The art of giving: the exchange of gifts, passing between rulers, diplomats and religious institutions, is known to have been practised in the Middle East for 3,500 years. 'Gifts of the Sultan', an exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, examines this socio-political ritual through an array of objects.
The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha is staging 'Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts' (18 March-2 July), the first exhibition devoted to gift giving in the Islamic world. The show has been put together by Dr Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which hosted the exhibition last summer before it travelled to Houston. The Qatari leg of its journey sees over 220 items from almost 40 separate collections brought together to illustrate the ways in which services were repaid, festivals were celebrated, embassies were welcomed and shrines were glorified between the 8th and 19th centuries--over an area stretching across the entire Muslim world and beyond.
Gift giving is a natural means of looking at art history. Brigitte Buettner has noted that 'without objects there would be no gifts,' (2) and many of the most spectacular and historically significant examples of Islamic art were originally given as gifts. (3) The offering of presents and donations is a tradition of great antiquity in the Middle East, referred to in texts as early as the Middle Assyrian period (c. 1400 BC-934 BC), carried on during the Sassanid Empire (224-651) and throughout the era of Islamic rule. Gifts, then, can serve to illuminate not only the art but the history, culture and politics of a great swathe of the Old World, and this exhibition explores the complex links between that tradition and the art of diplomacy, religion and human relations. Beyond this, it introduces a novel way of looking at Islamic art through the symbiotic relation between artistic production and patronage centred around the giving and receiving of gifts.
To bring some order to what could otherwise be an overwhelmingly large and varied group of items, Dr Komaroff has chosen to divide the pieces on display into three generally defined groups. The first consists of state and diplomatic gifts, given in order to seal treaties, affirm alliances and display the greatness of one potentate before another. Often intended for royal treasuries, these pieces are often of the most luxe materials and excessive in scale. The next type of gift is the personal which, while often associated with royalty and the court, is usually on a more human, intimate scale than its diplomatic equivalents. Finally, there are the pious donations, items endowed to religious institutions. These can include moveable objects, such as Qur'ans, mosque lamps and furniture, as well as more immobile objects like architectural elements and funerary monuments.
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Two items, made hundreds of years and miles apart, illustrate the nature of the state gift. Although a live elephant, such as that sent to Charlemagne by the legendary Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in 802, was the most impressive gift of this sort, the tusks of these animals were also highly prized. An ivory oliphant, or hunting horn, probably made in Sicily or southern Italy in the mid-12th century, typifies the luxurious nature of the state gift, both in the fineness of its figurative and calligraphic carvings and the way in which it uses such a large amount of this extremely precious material. Its counterpart is a portrait of the Qajar ruler Fath 'All Shah (1772-1834; Fig. 4), which makes its first appearance in Doha, alongside other pieces from Russia which were unable to travel to the US. Paintings such as this (and this one was actually presented to Napoleon by the Persian ambassador in 1807) were often sent as gifts to foreign leaders in order to create a suitably imperial aura around the ruling dynasty.
A more personal type of present is represented by a Mughal cameo of the 17th century. It shows the Emperor Jahangir's (1569-1627) son, Prince Khurram, killing a lion with a sword (Fig. 3). The gifting of cameos at the Mughal court was a custom adopted from visiting Europeans, who gave them to members of the court. In this case, the event shown is a factual one, in which the prince killed a lion which was attacking his hunting partner. This piece, which would have been worn hung around the neck, is a work of the highest quality, as evidenced by the inscription amal-i kan atamm ('work of the supreme engraver').
These groups are not restrictive when it comes to the display and, indeed, it is clear that many of the objects cross between them. A case in point is the enamelled Mamluk mosque lamp (Fig. 2), most likely made in Syria or Egypt around the middle of the 14th century and intended to help light the enormous Sultan Hasan religious complex in Cairo. Much glass of this type, which was created for endowment to religious institutions, was removed from this setting in the mid-19th century, as it became popular with European collectors. The lamp on display here may have taken the same route, as it is said to have been given as a gift by the Egyptian khedive Ismail (1830-79) to the Belgian king Leopold II (1835-1909). Here, one can clearly see the slippage from religious to secular, from pious to state, and from mosque to palace.
The 'biographies' of some pieces, their various 'lives' and the routes they have taken, illuminate history as clearly as any text. Who could fail to be intrigued by a gold rose-water flask decorated with precious stones, looted from Delhi by the Iranian ruler Nadir Shah (1688-1747) in 1739 and then sent as part of a diplomatic package to St Petersburg, accompanied by 14 elephants? Who would not be touched by an album of outstanding painting and calligraphy, presented by the doomed Mughal prince Data Shikoh (1615-59) to his wife Nadira Banu Begam, whom he addresses as 'my dearest friend' on the inscribed flyleaf? Who could remain unimpressed by the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II's (1842-1918; deposed 1909) gift to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941; abdicated 1918) of the entire facade of an 8th-century palace in the Jordanian desert, here represented by a solitary, richly carved rosette?
Another important aspect of the items on display is the way in which they show the presentation to be almost as important as the gift itself. Ambassadors were often a key part of the message, and this is exemplified by two handsome portraits drawn from the MIA collection, which will appear as part of the show for the first time in Doha. Painted in Prague between 1604 and 1605, they show the richly robed and impressively turbanned Persian ambassadors Sinai Shah Kamlu and Mehdi Quli Bey (Figs. 1 and 5). Sent by Shah Abbas I (1571-1629) to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), their aim was to secure a military alliance between the two sides, enabling them to fence in their common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The formal, even ceremonial, aspect of these portraits is indicated by the Persian inscriptions below the pictures, each written in the sitter's own hand. Mehdi Quli Bey's reads: 'I wrote these few words ... to commemorate my visit to His Majesty, the King whose dignity is like Jam, the Emperor Rudolf, as the ambassador from the King of Iran, and Turan, Shah Abbas....' Images such as these enable us to better understand the processes of diplomatic exchange, both inter- and extra-Islamic, as well as the way in which people, or representations of them, could be as value-laden as more obviously functional or decorative items.
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Similarly, pictures of things received are essential for today's viewer to comprehend the full range of things given, especially where these were perishables, whether these were ephemera, such as incense or sweetmeats, or alive, such as animals. A perfect example of the latter is the outstanding double-page composition depicting the great Central Asian conqueror Timur (1336-1405) receiving gifts, most remarkable of which is a giraffe, from Mamluk ambassadors in 1404 (Fig. 6). The pages come from a copy of the Zafarnama, an account of Timur's conquests made for his grandson Sultan Ibrahim in Shiraz, in 1436; the book which originally contained them is now dispersed, and these two sheets are in fact from separate collections, one in the UK and the other in the US. That this unlikely juxtaposition of the Turco-Mongol warlord and this peculiar creature, 'the very epitome of the exotic', (4) ever actually took place is attested to by the eyewitness account of another long-distance traveller, the Castilian ambassador Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo. He writes that in 1404, a Mamluk delegation arrived in the city of Khoy, in north-western Iran, with presents for Timur which included not only the aforementioned giraffe, but also six ostriches.
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Giraffes appear throughout this exhibition, as do lions, tigers, zebras, Durer's celebrated Rhinoceros (a woodcut of 1515), and less exotic (although perhaps more practical) horses. The last of these is featured in the section of the show which brings together contemporary artists with roots in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, to create works which reference the exhibition's themes. Gunseli Kato's (b. 1956) Horse Power (2011) borrows the outline of an elaborately caparisoned horse from miniature painting, and transforms it into an elaborate cut-out worked in gold leaf. Elsewhere, Ahmed Mater (b. 1979), an artist and doctor, uses decorative borders associated with illuminated manuscripts to frame human X-rays; Sadegh Tirafkan (b. 1965) creates an installation inspired by commemorative shrines in Iran; and Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969) presents the poem as gift, in the form of verses from the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-84). Beyond the exhibition itself, there is also a new bilingual (Arabic and English) catalogue, as well as a range of educational programmes and other events.
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Whether from sultan to sultan, husband to wife, or ruler to mosque, the gifts in this show are united by a particular concept: they were intended to act as bonds in a chain of human connections, whether at the grand heights of power or the smaller scale of personal affection. In the Islamic courts, at least, it would appear that gifts, rather than war, were the continuation of policy by other means, and on the social level they acted as a way of diffusing tension. Perhaps the final word is best left to French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), arguably the greatest theorist of the gift: 'It is by opposing reason to feeling, by pitting the will to peace against sudden outbursts of insanity ... that peoples succeed in substituting alliance, gifts and trade for war, isolation and stagnation.' (5)
William Greenwood is curator of metalwork and co-ordinating curator of 'Gifts of the Sultan' at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha.
'Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts' opens at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha on 18 March, and continues until 2 July. For further details, go to www.mia.org.qa
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|Title Annotation:||FEATURE: GIFTS OF THE SULTAN|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2012|
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