Beauty of Islam at the V&A

IAN COLLINS Some of the most beautiful objects ever created were inspired by Islam - and are to be displayed in a revamped gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

IAN COLLINS

All British secondary school children - and all Muslim children in particular - should visit the latest gallery to be revamped in the global treasure-house of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Come to that, all adults will learn something crucial too.

These days museum grants are tied to add-on projects to promote “education” and encourage greater “access” to ethnic minorities - both of which do far more harm than good.

Proper museums do these things anyway just by being cabinets of fabulous curiosities which prompt the mind and provoke the imagination. Imposing political correctness and the idea that culture must carry some simplistic “message” readily digested by eight-year-olds merely tarnishes the treasure.

Step into the V&A - or British Museum - and just wander at will among the art and artefacts produced by people of all periods, countries and cultures. An open mind will surely be left awe-struck by all that human beings can make and do and be.

The new marvel in South Kensington, following three years of renovation and redesign, is the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, a conversion funded by one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest families.

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Given Britain's history of engagement across the world, the V&A has amassed a renowned collection of more than 10,000 Islamic objects from Spain in the west to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in the east, via important centres of artistic production in the Arab lands, Turkey and Iran.

Like the inner-sanctum of some Moorish palace, the new Jameel Gallery presents a choice sample of more than 400 objects - including ceramics, textiles, carpets, metalwork, glass and woodwork.

This survey of riches ranges from the great days of the Islamic caliphate of the 8th and 9th centuries to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the first world war.

There are huge problems for Muslims in Britain today, which it would be both foolish and dangerous to deny.

Whereas the immigrant followers of other religions - Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists - excel in education and so in the economic life of this country, most Muslims fare badly at school. Most adult Muslims are unemployed.

New Labour's liking for more faith schools to address this particular failure will surely make bad matters even worse - adding to the ghetto mentality which is the main issue here.

In my view, Muslims have been ambushed by increasingly restrictive readings of religion from so-called scholars. They dismiss a dazzlingly diverse heritage in order to project a rigid view and so achieve social control.

In contrast to all the bigotry and belligerence - and the senses of victimhood and resentment which are the reverse faces of the same chauvinistic coins - the V&A proves that throughout most of its history Islam has been fantastically creative. It has inspired some of the most breathtakingly-beautiful objects human beings have ever produced.

The spectre of the Taliban banning music and blowing up ancient sandstone Buddhas - and reducing women to blanketed domestic drudges with no right to careers, education or health care - is blitzed by seeing all that has been celebrated across centuries of artistry.

It is a modern myth that Islam bans the depiction of the human figure - for, from Turkey to Iran and even further afield, we are presented with courtly images of pilgrims, princes, poets, lovers, musicians, acrobats, gardeners and astronomers. All are revelling in being alive.

It's also fascinating to see how the arts of Christian and Jewish cultures used to flourish in the Muslim world. No Islamic country hosts such diversity today. A vestment made for an Armenian priest in 17th century Isfahan is decorated with both Islamic scrollwork motifs and Christian iconography.

A gorgeous ivory casket from 11th century Moorish Spain is decorated with scenes of refined court life, with men drinking wine and enjoying the scent of flowers while listening to music.

That sense of the fruits of peace before the crusades contrasts with the 15th century Malaga lustre ship bowl, which seems a symbol of the imminent Muslim and Jewish expulsion from Spain by the ferocious Christian fundamentalism harnessed by Ferdinand and Isabella.

An exquisite ewer from the Egypt of almost exactly a millennium ago seems a masterpiece of cut glass. But the image of a bird of prey overcoming an antelope - signifying the power of the ruling Fatimid caliphs - was hewn from perfectly transparent and incredibly hard rock crystal. In places the vessel is only a few millimetres thick.

Inscribed texts from the Koran have an astonishing beauty. Even if we can't understand a single word, they read like marvellous abstract paintings.

Syrian glass, Iznik (Turkish) pottery and brilliantly inlaid Egyptian metalwork suggest the life of luxury - and the power of patronage - of the Islamic princely courts.

But, for good or ill, two objects dominate.

The first is the vast (10.5m by 5m) Ardabil carpet, the world's oldest dated carpet. Made in Iran in 1539, the carpet is displayed horizontally at floor level in the new gallery - just as it would have been in the court of its commissioner, Shah Tahmasp of Iran. Its entire surface is covered by a single uniform design of richly-coloured flowers and lozenges and what look like ornate hot-air balloons, all arrayed against a black background.

In 1893 William Morris deemed this relic “the finest Eastern carpet which I have seen”. He hailed a design “of singular perfection; defensible on all points, logically and consistently beautiful”.

If there is the traditional, intentional flaw in this work of art - an act of human humility, for only God is perfect - then neither William nor I could spot it.

And the second object of key importance is an engraved brass tray teeming with soldiers and horses, boats, planes and carriages, guns and cannons. The circular tray records events on October 21, 1918 - Armistice Day as experienced in a certain part of the Middle East under British military occupation.

Having gradually invaded the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul during the preceding carnage of the first world war, the British were about to carve a new country from the cradle of civilisation between the Tigris and the Euphrates. It would be called Iraq.

Almost hidden in all the engraved tumult, a man called Sadiq Efendi is being led to his execution after killing a British army major.

And those biplanes had already made hideous history - being the first aircraft used to bomb civilian targets during the brutal suppression of a Kurdish revolt.

The past is always with us. Now more than ever, it seems. t

t The Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the Victorian & Albert Museum opens on Thursday, July 20. Free entry. Open Thursday to Tuesday, 10am to 5.45pm, Wednesday, 10am to 10pm. For information telephone 020 7942 2000 or log on to www.vam.ac.uk.

Tube: South Kensington.

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