Found in translation: Ornate writing unlocks Islamic art

To an untrained eye, the late-13th-century “Star Tile” could seem like just another pretty object in a gallery full of exquisitely detailed treasures. The central image depicts a horse lying among flowers, framed by a border of abstract squiggles.
Aimée Froom sees a richer meaning in the tile because she can read those squiggles.
The inscription that decorates the cobalt border is a quatrain attributed to Majd al-Din Baghdadi: “Do you know, oh my admired one, why my two oppressed eyes are full of tears? My eyes draw from the desire of your lips, water from the mouth of my pupils.”
Well, swoon.
The 100 or so sumptuous objects in the exhibition “Bestowing Beauty” really need no deciphering to appreciate on an aesthetic level. But Froom, the Islamic-worlds curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, had dozens of inscribed treasures translated by Will Kwiatkowski to help convey what she calls “the art of the word” in Islamic objects.
“Words are the highest form of Islamic art. It’s through Arabic script that the word of God is transmitted through the Quran,” she said.
She has also installed a video from the museum’s 2007 “Traces of the Calligrapher” show so visitors can watch renowned contemporary calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya at work. The calligraphic tools in vitrines are treasures themselves, including an inkwell with gold overlaid on steel, designed to be worn on a belt; and an important pen case of lacquered papier mâché with gold particles.
Written language adorns many of the show’s miniature paintings, ceramics, metalwork and textiles as well as manuscripts. “I wanted to give an idea that it’s not just in Quranic form or even on paper,” Froom said. “We have words everywhere.”
Froom’s translations open windows into important classical texts such as the “Shahnama (Book of Kings),” the Persian national epic written circa 1,000 by Ferdowsi; the “Khamsa (Quintet)” of Nizami; and the melancholy love songs known as ghazals.
How could one not be smitten, realizing that an 18th-century steel bowl from Iran communicates this lovely ghazal by the 14th-century poet Hafiz: “Morning is breezing in, and clouds are setting up their dome, / A cup, (give me) a cup, O companions, / Dews are dripping from the tulip’s forehead, / Continue, continue, O friends, / The scent of Paradise is blowing from the green grass.”
Dating from the fifth to the 19th centuries, the show’s objects indeed evoke a sense of serene beauty that many Westerners no longer associate with regions of the Middle East. Curators feel an urgency these days to remind viewers that this is still the base of Islamic culture.
The calligraphy appears in multiple forms, drawn from different languages and different Arabic scripts. Persia, especially, was at the crossroads of important trade and migration routes, and during more than 1,400 years influences also changed with the rulership.”The art of the word” is one of six themes on which Froom has built “Bestowing Beauty.” Galleries are also devoted to works that express love and longing. Faith and piety. Earth and nature. Banquets and battles. Kingship and authority.
“I wanted to focus on universal themes that would be accessible to everyone,” Froom said.
But literary art pervades it all.
The show represents less than a fourth of a trove recently loaned to the MFAH by Kuwait-based collector Hossein Afshar. Following previous long-term agreements with Kuwait’s royal al-Sabah family, Afshar’s loan so significantly expands the museum’s 10-year-old Islamic arts initiative that it no longer all fits into the dedicated galleries of the MFAH’s Law Building.
“Bestowing Beauty” occupies several rooms where European painting had been displayed in the Beck Building. Froom plans to continue filling that space during the next five years, organizing a series of shows from Afshar’s collection.
A few blocks away, at Asia Society Texas Center, curator Bridget Bray has recently installed “Wondrous Worlds,” a touring show of about 100 rarely seen Islamic art treasures that belong to the Newark (N.J.) Museum.
Given a slightly different spin, they demonstrate the global reach of Islamic art with works that originated in East and West Africa, Europe and the U.S. as well as Southeast Asia. This show also zings fast-forward into the present, juxtaposing pieces made as recently as 2016 with historical objects.
“I’m very happy when we can connect classical to contemporary,” Bray said.
Like Froom, she felt accessibility was important, so she has packed the wall labels with information. “We are not presuming anything about what people may or may not know, establishing a level playing field for everyone.”
Here, too, there’s a room devoted to the art of literature and writing, with an inscription from a 16th-century Iranian inkwell reproduced in large type on one wall. “A man’s inkwell is the water of his life and … the cause of his salvation,” it says.
As at the MFAH, beautiful writing implements, books and intricately decorated pen cases appear in the vitrines.
Hassan Massoudy’s 1997 watercolor looks jarringly bold, perhaps because of its bright-white paper, yet even that piece conveys evocative text by 12th-century poet Ibn Qalaqis: “Travel, if you aspire to a certain renown. It is in roaming the heavens that the crescent becomes the full moon.”
One of the most sumptuous small works dates to India’s late Mughal period. The rare painting depicts a worldly gentleman who holds a book in his lap and points toward a moon split in half – referencing a miracle described in the Quran and attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.
“Wondrous Worlds” ends with a stellar hanging sculpture the Newark Museum commissioned last year from artist Afruz Amighi, a native of Iran who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Made of delicate chain-link strands in the shape of minarets, Amighi’s piece is about architecture, not literature.
Still, the shadows it casts could be seen as a kind of writing on the wall, far more changeable than classical texts that have survived centuries of evolving civilization.
“It’s this notion of the ephemeral nature of the built world,” Bray suggested. “Maybe we’re not quite as permanent as we think we are, and neither are our buildings. I think that’s something we can all relate to now.”
Kufic script from the eighth century looks weighty, even when it’s rendered in gold; slender nasta’liq script from the 16th century appears as rhythmic as the notes of a musical score.

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