Four years ago, when I was appointed the Dallas Museum of Art’s Senior Advisor for Islamic Art, a caring colleague in Europe remarked: ‘But there is no Islamic art in Dallas!’ Thanks to the visionary institutional leadership in Dallas that reality has changed with impressive speed, and is growing ripples.
Dr. Brettell saw the significance of introducing the teaching of Islamic art at the O’Donnell Institute, and the first graduate course took place last year. This teaching experience was made all the more rewarding for me thanks to a very inspired and sharp group of students. The course brought an emphasis to the importance of cultural context and examined our ways of looking. It provided an in-depth introduction to the subject of Islamic art, highlighting its unity and diversity from Spain to South East Asia. Last year we discussed some of the main aspects of Islamic art, such as calligraphy and figural representation. The next Spring semester of 2017, the course will concentrate on distinctive styles and iconic representations of Islamic art, highlighting new topics such as technical innovations and cross cultural influences.
The course focuses on the art of the object, examining works in different mediums, produced over many centuries, especially during the Medieval period. It makes extensive use of the Keir Collection at the DMA. The Keir Collection constitutes a major resource of the material culture of the Islamic world, spanning three continents and thirteen centuries. It is a considerable benefit for the course as it enables students to examine physical objects of art. The Keir Collection, assembled over the course of five decades, is one of the most geographically and historically comprehensive of its kind, encompassing almost two thousand works—from works on paper to rock crystal, to ceramics, metalwork, carpets and textiles. The arrival of the Keir Collection at the DMA transforms Dallas into the third largest repository of Islamic art in the United States.
Next term we welcome Dr. Melia Belli-Bose, visiting from the University of Victoria. She will teach here at UT Dallas and I am excited that she will contribute to the graduate course, bringing her extensive research experience and fresh insights.
A library of Islamic art – which belonged to the scholar Dr. Oliver Watson, the IM Pei Professor of Islamic art and architecture at Oxford University – has been acquired by the EODIAH and is on its way from the United Kingdom to Dallas. It will be housed in the O’Donnell Institute space at the DMA. The library holds eleven hundred volumes and includes standard reference books as well as rare runs of journals, and a number of substantial works especially on ceramics, architecture and painting. The library will be a significant foundation for research, supporting the Keir Collection and the study of Islamic art.
Next April, the first space dedicated to Islamic art will be inaugurated at the DMA. The Keir Collection will be presented in a new purpose-designed gallery space off the Museum’s Concourse. The new long term installation will present over a hundred pieces from the collection, many of which were never shown before, while retaining some of the masterworks from last year’s exhibition Spirit and Matter, such as the celebrated Fatimid rock crystal ewer, one of only seven in the world of its caliber and the only one of its type in the United States. Over the years, the gallery will offer a rotation of pieces, especially works on paper and textiles.
A taste of what’s to come in the gallery will be revealed at the beginning of the Spring semester when we display a number of works from the Keir Collection in the EODIAH vitrine at the DMA. The theme will be luster-painting on ceramics, which is an important innovation of the Islamic world. The complex technique of luster and its alchemy (where metal oxides produce the effect of iridescence) illustrates the connection between science and art, and the transfer of knowledge from East to West.
I love the vitrine itself – ingeniously designed by Buchanan Architecture to physically connect the DMA and the Institute space: one can look at the display from the inside and from the outside. The vitrine physically and conceptually reflects institutional collaboration. In a way, it mirrors the dynamic of art history’s perspective: our very imperative in the Islamic art course, to look from within and from without, to look at the object, at the world within it, at the cultural context that produced it and its way of seeing the world.
The Islamic art initiative is an exciting venture with many ripples to come. The momentum for Islamic art in Dallas at present is a window into a historical step in the trajectory of Islamic art, which, in itself, is no less than a leap in the canon of art history and of fostering cross-cultural understanding.
Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir
Distinguished Scholar of Islamic Art at UT Dallas and Senior Advisor for Islamic Art at the DMA