Shedding new light on Islamic creativity

Seville hosts an ambitious exhibition on illumination in Arab art and science

A page from the Blue Koran.
A page from the Blue Koran.

As though out to prove the old prophetic adage that "Allah is beautiful and loves beauty," a tiny copper inkpot made in 13th-century Persia sits quietly in the middle of an explosion of Baroque art, showing off its fabulous calligraphy in inlaid gold and silver. The object is part of a traveling exhibition called Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World, organized by the Focus-Abengoa Foundation at its Seville headquarters, the Baroque Hospital de los Venerables.

Although the show's curator, Sabiha Al Khemir, is familiar with the inkpot and has probably contemplated it dozens of times, she still speaks in awed tones about its meticulous perfection. "The craftsmen who made it also applied the adage [about beauty] to the parts of it that remain concealed at first sight."

A Tunisian expert on Arabic culture based in New York, Al Khemir combed the Islamic universe, both in terms of time and space, for the 150 artworks that make up the exhibition. The pieces on display span over 10 centuries and were made in locations ranging "from Córdoba to Central Asia" and include ceramic bowls, illuminated manuscripts, stained-glass windows, astrolabs, Korans and spice racks on loan from 40 museums and private collections. As for the sponsorship, "it makes sense for a show about light to be financed by a solar energy company."

Spread over two floors of the old sanatorium for clergy members, the exhibition takes visitors on a journey across the representation of light "in the physical and metaphysical sense," explains Al Khemir.

It is not a religious exhibition, although religion is inherent in Islamic discourse"

The result is one of those shows that is best defined by what it is not. It is "not a religious exhibition, although religion is inherent in Islamic discourse." Nor should it be taken for a political statement, although it does admit certain present-day interpretations. Above all, it "seeks to offer some degree of understanding about what the Arab world is and has been throughout the centuries; this does not always coincide with the image you get from the news reports." The exhibition also underscores Spain's role in the Islamic world, due to the fact that Al-Andalus was a major stop on the journey back and forth between East and West.

Some of the items on display positively force visitors to stop and take special notice. One of these is a bifolio (double page) from the mysterious Blue Koran. The Tunisian manuscript, comprising around 600 pages in gold letters against a hypnotic indigo blue, was taken apart and individual pages of it are now scattered across the globe. Its vicissitudes even compelled Al Khemir to write a novel about it, The Blue Manuscript.

A ninth- to 10th-century bowl from Iraq.
A ninth- to 10th-century bowl from Iraq.EL PAÍS

Just as enthralling are the chess pieces made of amorphous glass on loan from Ourense cathedral in Spain and the Book of the Fixed Stars, an astronomical treatise that belongs to the Bodleian Library in Oxford and is considered the oldest illustrated Arabic manuscript.

But the journey begins with a white tube that welcomes visitors and could be construed as a tunnel that washes off preconceived notions, or a detox treatment for the Baroque excesses of the downstairs chapel.

The 600 pages of the mysterious 'Blue Koran' are scattered across the globe

Once the exhibition closes here on February 9, it will move on to the Dallas Museum of Art, where Al Khemir has been working since 2012 as the main advisor on Islamic work. Before that, she was the founding director of the Doha Museum of Islamic Art, whose astounding collection she helped build with (plentiful) money from the Qatari royal family.

Asked whether certain sectors of US society are ready to appreciate the finer points of Islam, Al Khemir admits that "this is the first time in the 110-year history of the Dallas Museum that it will be hosting a show of this nature.

"What allows me to stay calm is the fact that when there is something they don't know, Americans are not afraid of admitting it."

Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World. Until February 9 at Fundación Focus-Abengoa, Hospital de los Venerables, Plaza de los Venerables 8, Seville. www.focus.abengoa-es

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