The Dallas Museum of Art has opened its first, ever, major exhibition on Islamic art. The show is called Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World. “Nur” is the Arabic word for “light,” and the DMA is the only American museum to host the show. KERA’s Jerome Weeks sat down with Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir, the DMA’s new senior advisor for Islamic art, to talk about her favorite work – one that inspired her to write a novel.
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Weeks: Your exhibition, Nur, includes 150 items from some ten centuries, covering the range of Islamic expansion from Spain to India: everything from vases and windows to fabrics and beautifully detailed scientific illustrations. The great majority of the artworks have little directly to do with religion. But the one you chose to talk about is a few pages from The Blue Qu’ran. It’s a very rare, hand-written copy of the Qu’ran from the 9th century. So why this work and what does it have to do with the show’s theme of light?
Al Khemir: The Blue Qu’ran, as you know, is unique because it is the only manuscript written on blue-dyed vellum or parchment. And it’s written in gold, so, you know the gold is like light, shimmering light against the deep blue sky. In that sense, I think it’s a direct link with the subject of the exhibition. And it’s got an amazing, modern quality to it because the script that it’s written in is so graphically beautiful, it’s almost like the word becoming image. Imagine these gold letters against a deep blue background. It’s like light in a dark night.
Weeks: As you say, it looks very modern. That’s partly because of how almost geometric or abstract it looks. But of course, the geometric, the abstract, are very old, very strong traditions in Islamic art. There are plenty of human figures portrayed in the DMA exhibition, but geometric patterns, abstract shapes, turning the written word into an image: These really dominate.
Al Khemir (left, during the press preview, pointing to a 13th century inkwell): It’s very important to say straight away that figurative representation is actually allowed in Islamic art. It is everywhere. So while there is figurative representation, you’re not allowed to represent God in Islam. In a context like that, geometry became a wonderful, very befitting language to express the divine. Any geometric pattern can be extended forever. You take a tile or a textile, and you see a geometric pattern, and you realize that you can fill the room with this geometric pattern. You can go on, as I said, forever. And so it becomes a hint of the infinite.
There is a sense of transcendence with geometric patterns because there is a mirror of the laws of the universe, of balance, of symmetry. All these aspects made geometry a perfect visual language for Islamic culture and it’s everywhere in the arts.
Weeks: All of which is why it’s perfectly possible to appreciate something like The Blue Qu’ran on a visual level. It’s sumptuous.
Al Khemir: Absolutely, and I’m so pleased you do. Because as you know, I wrote a novel called The Blue Manuscript. It pays homage to this work of art that must have demanded so much time, so much effort from the calligrapher. But it is actually not even signed. We don’t know who the calligrapher of The Blue Qu’ran is. And this manuscript, its pages were cut out and were sold in the 20th century. So it is dispersed. And so I think The Blue Qu’ran remains, not just an original, but an expression of the essence of Islamic culture.
Weeks: Sabiha, thank you very much
Al Khemir: Thank you so much.