit reading a book."
Bloom pointed out three small boxes made of brass and ivory, which he says academics call "caskets."
"For most people, a casket is what you'd put a dead person in. We call it a box. You learn not to use the fancy terminology," he said.
Exhibition and collections manager Diana Larsen, who designed the exhibit installation, placed each item at the height it would have been displayed in its original setting. For example, a large wool rug is laid out on the floor, and a 700-year-old blue and turquoise Mihrab tile is hung on the painted outline of a Mosque in a position that indicates the direction of Mecca.
In the four years since they began planning the exhibit, Bloom, Blair and museum director Nancy Netzer taught three undergraduate classes at Boston College related to the exhibit. Students researched the background of individual items, painted the hallway outside of the museum based on tile designs from the Ottoman Turks, and helped write labels for each display.
Netzer says the exhibit will provide a positive message about Islam and its values.
"It's different from what we read in the newspaper every day," she said. "We're not reading about the beauty and culture of the Muslim world."