Mosques and minarets: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia is hosting an exhibition of architectural marvels. Rachel Jena ponders on the idea of seeing artefacts as art.
Unlike headline-hogging contemporary art, Islamic art doesn’t get a lot of face time. ‘Tis a shame. Islamic art is one of visual art’s most captivating subjects, covering dynastic periods of the Umayyads to the Ottomans and encompassing mediums ranging from calligraphy to textiles. In most cases, the art is stunning and brilliant to boot. One object could easily tell a tale of devotion or speak about kings and empires, and you’ll also be wowed by the mastery of the craftsmen of yore. Fascinating stuff for history buffs, but as far as street cred goes, Islamic art is unfortunately lacking.
So, we’re looking forward to this month’s featured exhibition, which may score a few cool points for Islamic art. The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) is hosting ‘Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Architecture in Islamic Arts’, and it’s a stunning display of architectural wonders from across lands and time. KL is the travelling exhibition’s second pit stop, exhibition having already enthralled audiences at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and later, scheduled to appear at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum.
‘They’ve selected almost a hundred pieces for this exhibition, which comprises different types of mediums like miniature paintings, tiles and wooden objects like structural elements,’ says project manager Rekha Verma. She’s joined by IAMM curators Adline Abdul Ghani and Erna Dyanty Mad Daluis, and judging by their enthusiasm, the show is not to be missed. Indeed, a quick browse through the exhibition catalogue confirms the many treasures that’ll be on display – glittering doors inlaid with mother of pearl, fine miniature paintings and oil paintings that depict architectural forms of the past, and even actual objects from buildings and spaces.
So, lots of stunning visuals for audiences to takeaway, but what is in terms of brain food? There’s undoubtedly the chance to learn about architectural developments and styles in the Islamic world, but that’s not the full story. Islamic art, as already mentioned, is one of art’s most riveting topics, but IAMM haven’t got it that easy; the museum context isn’t exactly the Average Joe’s cup of tea (‘aren’t they all just full of old, dusty objects?’), and are the items on display artefacts or art? (The latter inevitably seems cooler than the former.)
The belief that museums are outdated depositories is a problem, say the ladies, but they insist that artefacts are indeed art. ‘We’re hoping it’ll be a happy surprise for them (the audience), that it will be an awakening of sorts, which is what we constantly do. Our task is to interpret these collections for our audience. So hopefully, when they come, they’ll learn or discover something new,’ argues Adline. Erna adds that the tours the museum receives often elicit these sort of responses. ‘(People) see the objects as artefacts, but when they see the colours and shapes, they go “Ooh, is this how it is?” and automatically, they don’t see it as an artefact anymore’.
Basically, it all goes back to forms (shapes, colours and lines) and the fundamental ways of appreciating art – it’s beautiful or it’s not, and it moves you or it doesn’t. Still, like many other institutions of their ilk, IAMM face the constant challenge of how to engage younger audiences, as well as bring out the best of the items they host or display. ‘This is exactly what we’re trying to do – to keep promoting the understanding of cultures and histories. We defer slightly from contemporary art in that contemporary art requires a whole different sort of understanding, and to know the language of paintings, you have to learn it, which is what we don’t really have in our schools. If you go to a design school, you may learn the language they convey in contemporary art, but with art like this, you don’t need that background. You don’t have to understand movements, angles or expression. You just have to look,’ argues Adline further.
Easier to appreciate than, say, a Jackson Pollock drip painting? Sign us up. But what if you don’t have any historical knowhow of the Islamic world under your belt? It’s difficult, admits Adline. But, she’s also positive that the process of understanding gets easier once you’re in the exhibition and actually looking and reading about the objects on display.
So swing by. This exhibition promises to do good things for your knowledge on Islamic art and architecture, and there’s the promise of a great day out too. ‘I think for all the exhibitions that we’ve had – and this might be a biased comment – but I’ve really, really liked what our display department creates to bring the exhibition alive. Like we have the arches, and we’ve actually tried to reenact what it looked like in real life. I think it’s important that audiences see this, and it’s also an experience just to go into the exhibition and have a look,’ says Erna.
'Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Architecture in Islamic Arts' runs till June 29. For more info, see listing.