Sacred and Secular Merge at MFAH’s new Art of the Islamic Worlds Galleries

A blue day dawns at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Such was my first thought stepping into the welcoming light and waves of blue in the Art of the Islamic Worlds Galleries.

Endowed by collector Hossein Afshar, the recently opened galleries feature Iranian art on extended loan from the Afshar Collection as well as objects from the museum’s own holdings. This renovated space in the Caroline Wiess Law Building also becomes the culmination of a 15-year collecting odyssey undertaken by the MFAH, forged by local support and international partnerships, to grow an Islamic art collection almost from scratch that has become one of the largest on view in the nation. Along with the opening of the Hossein Afshar Galleries, the art on extended loan from The al-Sabah Collection of Kuwait as well as the museum’s own holdings bring together over 700 works of art from Islamic lands on continuous display for museum visitors.

At a preview walk through the galleries, MFAH director Gary Tinterow acknowledged other extensive Islamic art collections in the U.S. held by, though not always on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, but then gave a Houston-pride declaration.

“We are proud to say that, at this moment, we have one of the largest displays of art of the Islamic world and certainly the largest display of art from Iran and the larger Persian world in central Asia.”

All those statistics on the abundance of art and space (6000 sq. ft. for the Afshar Galleries), do impress but it’s that light, color (so many shades of blue) and beauty that stayed with me as I wandered the galleries. Even the two opening pieces selected by curator Aimée Froom, the late 13th to mid-14th century deep turquoise ceramic Bowl with Fish across from Blue Forest, the commissioned 21st century luster-painted tile panel, with “little snapshots of works in the collection,” do much to signal the major themes and highlight the plurality of worlds in the galleries’ name.

“This is not a monolithic entity,” says Froom. “As we were coming up with themes, how to display everything, how to interpret in a museum setting, we really wanted to amplify universal themes that are important both in Islamic lands and to all of humanity.”

Any visitor will likely find three major themes throughout the space: art of geometry, art of the word and art of the natural world. Sometimes all three weave together in a single artwork.

In the first open gallery, we find variations on a basic and universal human concept: vessels to hold our food and drink, and larger or a multitude of vessels when we come together to share that food and drink in community. In Islamic art across time and borders these utilitarian vessels become art adorned with geometric design and images of the natural world.

Tinterow reminds us that we generally don’t find depictions of the human figure in some Islamic art, following Islamic and older Abrahamic traditions. At the same time we do see presentations of a possible paradise in the form of geometric patterns and gardens. The galleries reveal an artful paradise of unfurling geometric design and nature motifs growing on ceramics, rugs, woodwork, and textiles.

“This is what I love about Islamic art, the utilitarian made quite extraordinary and beautiful,” says Froom.

“Cross-cultural is a good way of thinking about all of the art in these galleries,” she adds. “Each one of these objects tells a story and it’s most often a cross-cultural story, whether it’s techniques that are borrowed from other lands, motifs, colors, but it’s emphasizing universal themes and commonalities and building bridges and going beyond borders.”

As the objects placed together help us cross time and culture boundaries, the space itself builds something of a temporal bridge between the MFAH’s own past and future. With the opening of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, the museum has rearranged spaces and put more of its permanent collection on view in the Audrey Jones Beck and Law Buildings. The renovated Islamic Worlds Galleries were once home to the museum’s library and decades ago its cafe. Now, the original Mies van der Rohe architecture, including a wall of glass windows and interior patio, flood light into the space and the exposed columns and curved line of building frame the space, showcasing the art of architecture.

Moving deeper into the galleries, we see the cross-cultural perspective most distinctly in a special alcove highlighting the connection and influence between Chinese and Iranian blue and white ceramics that began over 1300 years ago with trade routes opening between East Asia and Islamic lands.

“The Iranian world was extremely important for blue and white. It was actually the cobalt from Iran that went to China that gave you the blue on the Chinese blue and white,” explains Froom.

Along with geometry and nature, the galleries highlight the word, both sacred and secular, with writing on vessels, tiles and wooden screens. Another half gallery focuses on the art of the book and even the art of the creation of the book, displaying not just Qur’an manuscripts, but texts of literature, legends and scientific treaties, along with book bindings and calligraphy tools.

“Calligraphers enjoyed the highest status among artists because they conveyed the word of Allah, and the tools they used to do this were also treasured artworks in their own way,” notes Froom.

She says that taken together the art of the word illustrates the “transmission of knowledge, culture, technologies that is conveyed through the book, and the book as not just the text but the embellishments around the text, so the beautiful margins, often marbled, illuminated with extraordinary fine designs and secular manuscripts that are illustrated and represent many different painting traditions across the centuries.”

Within the pages of some of these manuscripts we do see depictions of humans, but the galleries also hold several rare large-scale portraits of Persian royalty and another human universality, dancing, specifically dancing women of the court.

“This is very unusual to have this large scale,” says Froom of the paintings in the collection. “You do not see this anywhere else. This is a late 18th, 19th century Persian tradition that goes way back to pre-Islamic Iran.”

Though the opening of these galleries might be a historic step forward for the museum, Froom hopes for the individual museum visitor they will be an “oasis of calm, reflection, introspection and discovery.“

“Mr. Hossein Afshar is the very astute collector who has lent his collection to us,” remarks Froom. “His life’s mission is to share his collection with the world as widely as possible and we share that mission with him.”