The entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art’s exhibit “Nur: Light in Art and Science From the Islamic World” is a curved hallway bathed in brilliant light. It is an attempt to cleanse the palate to dispel anticipations of paintings on canvas or sculptures of marble.
It is Sabiha Al Khemir’s way of setting the stage for the exhibit she has been organizing for the past four years. It premiered in Spain, and its only U.S. venue is in Dallas.
Al Khemir was hired in 2011 as the DMA’s senior adviser for Islamic art, an area that was woefully underrepresented at the museum. By hiring Al Khemir, the museum is positioning itself as a regional specialist, as there are no other museums in the Western U.S. with any significant Islamic holdings.
The DMA didn’t have a hefty collection, either, until February of this year when it was announced that the institution would be the repository of a 15-year loan of 2,000 Islamic objects from the estate of collector Edmund de Unger, who died in 2011. This will place the Dallas institution third in number of Islamic artworks in the U.S. behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Freer and Sackler galleries of the Smithsonian. The push is on.
Islamic art is a hard sell, especially to eyes that have been dazzled by the DMA’s recent exhibitions of exquisite Greek sculptures, wall-sized photographs by Cindy Sherman, the jewel-infused colors of Marc Chagall, grisly pre-Columbian statues and engaging Parisian posters.
Blasting the visitor with two seconds of white light does not erase these memories. Islamic art is primarily patterns — intricate geometrics that are exquisitely wrought but decidedly one-note.
This Islamic myopia is what Al Khemir is railing against. She wants the visitor to see more, to appreciate the fine detail and the science behind it. So she has brought 150 Islamic treasures, many never seen in the U.S., to begin our education.
She chose these particular items as they fit under her unifying theme of light, “Nur.” Not light as illumination, but light that also has a metaphysical dimension, as in “God is the light of the world,” a universal metaphor found in many of the world’s religions.
Al Khemir’s first display is of five circular objects — four bowls and a shield boss that all have rays of light as their graphic design.
It’s a subtle introduction to the light themes to come.
There are galleries that display artistic innovations, and galleries with scientific fields that contributed to enlightenment. The objects in the exhibition came from many countries, from Spain to Central Asia, although nothing was allowed to travel from Egypt, Iran, Iraq or Syria.
Al Khemir was able to secure a 2-meter-long work on paper representing the signs of the zodiac — originally from Iran — that has never been on public display, and a set of anatomical illustrations — also originally from Iran — that have never been displayed, as well as an 11th-century crystal chess set that had never left Spain.
The objects in the exhibition are often small and utilitarian — bowls, candleholders, lamps and inkwells carefully inscribed with repeating patterns.
They were designed for domestic use, and the small scale makes their intricacies easy to overlook.
A gallery of lanterns and candleholders to hold illuminating candles or wicks is followed by a room full of illuminated Qurans, including four pages from the Blue Koran.
This famous ninth- or 10th-century example from Tunisia was hand-lettered in gold on dark blue vellum. Folios, or pages of the book, are scattered around the world. One page sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2013 for more than $800,000.
Galleries of glassware and lusterware follow. The metallic glazes of lusterware give the surface an iridescence particularly suited to Islamic artisans. The show’s most beautiful objects are in this gallery, for their delicacy and artistry.
The gallery of scientific advancements, with compasses, astrolabes and medical texts, is the most interesting. The advancements in scientific fields throughout the Islamic world were significant. Their time-keeping and measuring devices were treated with the same detailed decorative inscriptions used on serveware.
This gallery is followed by architectural remnants that do the most to harness, reflect and transform light. The larger pieces are portions of ceilings, windows or capitals of columns. These large pieces also are the most effective at displaying the signature geometric patterns.
For a culture that discourages depictions of sentient beings, and absolutely disallows images of God, geometrics and arabesques are the preferred decorative solution.
Plus, the repeating nature of these designs suggests an ever-expanding consistency; they could conceivably repeat indefinitely.
“For a culture that cannot claim perfection — within Islam, God is the only creator — geometry became the appropriate language to express the divine,” says Al Khemir.
The exit of the exhibition is another hallway of light, this time shadowed by the overlapping patterns of an intricate door. It is meant to emblazon on the memory banks the lessons of light as told through Islamic art.
Unfortunately, it reinforces the prejudices that were there before walking into the exhibit: patterns, it’s all about the patterns.