Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art
Islamic art is a fast growing subject of study. Too many countries are involved for it to be categorised like French or Japanese art. In New York and London Islamic art tends to be confined to a section of an institution such as the Met, the British Museum or the V&A. Similarly, in the capital of United Arab Emirates, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will show art from all eras and regions, including Islamic art, when it opens in 2012. Meanwhile in Qatar, the peninsular state further up the gulf to the west and north of UAE, a more specialised institution has just opened its doors — namely the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, MIA for short. It’s not a disappointment.
The memorable opening ceremony of 22 November befitted not only MIA’s importance as a stand-alone institution with a wide-ranging collection of world-class Islamic artefacts, but also the greatness of its architect I.M. Pei, who in turn has benefited from the enlightened patronage of Qatar’s ruling family. It appears that Pei had to be coaxed out of retirement by the Emir’s daughter. Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani is the charming chairperson both of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) and of MIA. MIA is unique but it is also part of a big Qatari cultural and educational build-up. In a short, but touching, speech the modest 91-year-old Chinese–American genius thanked members of the Qatari ruling family for giving him the chance to learn about ‘a new culture and a new religion’.
Pei, who studied under Walter Gropius in 1942, spent six months travelling across the Muslim world in order to discover an inspiring essence within the diversity of Islamic architecture, an essence that would be susceptible to re-expression using a modern vocabulary of forms, materials and techniques.
Mosque after Grand Mosque failed to click at first. Then in Tunisia a ribat or fort at Sousse attracted his attention. In Pei’s words it exemplified how in Islamic architecture ‘sunlight brings to life powerful volumes and geometry plays a central role’. Nevertheless we are told that the purest relevant essence finally emanated from the austerity and simplicity of the 13th-century ablutions fountain or sabil in the Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun in Cairo. It offered ‘an almost Cubist expression of geometric progression’, Pei felt.
Geometry is a major factor of Islamic decorative patterns. It is no doubt one of the keys to an understanding of much of the world’s great architecture. No expertise is needed, however, for noticing that the exterior of MIA is a pleasure to look at. It courts contemplation as an abstract sculpture with a series of planes at different angles to the sun producing an ever-changing play of light and shadow. Planes and volumes twist and recede progressively as the building rises to a height of 164 ft. The white stone itself is beautiful as well as durable enough to withstand extreme weather.
The setting has been well controlled. Pei’s masterpiece is already on a postage stamp and probably uneclipsable now. He wisely insisted on building over the waters of the gulf to prevent encroachment. An avenue of palms leads to the grand entrance. Another entrance is by sea. (This is where Robert de Niro landed on 23 November, in heartfelt culture-bridging mode, to announce a 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in Doha — another coup for HE the Emir’s daughter who was educated partly in the USA.) The third entrance takes the visitor through a beautifully proportioned open courtyard which boasts cooling breezes and areas of water. Distinctive arches of Pei’s own design frame the view on two sides and lend enchantment to it.
The interior, including the furniture, has been designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte who worked with Pei on the Louvre pyramid. The mood of the atrium’s ground floor is busier and somewhat flashier than that of the above-mentioned courtyard separating the museum itself from its educational wing. (The back-up resources, such as conservation and restoration, are reputed to be the envy of the museum world.) Be the ground floor as it may, the light from the oculus within the dome at the top creates pure magic. Furthermore the galleries themselves on three floors are almost beyond praise. Some richly dark walls are of Louro Fala, a Brazilian lacewood treated with precious metals. Others are of stone, a dark grey porphyry.
The permanent collection merits many a copiously illustrated article. Suffice it to say here that on one upper floor the display is chronological, on another thematic. Manuscripts, ceramics, metal, glass, ivory, textiles, wood and precious stones, whether on wall, floor or in specially designed glass cases, are subtly but clearly lit. Exquisite calligraphy finds its way on to various surfaces. To the amazement of some there are plenty of animals, birds and other figures because figuration in Islamic art is not avoided in a secular context. A collection of astrolabes reminds us of Arab scientific leadership during the Middle Ages.
A partly British connection cultivated by MIA includes fabulous, bejewelled treasures from Clive of India’s collection. An inaugural loan exhibition contains an exceptionally rare Hispano–Moresque basil pot (c.1450, probably made in Valencia) from Waddesdon. Indeed, Lord Rothschild himself is an enthusiastic member of MIA’s board of trustees. Furthermore, the Director of MIA is Oliver Watson, the Ashmolean’s former Keeper of Eastern Art. Islamic art is a fast-growing subject of study, but a relatively new one. When Qatari and other Muslim scholars and experts outnumber those from the West, it will redound to the credit of MIA.