In the early 1970s, the game of table tennis led to a thawing in U.S.-Chinese relations. Curators of an Islamic art exhibit at Chicago’s Smart Museum hope art can work the same magic, opening doors to greater understanding between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

“If you say Islam to most Americans, they say terrorist,” said exhibit co-curator Jonathan Bloom, a professor of Islamic art and architecture. “We want to show there’s a different side to Islam. That it has a very rich and long culture.”

Few U.S. residents realize the contributions of Islam to modern civilization, such as introducing Arabic numerals and papermaking to Europe, said Sheila Blair, exhibit co-curator and Bloom’s wife.

Bloom and Blair, who are professors of Islamic art at both Boston College and Virginia Commonwealth University, hope the intricacy and beauty of the displayed pieces will lead visitors to read more about Islamic culture. The artifacts come from the David Collection in Copenhagen, considered one of the finest Islamic art collections in the world.

“In some way art creates an opening,” Bloom said. “Our main focus is that people enjoy it and want to learn more.”

Blair added: “We wanted to affect their eyes, and that would lead them to then use their brains.”
Islamic art, as defined by the curators, encompasses both secular and religious works in the Muslim world from the early days of Islam in the 7th Century until the influence of European colonialism began to be seen in the 19th Century. It was produced from Spain and West Africa to China and Indonesia.

Unlike familiar art forms like paintings on canvas or sculpture, Islamic art leaned toward a smaller scale and focused on everyday objects that were both useful and beautifully decorated. Decoration was its most distinctive aspect, found on everything from the wooden pulpit in a mosque to a ceramic bowl at home. Thus, the exhibit is named “Cosmophilia,” or “the love of ornament.”

Objects on display include an ink and gold fragment from a Koran manuscript; panels of tiles that could have lined Topkapi Palace in Istanbul; a kaleidoscopic 17th Century door from Iran with several types of wood, ivory and brass inlay; a 14th Century silk tapestry roundel depicting an enthroned Mongol prince surrounded by his courtiers; and a stunning Iranian carpet.

Barak Rosenshine, 70, a retired educational psychology professor, was visiting Chicago from Urbana recently when he dropped by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. He seemed mesmerized by the painstaking work put into the 17th Century door.

“Given the prejudice against Muslims today, it’s wonderful to see this and reflect on the glory of that culture,” he said. “We’re bombarded with the fear that this country is going to be invaded by terrorists from the Middle East. Nothing positive is coming out of the Middle East. This is another side.”


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