The Met's Islamic Collection is back

After 8 years of waiting, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City finally opened its newly renovated Islamic Art Galleries on November 1, 2011. With a clunky and encyclopedic name, the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia, have been met with rave reviews from the prominent news outlets like the New York Times and The Economist.

For the last 8 years, trips to the Met have been unfulfilling as the lack of art from the Muslim Middle East could not be ignored; the only consolation for fans of Islamic Art since 2003 was an embarrassingly small display case near the second floor Great Hall while the majority of the MET’s 12,000 Islamic artifacts were kept in storage away from the public. According to trustworthy sources at Harvard, curatorial disagreements over the layout of the new gallery were behind the extensive delays, which ultimately led to the resignation of several curators. However, it is safe to say that the curatorial quarrels have not affected the aesthetic of the 15 new galleries.

The Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia trace the course of Islamic civilization from 622 CE to 1928 CE, and cover a geographical area from Spain to India. One of the most impressive rooms of the new exhibit features a replica of a Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard built from scratch by a group of highly respected artisans from Fez. With woodworkers imported from Cairo and glass-blown mosque lamps based on early North-African designs, the introductory gallery is awe-inspiring and set the artistic tone for the rest of the rooms.

Four of the 15 new galleries concern Iran and the Persianate cultures of Central Asia. Gallery 455 displays material from the 13th to the early 16th century under the Mongol, Turkmen, Timurid, and Uzbek dynasties, as these arts came to flourish in such royal capitals as Tabriz, Samarkand, and Herat. In my opinion, One of the most outstanding pieces is a late 13th century ceramic tile depicting a phoenix. The tile is painted with vivid blues and turquoise, and contains floral patterns at the top and bottom registers. The phoenix was a popular subject for imperial architectural decoration in China, and their use on tiles, although uncommon, became more widespread after the Mongol invasions.

Due to my interest in Safavid art and society, I found  the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Gallery the most eye-catching. It features masterpieces created in Tabriz and Isfahan under the Safavid dynasty in the 16th and 17th centuries as well its successors, the Qajars and Pahlavis. Famous illustrations of the Shahnameh are displayed in specially designed cases, as well as newly restored 16th-century Iranian rug named the “Emperor’s Carpet.” This silk rug is believed to have belonged to the Russian Czar Peter the Great and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Acquired by the Met in 1943 and only briefly displayed twice due to its worn condition, textile conservators have painstakingly worked non-stop for three years to restore the carpet to its present state.

The Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia are worth the 8-year wait. Each of 1,200 artifacts on display is individually unique, remarkable, and is a perfect representative of the traditional arts of the Middle East. However, many commentators continue to wrap the opening of the new galleries with politics, correlating the closing of the previous exhibit to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, and the 2011 reopening with the Arab Awakening. These reviewers must realize that the allusions only exist within their own minds as art has nothing to do with political developments.

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