So, what is it?
Gifts is a major international loan exhibition on Islamic art. It shows that the giving of gifts was a major stimulus for the patronage, production and circulation of art across a broad span of times and places.
What kinds of gifts are on display?
The show is divided into three general sections. Personal gifts are those exchanged directly between two people. They tend to be on a more human, intimate scale, and are often ‘everyday’ objects made of extremely deluxe materials. State/Diplomatic gifts are those exchanged in the pursuit of better relations between states. They are often meant more for show than for practical purposes, and often tend to be much bigger than human-scale. Included in this part of the exhibit are a number of paintings which depict the animals which were given as gifts and the ambassadors who did the presenting. Religious gifts are those objects which were given to religious institutions (especially Qur’ans, furniture and architectural decorations), the actual documents which detail the endowments and objects which were originally intended for a completely secular setting but were later given to shrines.
Many of the most beautiful and historically important works of Islamic art have, at some point, been gifts. This theme has never really been explored in regards to Islamic art and is an excellent way to bring people in to see something – Islamic art – that they might not be otherwise interested in or know anything about. After all, everyone understands gifts!
What makes this theme ‘Islamic’? Like you say, everyone loves presents. . .
The theme is broadly Islamic in that it covers gifts given in, from and to the Islamic lands across the period of the great Islamic empires between the 8th and 19th centuries. However, it includes a number of pieces which are not, strictly speaking, ‘Islamic’ art. These include paintings, made in Europe of gifts and ambassadors from Islamic lands; similar paintings made in China; and items made in Europe and elsewhere which were intended as gifts to Islamic rulers.
Ok, we understand it’s gifts, but what does that mean? What can people expect to see?
The exhibition has objects of every type in it – manuscripts, paintings, metalwork (often of the precious variety), jewellery, glass, wood, stonework, arms and armour – you name it, it’s there. With over 200 items from nearly 40 lenders, this is a massive show which will be a feast for the eyes as well as a means of better understanding Islamic art, gift-giving and, essentially, human nature.
What’s your favourite piece?
That’s a tough one to call, and I’m not sure that I can give just one piece. For sheer ‘wow’ factor, it would have to be the Ardabil Carpet, made in Iran in 1539-40 – 7x4 metres of silky perfection. A true masterpiece in anyone’s book. In terms of the story, it would have to be the page from the Nadira Banu Begam Album, which was a book of exquisite calligraphy and paintings given as a gift from the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh to his wife. It has an inscription on the flyleaf from him ‘to my dearest friend’, and I think you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be touched by that.
Why do this here in Qatar?
As an Arab-Islamic country with a world-class museum, it makes perfect sense to have the exhibition here. Islamic art is starting to be appreciated very widely, but unfortunately very few exhibitions travel further than Europe and America.
Will people be able to relate to this do you think?
Everyone can relate to giving and receiving gifts, even if they’ve never given an entire palace facade or received a gold-inlaid sword. No matter how spectacular or mundane the gift, the logic remains the same. The other very important thing is the way that it focuses on our shared humanity rather than separate histories of areas, dynasties or ethnicities.
The exhibit runs March 19- June 2 at the Museum of Islamic Art. Tickets are QR25, available at the MIA and Al Riwaq Gift Shops, kids under 16 free. Open Sun, Mon, Wed 10.20am-5.15pm, Thurs and Sat noon-7.45pm, and Fri 2pm-7.45pm. For more information see www.mia.org.qa