New Yorkers no longer have to travel to Linxia or Basra to catch a glimpse of Islamic artistic creativity. Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”) completed an eight-year renovation of their Islamic galleries, now housing over 1,200 works spanning more than 1,400 years. The Met even commissioned a Moroccan family with generations of artisan experience to coordinate and create a traditional Moroccan courtyard inside the museum itself.
Although most of the pieces have been in the permanent collection for years, the Met has taken some off of its dusty storage shelves and provided others with a more prominent display. Works now on display include a mihrab (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca) from Isfahan, an 18th-century Syrian reception room, and an Uzbek painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s Laylat al Miraj, or trip to heaven. Artists, historians, and many others have found a common appreciation for the stunning visuals offered to visitors, but I was also struck by the name given to the galleries.
One of the reasons why the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to stick a pretty unwieldy name on these new Islamic galleries, calling it the the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia is to underscore that Islamic art is a term that means so much that it means almost nothing. Islamic art refers to art that was made in countries where Islam was the predominate, but by no means the only, religious culture or political culture, and it was art that was made everywhere, from southern Spain to China, so it covers a great part of the globe.
The 15 Islamic galleries feature paintings of Hindu Gods, a 12th century Persian chess set, and even depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Met’s latest additions even reflect the cultural and religious complexity of the exhibit’s primary curator, Navina Haider, a Muslim who is married to a Lebanese Christian and was raised by a Hindu mother and Muslim father in Delhi, India.
I’ve yet to visit the collection myself, but all exhibit reviews I’ve read underscore the same theme of the Islamic galleries: that there is no single theme. The variety of “Islamic” art is as vast and differentiated as Muslims themselves. Islam itself, I would argue, doesn’t really change, as it was sanctified by divine intervention through the Prophet Muhammad. However, understanding what it is and how to practice it are processes that will continue to evolve. Ideas of what constitutes Muslims and Islamic art, though, are defined by the viewer, and while there are some common themes that characterize the majority of Muslims and Islamic art, it’s problematic to elicit a single image or depiction that represents these concepts as a whole.
The breadth and depth of the Met’s newest galleries–along with their long, somewhat convoluted name–perfectly represent the diversity and nuances of Muslims, Islamic art, and other complex concepts.
For a virtual tour of the galleries, see this great New York Times interactive webpage. Then let us know your thoughts on the new galleries and Islamic art generally by commenting below.