Poets, Patrons and Artists at the Islamic Courts

Visitors to Pearls on a String, the first exhibition at the Asian Art Museum 
in its golden anniversary year, will hopefully take away a sense of a cosmopolitan Islamic world in the 16th through 18th century with a global exchange of ideas and technologies – and recognize how it connects to their own.

“I think it’s so relevant to our time when the Islamic world seems undifferentiated. What it reveals is the diversity and richness of traditions that still exist,” said Qamar Adamjee, the exhibition curator. “It’s part of its own time and place, and the artworks in the show express that, whether it’s the carpets or books or jeweled objects. They express their time, but we can all relate to and see the underlying human connection in these past objects from far away cultures and lands.”

[jump] Museum director Jay Xu agrees we should emphasize those connections and look at a time in the Islamic world known for tolerance and collaboration between diverse intellectuals and artists. 

“It’s time to mutually enter each others’ worlds,” Xu said.

A metaphor from Iranian, Turkish and Arabic poetry, Pearls on a String expresses interconnectedness, and the show explores the role of human relations and connections in art. The exhibition has three sections with different protagonists and storyline over three centuries: the writer in 16th-century Mughal India, the painter in 17th-century Safavid Iran, and the patron in 18th-century Ottoman Turkey.

Adamjee says they originally started with a much bigger concept, intending to go back to the 8th century and explore other places such as Spain and Jerusalem, but realizing that was too big for one exhibition, focused on what she calls the three superpowers of premodern Islamic world. The show offers a fresh perspective, looking at networks of creative collaboration rather than just looking at art patrons, she adds.

More than 60 works, including manuscripts, paintings, jeweled objects, sculpture, textiles and metalwork, make up Pearls on a String. The first part of the exhibition tells the story of writer and historian Abu’l Fazl ibn Mubarak, who came to the court of Emperor Akbar, the ruler from 1556- 1605 in Mughal India. Abu’l Fazl, who stayed at the court as an advisor, translator, and secretary as well as a historian until he died at 51, wrote a multi-volume history of Akbar’s reign, an important source of information about that multicultural community, Adamjee says. Along with detailing the emperor’s achievements and events in the court, it covers details such as what the horses ate, how many elephants were in the royal stable and how many artists were in the court.

The painter Muhammad Zaman, who was part of the court of Shah Sulayman in Isfahan, Iran, changed 17th century Persian painting by blending those artistic traditions with European techniques such as contrasting light and shadow and linear perspective. This innovation, called farangi-sazi was partly inspired by the diversity in Isfahan, which had Georgians, Armenians, Jews and Zoroastrians, as well as Persians and Central Asian Muslims. The style he pioneered is seen in paintings such as The Return from the Flight into Egypt and a detail from Turktazi’s Visit to the Magical Garden of Turktaz, Queen of the Fairies.

The final protagonist in the exhibition is Sultan Mahmud I, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1730 to 1754.
Born with an abnormal curvature of the spine, he didn’t have an easy childhood, including seeing his father removed from office by his uncle. When a revolt broke out against his uncle, he was appointed the ruler of an unstable empire by people who thought he’s be easy to control due to his inexperience. But he calmed the unrest, brought about military reform and became a sponsor of the arts. He commissioned different artworks, including one of the most arresting objects in Pearls on a String – a jeweled gun, encrusted with diamonds, emeralds and rubies. Unlike most jeweled guns you may have run across, this one comes with some surprising objects, including a gold dagger, a pen case, a pen holder and a pen knife – also covered with jewels.

You may not necessarily associate writing and guns, but Adamjee says the Ottomans, who held calligraphy in high regard, saw parallels between them.

“You need a keenness  of the eye and control of the hand,” she said. “They saw the skills of marksmanship and calligraphy as similar.”

Pearls on a String, Feb. 26- May 8, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, $5-$15, 415-581-3500

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