Right, so first, what is it?
It’s affectionately known as the glass exhibition because my specialty is in ancient and medieval glass. I have a masters in Roman Archeology with a specialty in glass from the area, but then I wanted to explore more where did the glass head after the fall of the Roman Empire. And that’s when I started discovering Islamic glass and how different it was. Roman glass, they produced so much glass that the rest of the world, no other society really caught up until the industrial revolution, that’s how much glass they were making. And it was traded all along the empire, and made in different spots. The really hot spots, the glass centers, were in the Levant area, and that includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. And then there was Iran which was producing some glass as well. It was these centers that remained and they sustained their productivity even after Rome fell.
Were they making the same sort of glass?
The glass was really a bit different. The Roman glass, it’s all symmetrical and in a lot of ways it’s perfect. And then you look at Islamic glass and it’s a bit wonky, and the colours are quite mixed up sometimes. When I started studying Islamic glass I thought ‘well this isn’t good, they didn’t know what they were doing, not like the Romans who had everything down pat’. But as I looked at it more closely and I started studying more about these worlds, I discovered that there was actually a real creativity and spontaneity in what they were doing. And so they were kind of like ‘oh that’s lovely and then we’ll do this and pow there it is’.
So . . . it’s sort of hipster glass? Modern art glass?
In a way, I don’t think they were so overly concerned with ‘ok it has to be very structured’. Not until kind of the Ottoman period where they’re much more influenced by European glass and then it’s like ‘oh it has to be perfect’. The head of the glassmakers would go around with a stick and go ‘that’s not perfect, crash crash crash.’ But early Islamic glass is really free and experimental. They’re rediscovering methods that had long died out. The example that I love to use is mosaic glass, this was a glass that was developed before blowing, this was made during the first century BC. And so then it kind of carried on, but it wasn’t so popular because once blown glass came into being, then you could make so many vessels really fast and very easily and decorate them very easily, and the cost of the glass certainly went down. This mosaic glass, it’s like lots of little pieces of glass that are fused together. It sort of died out, it was almost gone by the 5th century AD. And then all of a sudden in the 8th, 9th century this style comes back into being and it’s like ‘what happened here’?’ Then there are these kind of weird vessels. They had this very short revival period during this time. So it’s so interesting that they’re looking back at old techniques and they’re feeling free enough to be like ‘oh let’s try this, let’s try that’. This is almost like throwing out your iPhone and going back to the rotary phone, that’s the technology.
The other half of the exhibition is about mosque lamps right?
The fourth floor had remained closed for a certain amount of time after the opening, and I kept saying we need to open that, why can’t we use that space? So I actually came up with one of the exhibition ideas which was Illuminations. And this is really different than talking about the early Islamic glass. Illuminations is really an idea of concept and about perception about our ideas about mosque lamps. So it’s not just kind of saying ‘well here’s a mosque lamp’. It’s really looking into the history and saying well really originally this was just a lamp, and it was used by [different] communities, by Christians even before the rise of Islam.The form of this conical mouth and this globular body, it was very common. There were lots of plain ones as well: they were used in markets, they were used in shrines, they were used in tombs, they were used in mosques. Some of them you can tell were very specifically used for mosques, but it was just another form of lamp. It wasn’t until the 13th-14th century where they were really specifically used in the mosque, that they were gilded and enameled.
How did they specifically start being used in mosques?
I think it was this whole idea, again the perception, because you have the Mamluks that took over at this point in time in Syria and Egypt, establishing themselves as part of the ruling line. They really want that legitimacy. So they’re now in power and so they’re donating money to have these lamps made. And so the lamps themselves have this monumental calligraphy on them, they’re proclaiming both piety, in terms of donating the lamps and the money to have these lamps made, but also power because they had the symbols saying ‘I’m the one that did this’. So they’re kind of establishing ‘ok I want everyone to know I’m doing this’. They’re helping the community but also they’re very much in power. So again, we have this perception, this change, that it’s becoming really the connotations of this power.’
But now you see them all over, not just in mosques but in people’s houses as art. . .
The perception now has really again changed, because we have the sort of downfall of the glass industry within the Middle East and the rise in Europe. And by the Ottoman period you even have mosque lamps being made in Europe and imported into the Middle East! And then we go into the 19th century. We have the rise of Orientalism, this fascination of the West with the East, with the Orient. And so now instead of being a religious item, or being something that’s representative of power or of God or any of these things, all of a sudden it becomes a symbol of exoticism. And something that’s very beautiful, and people like to look at, but it’s kind of devoid of it’s real meaning to the people of the West. These are kind of copied and made, it’s really interesting the different designs they come up with, they’re just fascinated with the Islamic aesthetic. Now when we go into modern day, it’s like what does a mosque lamp really mean. Because they still have mosque lamps in mosques, but it’s symbolic of something more. It’s symbolic of Islamic culture, and also within modern day collections, art collections, you don’t really have an Islamic art collection until you have that mosque lamp. So it’s really saying something about the society and really symbolic of that.
What are you hoping people take away for the exhibition?
It’s really talking about people’s perceptions and ideas. It’s not really telling people how to look at it or how to feel about it, but just kind of exploring all these different possibilities. I think for people to go in and say ‘you know I never really thought about that’. And it all began really with me going on a research trip to Berlin, and seeing the bust of Nefertiti. And all these people wandering around ‘going oh it’s so wonderful it’s so wonderful’, and I’m looking at the rest of the museum , and there are just as wonderful items here, and kind of older or even more precious, so why are people going crazy over this? It’s an iconographic image, and it’s symbolic of various things. But it’s this fascination and perception that people put on certain items that’s really interesting. It’s kind of an interesting play on words for me, making Illuminations the title in itself is really talking about both the lamps and the idea, being illuminated. That’s kind of the purpose of art, what does it mean to you.
The Early Islamic Glass Exhibition and Illuminations runs from August 1- January 7 at the Museum of Islamic Art, fourth floor. Admission is free. http://mia.org.qa