“China’s Hidden Century” at London’s British Museum features 300 exhibits that are drawn from a tumultuous period that led to the end of the Qing Dynasty. At its peak, the dynasty ruled over one-third of the entire world’s population.
Iran is certainly enjoying a moment through a series of international exhibitions. In 2021, the V&A Museum had “Epic Iran” whose tickets sold out upon release. In Los Angeles, the Getty Villa had “Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World”. In 2023, the British Museum has now added, “Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece”.
Putting 5,000 years of history on display is a challenge that Epic Iran’s organizers confronted head on. Juxtaposing a clay cylinder seal from the 2nd millennium and an abstract painting from the 21st century might leave visitors struggling to see the connection. Nevertheless, the strong thread that winds through this show is the excellence of craftsmanship, Persian honar, that appears in display after display. Iran’s tradition of craft, of masters and apprentices, of admiring past achievements in art, explains the surprising moments of recognition as one moves from one era to another in this chronologically-organized show.
The geometric patterning in Islamic tiles, carpets and textiles bespeak the Chief Architect, and how He brings forth the beauty of the physical world through eternal shapes. Implicit in these designs are dualities, heaven and earth, light and shadow, and of course male and female. The curating tradition of museums focuses on the male element in Islamic art. From the great monarchs like Iran’s Shah Abbas, Turkey’s Suleyman the Magnificent and India’s Shah Jahan, museums display their silk ceremonial gowns, jade-handled swords and brocaded riding boots. Objects made by or for women rarely figure in the exhibit cases.
The names given to early museums provide a clue to their original function: Peter the Great had his Wunderkammer, the Shah of Iran had his Ajayeb-khane, the Pasha of Egypt his Muthaf. All these words mean a home for marvels. The original museums did not contain paintings or sculpture. These were admired in palaces, homes or churches. The wonderful and rare, which had no place in the decoration of familiar spaces, required special locations, designated accordingly.
Tarab comes from an Arabic word to beat a rhythm. But it has come to denote the ability of the musician to unite his or her audience in a common experience of ecstasy. Some of the most moving moments in this show dedicated to the Divas of Egypt are not the films or stills of Um Kalthum or Warda, but the faces of the audience captured during their performances.
Despite travel bans, quarantines and social distancing, a delegation of dazzling (and unmasked) Italians have taken up temporary residence at Hong Kong’s Museum of Art.