Art Institute of Chicago to showcase Islamic art in new gallery

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With Sept. 11 and tumult in the Middle East pushing Islam into the forefront of the American consciousness, art museums across the United States have put an increased focus on the art of that world as a vehicle for better understanding the multifaceted, centuries-old culture.

Three years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York unveiled an elaborate 19,000-square-foot series of galleries devoted to some 1,200 works of Islamic art spanning more than 1,000 years.

The Art Institute of Chicago will take its turn on Nov. 19, opening a new gallery that will put its Islamic collection back on view after a two-year absence and will present what might be the most comprehensive overview ever of the holding.

NEW GALLERIES of ISLAMIC ART When: Opening Nov. 19 Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Tickets: Free, with regular admission Info: (312) 443-3600;

“There was a real feeling that this work should be put back out and that it should have a proper home,” said Daniel Walker, the museum’s curator of Islamic art.

He acknowledges that the 3,200-square-foot space, which is on the Art Institute’s lower level below an atrium gallery that links the Modern Wing with the American galleries and the rest of the museum, is not exactly high-profile. It is accessible via a pair of stairs at the east end of the Alsdorf Galleries.

“Long term, I would hope that Islamic [art] could end up on real estate that’s on the main floor with other things,” Walker said. “But in the meantime, I’d rather take a good space even if it is not the best location.”

He chose the space in part because of its nearly 15-foot-ceiling, which allows for the display of an intricately carved pair of 12-foot-tall wooden doors from 14th century Morocco — one of the collection’s highlights — as well as several other fragments of Moroccan architectural moldings.

“Because they are now well-lit and you can really see the patterns, they are beautiful,” Walker said.

The Art Institute has a collection of about 800 Islamic objects, most gifts from private collectors. But the museum has also made purchases of its own, including such recent acquisitions as a rare leaf from a Qur’an (probably dating to 1327), with 11 lines of text written in an ornate cursive script.

Walker describes the Art Institute’s holding as a “strong, second-tier collection” in the United States, one that has not been published broadly. “It doesn’t have strengths across the board, but it has some awfully good pieces in it,” he said.

About 120 objects, most from the mid-9th century through the 19th century, will be on view at any one time in the new galleries, with light-sensitive textiles and works on paper rotating out every three to six months. So, over three years, a total of 160 to 170 different objects will be presented.

The main gallery will house a timeline and other background aids, an introductory case with seven works and eight cases, each with objects grouped either by theme or by chronology and geography, such as a case featuring Iranian art produced under the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries. A second gallery explores connections among the Islamic world, China and the West, and the third gallery houses the Moroccan doors and moldings.

Standouts in the display will include a 14th-century glass lamp with enameled decoration from Egypt or Syria, a late 15th century turban helmet from western Iran, and two brightly decorated 16th century tiles from Iznik, Turkey, producer of some the Middle East’s finest ceramics.

In general, Walker said, the term “Islamic art” applies to objects produced in countries with either Islamic rule or a majority Islam population or both. There has been a debate in recent years in the museum world over the appellation, in part because some experts see it is overly monolithic and not reflective of the largely secular nature of the artwork.

The Metropolitan Museum, for example, gave its reconfigured display of Islamic art the bulky label: Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.

“We are sticking with the Islamic term for now,” Walker said, “but we’re trying to explain at the outset that generally we mean it in a cultural way and not a strictly religious way.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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