Skip to content
  • 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission
  • Shop

Sam Bowker, A dialogue of objects: Implications of Islamic art, 5 July 2018

HEIDI PRITCHARD: Welcome to the National Museum of Australia. And welcome to the last in our lecture series. Who has come with us through this entire journey?

Oh yeah. There's a few of you. Good. Good. It's been a wonderful opportunity for us to really start to explore this culture that as myself and my team haven't had a lot of exposure to in the past. So it's been professionally, the most wonderful learning opportunity. And personally, it's been absolutely incredible. I've been to Iftar dinners. I've been to a mosque I've been to a whole lot of places I've never been before. I've been shown such grace and kindness and enthusiasm by this culture that I know that I've been changed personally about this.

And even though I've only been exposed to a very small part of this community I do know it's something that I'm going to take with me for the rest of my life. It's just been amazing. Now in the spirit of interfaith and understanding that this is the core of this exhibition, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of our land. I'd like to acknowledge the land on which we meet and their vibrant and ongoing culture. Well I've got a bit of a treat for you today. Today we've got Dr. Sam Bowker. Oh and before I go any further I'd really like to acknowledge Mum and Dad Bowker as well.

It doesn't matter how old you are but your parents always like to come to these sort of things. So it's lovely to have you both again. Sorry that's not part of my introduction. So Dr Sam Bowker. It’s a great treat. I've seen Sam speak a couple of times now and the really funny thing about putting Sam on this lecture series is every time I mentioned his name, it doesn't matter who to, people go ‘Oh I love him’.

So I hoping you're really gonna enjoy this talk. Now Sam is a senior lecturer in art history and visual culture at Charles Sturt University. Prior to joining Charles Sturt University, he's given me quite the list. He's worked at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum, the National Library, and lectured in art theory at the ANU School of Art. So he seems to have been everywhere. You never know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. His current major research project is an art historical survey of — oh dear.

Sam? Help me?

SAM BOWKER: Khayamiya

HEIDI PRITCHARD: Khayamiya. It sounds fabulous. I know that Mrs Bowker was telling me a lot about it at the Iftar dinner we went to. It is just a really interesting topic.

I know you are going to enjoy this one and thank you so much for coming and please join me in welcoming Dr Sam Bowker.

SAM BOWKER: Thank you very much Heidi for that warm and welcoming introduction.

SAM BOWKER Very kind of you. It is a privilege to see everyone here today. I'd just like to acknowledge, to begin by acknowledging that this presentation was written on Wiradjuri land in Wagga Wagga. It is a privilege to speak today on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and I pay respect to the custodians of this region as we meet here today.

Thank you very much to the National Museum of Australia for making this possible, because this exhibition ‘So That You Might Know Each Other’ is exceptional as a representation of Islamic arts from Australian perspectives, something that the world sees all too little of. So what I find particularly impressive about this show is the way it gathers from three major collections. The Vatican Museum Authority, the Sharjah Museum and the National Museum of Australia amongst others. To bring together an exhibition that is geographically and culturally diverse, that contests the use of the term ‘Islamic art’ in favour of a much more varied display of culture — material culture, textiles, music and other language forms. And it goes beyond the idea that Islamic art is centred specifically in Arabic, Turkish and Persian regions, to include the Philippines, to include South India and pardon me, South Asia, and of course Australia amongst others. So it's an ambitious show.

This lecture will begin with taking objects and points of interest from the exhibition which I hope you've had the chance to see. If not don't worry, this will introduce you to my personal highlights from the show. It will then expand on their context as a leaping point. So let's explore. This is a quick overview of how we'll take the next 45 minutes. We'll talk briefly about the formation of Islamic art collections and the drives that underpin their creation and why they form into the shapes that we have in our exhibition downstairs.

I'll talk about the vernacular problem which is something that we see all too little of in international surveys of Islamic art but we do see in this exhibition which is a very useful thing for us. I'll briefly go into amulets and protection through several forms. Then into remarkable ceramics from Turkey, from Iran, and into religious objects on metal, paper, and in water.

From there, stories and textiles focusing on works which are present in the exhibition, and absent from it, and also woodwork through a couple of more unusual pieces in our display. Overall one of the key themes that runs through this discussion is the importance of the souvenir, the contested nature of heritage within the expanded and unwieldy field of Islamic art, and the constant adaptation that we see throughout this history into the present day.

And there I’ll briefly talk about my favourite subject: Khayamiya, or Egyptian Tentmaker Applique. This is not specifically shown in this exhibition but it is shown in the concurrent exhibition of contemporary Australian art over at the Nishi galleries in the work of Leila El Rayes. And a Q and A of course, so please save questions for the end. I love questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.

So, on to collecting Islamic arts. I want to think about what the drive is that causes a genre called ‘Islamic art’ to come into existence. Remembering that this is a genre that covers the largest chronological and geographic survey of all art history’s terms. It is big and massive. Going from southern Spain all the way to the Philippines and Australia going from 7th century to the present day and it is contested as a matter of whose language is best representative of Islamic art. Which region defines it? Is it the place where Islam originated or the place where it is most populous today? Is it a form that we as Western non-Muslim curators can impose upon the arts of other people, because it helps us file them more efficiently? The great miscellany. Or is it something which is empowering and used by Muslim artisans as a sense of identity in a statement of faith. So these are the contestations.

One of the ways a collection forms is through the act of tourists bringing things home from travels abroad and the examples we have here on this exhibition, the Druze dagger from the Golan Heights region, and the nargileh or hookah, also called a ‘hubbly bubbly’. These are items that we might expect to see brought back from travels to distant far-off lands, imbued with the exotic. Yet they are a piece, each to their own, which is relevant and pertinent to the traditions that formed them. They have meaning, they are used in daily life. They are vernacular objects enhanced for the tourist gaze, and subsequently they are collected and retained and displayed as items of importance. So in this drive, this oriental-ising other-ing drive, we end up with accumulations of material culture that have certain biases towards the beautiful, the luxurious, the expensive.

And this drive is at the heart of almost all the major Islamic art collections formed in museums around the world.

Be they formed by individuals or with the benefits of archaeological sites and significant excavation surveys which go much deeper into the histories of specific places languages and cultures. An Islamic art has a prevalence on our daily lives we don't necessarily even expect. What I'm showing you right now is an ottoman coffee set, a cup holder in sheer porcelain, which if you poured boiling liquid into it, would be too hot to touch. So they developed the zarf which in this case, apart from being a beautiful word, is a gem-encrusted cup holder basically. The zarf is still the name used by graphic designers developing disposable cup labels or keep cup bands which are now used to hold your coffee separate to your fingers. It is still called the zarf and that is a term from Ottoman Turkey which of course is one of the great sources of European coffee cultures.

So these forms influence us in daily life. That word coming from Turkish is still used. We in Australia have a number of major philanthropists, scholars and collectors of Islamic art. Now I'm not trying to name all of them here would take quite a while but I wanted to shout out to three particularly important figures in the philanthropy of Islamic arts in Australia Barrie and Judith Heaven who opened the first Tandoori restaurant in Australia have remained philanthropists to the Art Gallery of South Australia collecting major works which are then donate to the gallery for public benefit.

John Bowman formed an extraordinary collection of manuscripts as a former professor of Semitic languages from a variety of, I think about nine different language groups which are now held in the Baillieu library. After some 60 years of never being opened they're only just now being conserved and made available to scholars. I was at a conference in Melbourne last week revealing these and encouraging academics to get their postgraduate students onto these things quick smart.

And also William Bowen Moore whose work has been as a particular collector of ceramics throughout his life. Becoming an established scholar in this field then bequeathing his collection to the Art Gallery of South Australia which is today Australia's leading museum for the continual display of historic Islamic arts which are otherwise quite simply absent from the Australian Museum sector.

So that's another reason why the show like this is so very important to us now. We don't have a Frederic Leighton in Australia. These are the collectors who took Islamic art not only seriously but made it their life's work. Leighton of course was an artist and inveterate traveller. He was successful and built with this legacy, renovation of the ground floor of his home into a model styled upon a Syrian ajami room with a combination of influences from different places. If you walk into this place you will find references to Iran to Turkey to Syria to [inaudible] Cairo. There's a variety of different blends of cultures mishmash into this London apartment or mansion. But the thing I particularly like within it, I don't know if you can see it clearly in, see the mouse up there, yes just up here. Sulphur crested cockatoos in the mosaics are very unexpected detail which is of course the product of these fantasies coming from a serious interest in collectors interest of the Orient as it was then called becoming the collectors own statement.

Similarly in Doris Duke's Shangri La, her mansion in Honolulu, Doris Duke was an incredibly wealthy heiress to a tobacco company and a philanthropist for causes of health music education and Islamic art, formed from a two year honeymoon across North Africa the Middle East and India where she travelled she said ‘I like that building. Let's take it home’. And gradually accumulating room upon room like a museum, in Honolulu of all places, which she took as a private refuge from the world’s paparazzi and building Shangri La which is now a house museum that very much champions the cause of contemporary arts addressing Islamic themes in America today. Doris Duke’s Shangri La also contains four ajami or pardon me, three ajami rooms from Syria which I feel was something that Australia might wish to consider one day.

We do not possess an ajami room in any Australian Museum. Many were packed up and dismantled in the 1950s in Damascus and Aleppo as a result of people building concrete new apartments in the inner cities of these regions. These rooms are still in circulation dismantled and ethically sourced through originally Armenian antiques dealers. I would love one day to see one of these reach Australia as part of an ongoing display of Islamic art in historical forms.

But that of course is magnificent and glorious and designed to impress. These are the things that we find regularly in collections of Islamic art. What we don't see is one or perhaps the most important forms which this exhibition champions, the vernacular items of everyday life, made of rudimentary materials for a purpose immediately at hand which I think characterises the work of the Afghan cameleers seen here in this unique, to my understanding, camel saddle made for Australian transportation across the deserts of central Australia.

And that cast iron cauldron recovered in 1909 on a beach in the Northern Territory is material evidence, not that we needed more of it, of the interaction between the Makassan as traders and the Indigenous peoples of Australia who traded trepang, sea cucumbers across these shores. And also expanding this with another example of the overlooked vernacular, a norag, a threshing sled minus the wheels actually thresh the grain, from Egypt which has completely omitted from any history of Islamic or Egyptian art.

The importance of the vernacular has been recognised by contemporary Australian artists. Again over in the Nishi gallery, Shireen Taweel can be seen, or smaller versions of her work in copper, where she looks upon the ways in which copper was shaped and smithed by artisans across the Islamic world. Perhaps [inaudible] terms, and in this case looking upon the patterns of wallpapers found in the early musallas, which are like temporary mosque spaces, they’re sanctuaries for prayer that aren’t quite mosques but something in between, a temporary travellers’ destination. Looking closely at the pattern from the suspended piece here we can see that simplicity that idea which is formed from a vernacular aesthetic but yet contemporary art in the setting. So these forms have been championed and recognised. But when we consider the role of things like the norag, they were agricultural equipment. How can this be Art? It’s basically a tractor. Well some people like their tractors.

But if we look very carefully at the forms used here they are imbued with design ethos that comes from in this case North African forms. We are looking here at patterns and invocations including inscriptions that dedicate the name of Allah Most Gracious Most Merciful, the Bismillah, to a particular individual who is named, Majid Yusuf Jihad who is made this in 1959, and with the help of Allah a swift victory. So there is dedication there is the use of daily life imbued with religious context and the forms are inextricable. How can we not call this a manifestation of Islamic art if it is framed specifically within a mindset that is Islamic?

It was recognised of course by Orientalist but not necessarily by curators. This brings us again to that other vernacular object in this collection. The Makassan cauldron when I looked at this I thought ‘What a great bucket’. It is rusty. It is deteriorated and it is made in most rudimentary form. There's no calligraphy on it anywhere, I looked closely. When we look at this however I think about the other buckets in Islamic art history. The most famous is the Brobinsky bucket which is held in the State Museum, the Hermitage in Russia in St Petersburg.

So when we are looking at the Brobinsky bucket we have all the reasons why it would be collected over the Makassan cauldron. We have of course tigers on the handles. We have zoomorphic and anamorphic calligraphic forms, as highlighted here. You can see there is calligraphy through here but looking above those from the legs and heads of figures that are talking interacting and working together. So they personify this figurative art within this, which might be a surprise to some of us. We are also looking here at a form that is collected by its preciousness by beauty and the importance given to that as opposed to what we now see as an important interaction between cultures.

The Brobinsky bucket, by the way there have even been attempts to remove the vulgar term ‘bucket’ from its title, to use the Roman alternative sitular but the Brobinsky sitular? Few could imagine what that looks like. So they went back to Brobinsky bucket. But this reminds me of something very important, if we are thinking about the way we prioritise certain forms in Islamic art let's think about how we prioritise bronzes in Australian art history. The Bermagui bronze when I think of the Brobinsky bucket or the Makassan cauldron this immediately comes to mind. I don't know if any of you remember the Late Show from 1993. No. Some of us. Well the Bermagui Bronze — I’ll let it explain for itself with exactly one minute which is very relevant to our understanding of Islamic art.


SAM BOWKER: So from the Babinski bucket to the Bermagui bronze I hope you agree that's an appropriate segue between that mysterious great brown land of ours and the actor throwing buckets of water on people provides another natural segue to Egyptian terracotta forms for carrying water. [Applause] I know. Thank you very much. I was so happy to come up with the use of The Late Show in this lecture. But this again is a problem with the vernacular and how I prioritize certain forms at the bias of others.

These are illustrated in the catalogue for this exhibition and the quite widely seen in collections of Islamic art or Middle Eastern ceramics around the world. The reason for this is that they are number one, a fairly strong part of the pot. They are quite dense. They're protected they're not as fragile as the parts below and above. They are designed to literally filter sediment out of water upon being poured, but they survive because they're beautiful. Imagine all the shows that you see across sites like in Jordan at Pella across the surface of the ground which you shouldn't pick up but people do. And we prioritize the beautiful ones. So this is the reason that they survive, the imaginative part of the pot persists. The parts that are not so elegantly thought through and sophisticated do not survive. And within these we find puns, we find dedications, we find sheer flights of whimsy. And this is the beautiful thing about Islamic arts. We preserve what makes us human.

And of course our contemporary artist respond to this in the spirit of the dialogue of objects. Ibrahim Sayyed is a well-known Egyptian contemporary ceramicist. He makes vessels but primarily he makes sculptures, and these forms are very much indebted to those filigree patterns that we find in the work of the Egyptian terracotta filters by anonymous artisans for many centuries previous. We have in this exhibition as well a beautiful collection of objects that support international trade like the iron cauldron of the Makassans.

The Pearl scales and sieves however were the infrastructure of a much more luxurious market. We can find the pearls that were traded through these objects in jewellery, in tent embroideries in brooches and religious objects as well as secular objects that were traded much further afield and transformed into forms that would not be recognized by Islamic artisans. But where in this exhibition are the pearls? There's currently a couple of different efforts on the theme of maritime arts of Islam as an understudied area. There's two books recently published including the work of Avinoam Shalom and also the next coming up conference in Qatar by the Hamad Bin Khalifa Foundation which is on the sailing arts of Islam. Things have travelled across the seas to be art forms. But let's see what these pearls look like. Not necessarily the same kinds of peal that were traded by the traders in Sharjah.

But an example of the ways in which natural materials are adapted and used within Islamic meaningful cultures, material and spiritual cultures. The forms that we have here. I’ve just shown you the same shell two times. It’s approximately the size of my hand, 14 to 15 centimetres across. The text is three different parts of Qur’an. The opening verse and there are two other parts of refer to health and well-being amongst other things. And right in the centre, very hard to see just in here is a collection of what can be described as ‘magic numbers’. The idea behind this is it would most likely be washed with water which would then take on the sacred qualities of the Qur’an, as direct text from God, and then imbibed to cure illness, to work with the body, to work with the mind and the spirit. It's a way of basically creating a form of holy water and subsequently used to improve one's physical and spiritual well-being.

So this idea what could be called superstition, or the supernatural elements, the idea of interacting with the Divine, is a key part of objects we might call Islamic art, in reference to the original cultures that are using them, not a term which has been laid on by subsequent curators. In exactly that note, the quality of amulets that we see in this exhibition. There is a beautiful collection here, West African amulets, just around the corner on the left as you entering the gallery space. And this contains text from the Qur’an. In that five little segments together. Now these are worn as a protective device. It is quite common to wear elements or Qur’anic text, as things like paper garments as jewellery, on armour and weapons, as a supernatural protection as well as a protection against physical antagonists.

We also see this carried in work of contemporary jewellers. What I'm showing you now is an example by Azza Fahmy the designer responsible for my wedding ring amongst other things. There's a conflict of interest disclaimer. Whose work is frequently drawing upon Egyptian heritages that source their materials from Nubian cultures in the south of Egypt, from Islamic and Pharaohnic cultures subsequently, and Egyptian folkloric culture to the present day. So these amulets contain text and calligraphy from a variety of sources, sometimes partial sometimes complete.

This also brings us to another object in this collection which may be easily overlooked. So I want to bring very close attention to it now. The Kütayha ceramics are a coffee set the kind of thing you might even potentially have in your home. It's not unforeseeable that you might find something like this as a souvenir on a trip to Turkey today even. But let's remember that these are Kütayha ceramics. Not Iznik ceramics which are perhaps far more well-known. Iznik ceramics are the ones we associate with the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, as vast walls of floral colour and pattern.

Kütayha ceramics are made by primarily Armenian Christians and they're much more household. They're more typical of things you'd actually use in day-to-day life rather than catering for elite patrons and major architectural sites. So in Australia, our most spectacular Kütayha ceramics are the fireplace of the Art Gallery of South Australia which is pretty much a permanent installation in that room, and you can see how the wallpaper of this gallery, at the time was displayed in this photograph, is evoking those Kütayha ceramics, oh actually, pardon me. The wallpaper is evoking an Isnic ceramic, the Kütayha ceramic is the fireplace itself. The difference is often a kind of formality and disciplined edge of the line. Kütayha ceramics have a somewhat more rough quality by comparison only.

But the fireplace here is interesting because the anecdote holds, and is still told by the curators there today, that when it was purchased they thought they were buying a Mihrab and this is funny because a Mihrab’s a very important object. Within Islamic material culture it is the niche that directs praying Muslims towards Mecca. You find it in every mosque and it's always oriented specifically in the direction you need to be pointing, the qibla, towards Mecca.

Now ending up with a fireplace instead of a Mihrab is maybe a forgivable mistake. But let's have a look at what a Mihrab actually looks like. There, you know, there's a niche but there's no chimney. Big difference. And there's also a very different use of text. A Mihrab will typically have Qur’anic text in elegant calligraphy very carefully refined and considered. Our fireplace doesn't need that.

And indeed the Kütayha fireplace in Adelaide does not have any calligraphy. But interestingly, no one's ever written a thesis about it and I think it'd be a great topic for an honours master student in the future one day. Inshallah.

As we're looking at this form. The Mihrab in the Metropolitan Museum is one of those defining objects and makes a collection. It's like an ajami room, if you want to have a really serious world class collection of Islamic arts. You've got to have a Mihrab somewhere. And I remember there's some degree of contention over whether the Metropolitan Mihrab was actually facing Mecca and could be used or not in the original display space.

More examples of the fireplaces though, just because they're interesting. This has appeared more recently at auction. This is a different one to Adelaide version of course. Shown in 1950 and 2017, sold by Bonhams auction house both times and also depicted in the work of the Turkish Orientalist painter Osman Hamdi Bey a diplomat and archaeologist who used to, to my understanding, accept bribes for certain digs to be excavated, in exchange for the purchase of his paintings. Subsequently resulting in many of his paintings ending up in American university art museum collections, where they were disregarded until quite recently.

So interesting little curiosity about how they ended up in their collections.

But not only fireplaces are still for sale. This is an ancient, and by ancient I mean 14th century, monumental Mihrab collection of panels, most like these are from Isfahan in Iran from the Timurid period. It’s one of the most important periods of the great building dynasties of Islamic arts. Now when we are seeing this work here, it is being sold, it was found in a French country house, where it had been collected by a patron like Lord Leighton, someone like that, and it was sold for an estimated 300,000 British pounds.

It sold for 1.2 million British pounds such as the power here of the Middle Eastern collecting market for museums in the Qatar region in Dubai areas like that, where private collectors and museums in those places, are rapidly buying back major items of heritage. So they're seen as strong investments, and this is the problem Australia now faces. If we want a serious collection of the kind of elite arts of Islam, the courtly arts, we are now outpriced. I don't think we'll see this happen in Australia now.

We do have these however, in our exhibition downstairs. One of these things is not like the others. That's ours. The red one. Now this is a collection of panels resembling Mihrabs.

You'll note the common themes in each one, the presence of calligraphy, the presence of the hanging lamp, which is often connected to a Qur’anic verse, on Allah as the light of heaven on earth, which is written quite frequently on glass lamps like these. We occasionally also see incense burners in this position on Mihrabs, but the idea here was you didn't need a grand Mihrab to establish the spiritual role of the object, orienting it towards Mecca. A single tile or a temporary textile would also do the job. Remember that in none of these cases is the Mihrab itself technically sacred. It is an earthly object. It directs you to a place that is sacred. The orientation is important not the actual wall you are facing.

Another example of these objects that are blending the sacred and the profane in the daily life is an example of a thing called the hilye. This is a Turkish term, but that is to say I haven't seen these objects being described in Arabic, I've only seen them in Turkish. I'll be happy to be proven wrong however. Or Persian for that matter. Hilye are descriptions of the attributes of the Prophet Mohammed, where they talk about his physical appearance his personality, his descriptions of his even his scent of his breath and so on, the colour of his hair, his beard etc. We have probably a more consistent idea of the appearance of that figure than we do of Jesus.

Though if you take these hilye as legitimate accurate accounts, they are more consistently repeating the actual statements of the physical qualities of this individual. And what I have here is the one we have in our exhibition which I'll come to in a moment. But a different one. This little bottle which is a really curious object, to my understanding, I think less than six of these are known to exist today. And they are all made in the Ottoman Empire over the past couple of centuries, and are now held in the Topkapi Palace archives.

They are bottles that were used like that vessel, the pearl shell vessel, to take in water often Zamzam water which is a sacred water to begin with. Hence zamzamiyas the holder of Zamzam water and they are reverse glass painted. So here we have a description of the attributes of the Prophet, written on glass from the inside of the painting vessel, which is then layered upon itself to create a full scroll on the interior text. So these are very unusual objects, are currently being studied by Christiane Gruber as part of her ongoing studies into the representations of the Prophet Mohammed.

We also have in the example here today the illumination around that calligraphy. Actually just a quick note on the calligraphy. It is really impressive that this exhibition does not place great emphasis on calligraphy as a source of importance for understanding the cultures we are studying. Calligraphy is essentially the highest of Islamic arts alongside architecture, but it's tricky for us to read, as many Australians will find. So the downplaying of significance through the alternative ways of understanding Islamic material culture, the music, the trade, through food and interactions of people and textiles, is really a very innovative and typically Australian approach. I find this really rewarding.

But look very carefully at one patch of the illumination here. You'll see four blue squares. If you look extremely closely at those perhaps in the object itself downstairs later, you'll see that's flowing water. These are evocations of a garden in which water itself is of course, a very important aspect, moving water more so still. What we're seeing here is a garden from the courtyards of the Alhambra complex in southern Spain. So this is an example which I think was being referenced by the illustrator or the illuminator of that manuscript, who is not necessarily the same person as the calligrapher.

But this brings us to the ways in which Mohammad is represented. This slide shows another hilye, but it’s located over in the Art Gallery of South Australia, where we have one of many actual portraits, or purported portraits, of Mohammed depicted as a human like figure, riding Buraq in this case. Now these are surprisingly common but people choose to deny their existence because it does not fit very well with the widely held understanding that there is no figuration within Islamic religious art spaces. This was not necessarily for religious art space, you would not put an image like this in a mosque, but it would have been used in spaces outside.

Christiane Gruber's work, who which I really salute as one of I think the bravest Islamic art historians working today in Turkey and America, has dedicated extensive research to the ways in which Mohammed as a figure is represented through text through metaphor and also through portrayals like this which include the face. There are other forms perhaps more well-known to you, where the figure is veiled or ensconced in fire as an alternative to trying to show an earthly presence. But this is a really interesting object for these reasons it does sit within the heritage of Islamic art to portray Mohammed, it is simply very unusual and increasingly rarely seen today.

Another interaction here between the forms of Islamic art and other cultures, an extremely famous object the Baptist tree of St. Louis in the Louvre museum in Paris. Now this is an example which again shows us the importance of figuration in Islamic art something which we also see in our exhibition downstairs, where figurative works depicting people are quite common, or fairly common in that show. The figures here including hunting dogs, gazelles cheetah, and I believe it's a female lion supporting this fellow with an arch on the back of the horse here, as he moves through the sequence of events. Hunting was a very important trope within Islamic art images in this sense.

We're looking here at the idea of miniatures, metalwork, stories in which hunting is important, partly because for a courtly patronage art form, you're dealing here with a moment where a ruler, an influencing figure, is travelling through their territories, reviewing the state of the nation, understanding the course of their people, and seeing how things are going generally. Checking in as a politician almost. And the hunting scene therefore is a part, not only of the thrill of a chase, but of an interaction with subjects at a time when they are more likely to see them than they are in the palace.

Another particularly important object alluded to not in this exhibition are the keys to the Ka’ba. The Ka’ba of course being the very important black cube in the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The key to the Ka’ba is displayed in the bag, which is held here in this exhibition, the green bag with gold embroidery. But the keys to the Ka’ba take many forms. They are passed down as an inherited role of guarding the keys, within just one family, but the keys transfer from time-to-time. They are remade and given as gifts to the most important dignitaries involved in the Hajj pilgrimage.

So the keys have changed over time.

The Hajj pilgrimage of course is one of the most important collections for the study of Islamic material cultures and visual cultures, as a representation for pilgrims who are making maps to how to study and go there, for the textiles associated with the majmal which is the pavilion transported by camel, which purportedly held the wrappings of the Ka’ba, the kiswah cloth, which is the black shape with gold embroidery you see here in this image.

And Professor James Piscatori recently spoke for the Museum on the art of the Hajj and shortly the Australian National University will be hosting a visit by Venetia Porter, who is a leading curator at the British Museum and great scholar of the art of the Hajj pilgrimage.

Back to our exhibition, the notion of the hunt continues with this Iranian block printed textile. One of my favourite things here. A favourite thing because I love the animated expression between the figures, the gestures, the body language and those great shoes and pants, really wonderful socks, or boots pardon me. So as we're considering these forms, something I won't bring to your attention, is just a little thing, a charming thing, I do this for Heidi.

Over here the dog in the middle of the scene, a hunting dog once again, a very charming devoted fellow, running between the hooves of the person in charge’s horse. But dogs are surprisingly common in the history of Islamic arts. We find them usually in hunting scenes as allies and patrons. This being a salouki (a sight-hound) we find a number of different forms over time. Remember, dogs have a situation here which means they can be portrayed and respected. The problem is that Muslim’s don't associate with them immediately before prayer. They are seen as a different point of interaction at that time, but they can be respected as working animals.

But that textile before from the Iranian print. Note the structure: three groups of figures leading up with different events occurring at each stage. This reminds me of a very important tapestry woven in Egypt by the Ramses Wissa Wassef centre and I share this with you as a very short story about how individual stories can be invested in otherwise anonymous works. This one luckily we do know her name and is recorded on the textile as a recent work, but it was made or started, shortly after she underwent a breakdown in her relationship or marriage, and feeling rejected and despondent, the work begins with a depiction of horrible crawling things: worms, scorpions, spiders and rats. Because of course you weave gradually building up from the base, in this case. Then as her attitudes began to change, she went through the trouble [inaudible] the battle scene was formed from the base up as people were fighting and contesting the control, but then gradually a new relationship forms, and she leaves in the sunset with a man on a white horse.

So this is a form of a personal biography invested into the making, the process of the artwork, and it’s possible that we know this because we are talking to the individual today who is telling this story. A great many of these stories have been lost in the history of Islamic arts, where the artisans usually deferred their name, in favour of the patron who is commissioning it. The main artisans we know of today are the calligraphers who had the privilege of writing their name if it was deemed worthy as such. Usually in the most humble terms.

And that brings us to another small and interesting object in this exhibition just for comparison. I've scaled the door of Zanzibar to approximately the size it is in our exhibition, as a small souvenir, compared to the original doors of Zanzibar Stone Town. I love these things. I very nearly wrote my honours thesis on them before I realized was impossible to supervise that topic from Australia.

But the doors of Zanzibar represent a confluence of cultures from Gujarat and India along the Swahili coast of Africa and Arab traders from Romani coast and the Red Sea. The Gulf States.

So in these forms of wood carving, we see a blend of references between the local mahoganies and teaks, to the text in Arabic, the floral forms from India in Gujarat and details which are quite specific to the region they are from. In this case here, those iron or brass knobs are essentially protection against elephants. Elephants have never existed on the island of Zanzibar. You don't need them! But they're pretty and they're a status object and interestingly, and of course an elephant wouldn't press its head against it hence it does a small point offers enough protection to stop being battered down. In India they would be used as legitimate protection on citadels and the like, but now they're all too frequently souvenir and vandalized, stolen, and sold in antique shops.

The doors themselves are frequently in a state of poor repair although they are one of the reasons why Stone Town in Zanzibar is regarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You have a contradiction here. There are hotels that have sold the old impressive door from the mansion in order to fund the restoration of the mansion and buy a new replacement door from contemporary artisans who are keeping the art form alive with the funds proceeded by selling the original door to a mansion somewhere in France like that Timurid panel we saw earlier.

How does it sit with the living culture of the place? You're still employing the artisans who are keeping the craft alive. You've lost the original door that visitors came to see to stay in your hotel for. So these are the complications and implications of these objects being valued as something other than vernacular.

Also the chain patterns here, the chain patterns have been described in sources I've read where they talk about this as a protection against evil spirits, a threat to enslave and ensnare anything that comes through without permission, but they also occur to Zanzibar as history as a slave trading centre. These doors were paid with proceeds from the ivory trade and the slave trade amongst other nicer things, like the trade in spices and clothes. So all part of the contested histories here.

Those examples again of making the doors to go in hotels once again. That's an original door but they're frequently copied to create newer forms. Another very small detail within the exhibition I think is very important is the mashrabiya lattice that appears in the base of this Qur’an stand. I'm showing it to you, cause blink and you'll miss it, you'll be distracted by the beautiful geometric forms, the shining mother of pearl surfaces, and the impressive manuscripts nearby, as you should be they are beautiful things, but the mashrabiya pattern here is evoking the use of this art form in spaces where it is not necessarily expected, as objects that will sold for interiors and the tourist collector.

You don't technically need a mashrabiya to be there for the object to be functional, you need it to help the objects sell well to the appealing eye. The mashrabiya screens were originally used as windows, lattice work frames. In India there is an equivalent called the jali which is carved from red stone, most frequently. But these are turned wood sticks, literally sticks, which slot together to create complex patterns held together by the frame. There's no nails or glue involved. But these forms, very complex as they are, enable you to see outside the house, without being able to see in. It's the same idea as you have when you turn a light on a night in an apartment window, you can see inside of the room, inside is bright, you can see outside of the room ,outside is bright and otherwise you have a reflection. In this case, there are no glass required, enables ventilation of air to move through.

But notice the way in which patterns have been invested by simply adding additional turn spikes, folded pieces of wood within others. This has been adapted by contemporary artist once again. Susan Hefuna's Knowledge is Sweeter than Honey is a series of works where she creates texts in Arabic and English, which are often politically provocative, sometimes drawn from song lyrics, sometimes drawn from protest banners, where she creates statements about her position as a woman and a contemporary artist as well. Remembering that the mashrabiya are gendered objects, they are seen as containing women's spaces, onto the public space which is a male space. Historically speaking. They are a loaded object this way, meaningfully.

But from one encompassing space to another, the idea of the mashrabiya screen has informed other artists. And this is the work of Anila Quayyum Agha, Intersections. Probably the most Instagramed piece of contemporary art of this genre you might encounter. But why not? The work itself is basically a very large covered lamp which forms patterns and evocations around any space to transform it. Using the White Cube Gallery as a space that enables not only display of an object, but the transformation of an object. It challenges the idea that Islamic arts are taken as a thing by Western curators and put into a space, but claiming the space that they are placed within. And really impressive action. And of course this is her most well-known work. But if you Google her name and look at her other works now and websites, you will encounter a very wide variety of these, including the drawings that inform them, that are all part of her practice, and sold as her work. This is simply her most well-known manifesto piece.

But on that notion of the immersive environment, I want to connect this lecture to one final object in the display downstairs, and my own personal favourite field, Khayamiyya. This is an Ottoman tent collected at the siege of Vienna in 1683 and subsequently traded as war loot from point to point around Europe. The work of Ashley Dimmig who is studying a PhD focussing on the ‘afterlife’ of Ottoman tents. My interest in them however is the question of where the Ottoman tent makers interact with the Egyptian tent makers. We don't have one of these in Australia, but we do have one of these. This metal thread textile is the first object you see as you enter the exhibition space downstairs. And what a magnificent choice. It is shining, it is lustrous, it is complex and immersive. It is ornate and intricate. It is carefully stitched by hand to form these patterns and shapes which are evocative of so many other conversations within Islamic visual culture.

But the form itself, I think it evokes what became Egyptian Khayamiya. Look at the composition. Note the forms in the borders. Note the corners within the centre and that use of a strong central motif. Look at the places where calligraphy appears, doesn't matter if you can't read it. Note where it is. Now compare this with the forms that were made in Egypt around the same time. This is the Syme Panel the first Khedival Khayamiya to be discovered in Australia. And I think what's happening here is the artisans are remembering a common heritage of the tent makers forms, be they Ottoman imperial patrons, or local Egyptian patrons. And working then with the cheaper approach rather than individual metal threads and embroidery, which is time consuming expensive in materials and labour, to the labour costs with just cotton applique in minimal colours, making it far more affordable.

We're seeing here a very different response to a place that is losing none of the meaning and ethos of the original object. I've translated here for you the text which could be read in any direction. This thing has no particular right side up. It would have been used as a modular panel. A ceiling or a wall most likely, maybe an awning at a public event, be it at the performance of musicians. The reading of texts, so sacred or otherwise, or hosting of weddings, wakes, at funerals, graduations events like this public events.

So these texts are very much the kind of thing we expect to find in the epigrams of Islamic art. Eva Bier in her book on Islamic metalwork described the entire genre of Islamic metal work as a field of objects that sing and laugh.

And I thought that was a beautiful way of remembering the importance of calligraphy on these, as an expressive aspect. These are bringing me to my final points, about the ways in which Islamic art adapts over time, from the great Khedival panels of the tentmakers of Cairo. These were made for local audiences that can properly be called Egyptian art or Islamic art in the sense that they are of their time and of their place. The touristic panels that follow were being made for a Western gaze. They are collected by the ANZACs, by nurses, by soldiers of World War I and World War II, and distributed around the world. As were the former, the Khedival forms, but only by the wealthier visitors who had enough space to display them or ambitions to do so.

These panels are far more common. We even have them up in regional Australia near Wagga Wagga, in Ganmain at the local museum, through contemporary forms which are scaled down to approximate ratio of size, which are colourful vibrant and immaculately made, as contemporary art for contemporary interiors. No longer architectural, no longer necessarily writing in Arabic with original folkloric statements, but ideas that have rationalised the importance of lessons from the past, into the present day.

And now as artists are turning and referring to this heritage, I'm showing you my very last slides, the work of Rachid Koraïchi, an Algerian artist who exhibits widely around the world in collaboration with artisans across North Africa. He developed distinctive calligraphic forms which evoke vernacular and sufist ideas, amongst other grand traditions within the Islamic arts, and created a series of works called The Invisible Masters. This pays tribute in a manner quite like the recent Frontier Wars exhibition down in Melbourne. Has anyone seen this yet as part of Colony? If not, then I highly recommended it. In the black room of the Frontier Wars exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, you encounter a collection of shields and paraphernalia collected from Indigenous Australians, scattered in mountains like middens with museum labels, actual museum labels beneath them, saying ‘Maker unknown’ and the point of that display was to say that the makers weren't unknown. No one bothered to ask. And there was a great gap in history because of this.

With Islamic artists, not necessarily the same issue and causes: ‘makers weren't asked’. Makers really weren't known if you're dealing with several hundred years earlier in cases where the names weren't recorded. So Koraichi is choosing to acknowledge them through these works to create an extraordinary installation featuring hundreds of panels, en masse, which won the Jameel prize at the Victoria and Albert Museum when it was first held as a competition to survey great innovative works within the heritage of Islamic art.

The 5th Jameel prize exhibition has just been announced in the London galleries Victoria and Albert Museum and six works are currently visible on the website. So it is my hope that one day Australia will see a follow up to this exhibition at the museum which could perhaps be the best of the Jameel prize in its history, and that I think would be a way of addressing what we have here now which is a triumph of the vernacular. I think we now need the spectacular to follow it. So thank you for your time.

HEIDI: Does anyone have any questions?

QUESTION: I was just interested in the Khayamiya because I did see your exhibition at the Albury gallery a few years ago. And I was interested in is it surviving as a craft.

SAM BOWKER: I think it is. Right now the tent makers are showing their work in, or recently in Berlin. And soon in Santa Fe at the folk art collections there, craft collections. And it's really because of the patronage of quilters. I think this is really happening because in quilting you see a like-minded audience that collects and respects the work for what it actually is and is willing to pay the prices required to keep the art form going. We're seeing tent makers returning to the craft who’d left, who had gone become taxi drivers and lawyers and other things. And we're seeing a new respect for the profession. Something else too. It's now seen as a way that young Egyptian men, or women as well but mostly men, can learn a craft that gives them the chance to be seen and known overseas. If they're learning English and have a passport and their capacity to get an American visa amongst other things, quite new worlds are opening to them through this craft. So I think it is surviving but it's by no means guaranteed and I think it's by no means yet finished changing.

Khayamiya is in a constant process of change. I actually have one more slide here if that helps - that one, which is a piece that was shown in the Albury exhibition as well, the Milan panel. It uses the poetic epigram which is common on Khayamiya: ‘Look again you will see a beautiful work. And behold I have shown you the proof. In Egypt the beauties of every art. To reveal them, I need a long explanation.

So quite a beautiful self-referential poem here which we think may have its origins in a song from the mawwal genre which described actions and events along the streets of Cairo. So we're not quite sure but we think that might be it, based on the cadence of the original Arabic. But thank you for your question. I hope that answered it.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for the lecture today. That that's really fascinating. From my point of view, I was coming along looking for differences and I've discovered a lot of detail differences that you've explained which was magnificent. I just wonder whether you could comment on the possibility of identifying more universal aspects of art that come from your study and the development of Islamic art and the time it might be applicable throughout all types of art.

SAM BOWKER: That's a really important question and I think it's actually the one that really shaped the foundation of the study of Islamic arts in the work of people like Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar who are seen as two of the major names. Oleg Grabar wrote his thesis, he was the son of a Byzantium art historian, and he wrote his PhD on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. But as we're looking at this structure he used that as a starting point, and from they tried to find the principles that subsequently followed, could be found in any piece of Islamic art that really started there as that first manifesto of Islamic art.

Ettinghausen looked towards manuscripts and tried to find similar trails as you went from each text accordingly, in code ecology and binding, in illumination and text and literature and others have tried to do it with music as well as architectural spaces. But I think that perhaps the most valuable of the universal statements that come from Islamic art. First of all you deal with the fundamental premise of what Islam is, which is universal. The statements that define the five pillars, the statements that go along with the ways of being that make you an individual who is Muslim. But within the art itself, I remember a conversation that was distilled down to just two sentences between Ettinghausen and Grabar.

According to this abbreviated story, Ettinghausen wrote ‘Horror vacuui’ (which is a fear of an empty space). He was saying the idea that we fill spaces with arabesque, with geometry, with ornaments and pattern in Islamic art because we detest the void. But then Grabar replied, in the short form of this story, ‘No, amor infinity.’ Love of the infinite. So if you're looking for a universal element there, than the love of the infinite is also embedded within those geometries, the arabesques. It is not driven by fear or voids, but the creative potential of challengingly elaborate forms approaching the infinite.

They all work from the idea that any pattern goes into all directions, infinitely. And it's the same principle taken from two directions: the so-called fear of the absent, the love of the present. And I think that universalising principle may well be in the tension between ‘Amor Infinity’ and ‘Horror Vacuui’. That might be the main thing we can take from Islamic art, is how do we situate that desire? To situate yourself against the universe. So I think that's where we might find answers to your question, I hope.

HEIDI PRITCHARD: Thank you. Could everyone please join me in thanking Dr Sam.

I told you that you were in for a treat, didn't I? Thank you Sam, I really enjoyed that. I did laugh when you were talking about the fireplace in Adelaide. If anybody like to know a little secret. If you've been to the National Library, and out the front over to the left, in what used to be a couple of bushes is the Henry Moore sculpture. That was purchased, it was purchased to go directly in front of the National Library where the fountain is now. But someone got a bit confused about feet and inches and meters and centimetres and they thought it was going to be a lot bigger.

So when it arrived on site everybody went ‘What the. Where’s the real one’ and just put it to the side. So that's why it's over to the left, rather directly at the front door. Of course over the years, everyone fell in love with it, but there's a little bit of cheeky gossip for you. Now, this was the last of the lecture series. We've had such a good time putting the series together, we've had so much fun presenting it. We hope you've enjoyed it as well.

The exhibition ends on 22 July. It has to go home to the Vatican, which is a great shame. But on 22 July we have an event called “The Souk”. It's been put together with the United Arab Emirates embassy and it's going to have food and music and market stalls. It's going to be fabulous. So if you'd like to join us on the 22nd you're more than welcome to. Oh nice work Penny.

That was seamless wasn't it? Yes. So thank you so much for joining us. I encourage you to go into the exhibition. Don't forget it’s only on until the 22nd so please come in and see it a few times if you need to, but join me in going completely crazy for Dr Sam Bowker.

Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–23. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 31 July 2019

Return to Top