An issue of TAASA Review dedicated to the arts of Islam is very timely. Such an issue had been under discussion for some time, but its production became a priority partly as a result of an opinion poll conducted last year by the University of NSW. The survey showed that only one in six Australians claimed to have any reasonable knowledge of Islam and its followers, despite acknowledging the faith's increasing global reach and importance. This is especially disturbing when we consider that our near neighbour, Indonesia, is the world's most populous Islamic country, and other nations in the Southeast Asian region have significant Muslim populations.
This year, however, promises to see an increase in that level of understanding; a number of major events and initiatives will highlight the Islamic world, its arts, culture and wider concerns. Some of them are covered in this issue. It is also welcome news that a new national Islamic Studies Centre, with $8 million of federal funding, will be established by Melbourne University, in conjunction with Griffith University in Queensland and the University of Western Sydney.
The Islamic faith and the Islamic arts have been erroneously perceived in the West as being fairly homogenous and unified. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, as recent international scholarship emphasising local, regional and sometimes national differences has amply demonstrated. There are currently about 46 Muslim countries, each with different traditions - and, in many instances, different languages. As well, many Muslims now live as minority populations in Europe, North America and Australia, their art forms often flourishing and evolving in their new environments.
The Islamic heartlands in the Middle East - extending into Inner and Central Asia - boast a civilisation of antiquity comparable to those of China and India. To comprehensively cover the diverse art and culture of the region is a challenge. The terms 'Islamic art' or 'Islamic arts' were adopted in the west in the 19th century. Scholars still debate the meaning of the terms. In generally accepted usage, the arts of Islam are those that are or were practised in a culture where the majority of the population, or at least its rulers, are Muslims - followers of the faith of Islam. This means that Islamic art was often a collaboration between followers of older faiths such as Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity that predated the advent of Islam. Itinerant craftsmen and women of all faiths were key agents in the diffusion of artistic styles far beyond their cultural boundaries.
A landmark exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales later this year will draw on a selection from the more than 20,000 objects housed in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, the most important privately-held collection of its kind in the world. Professor Michael Rogers, the Collection's honorary curator, previews the Khalili loan for TAASA Review, highlighting the antiquity, scope and sheer beauty of the Islamic visual world; this exhibition will be the widest-ranging of its kind ever shown in Australia. Another contributor, Samer Akkach, the widely published Australian-based architect and intellectual historian, explores the symbolism of the cross in Christianity and Islam. And Susan Aykut, an expert in the history of bathhouses in the Islamic world, reveals some of the little-known story of the Turkish bath in 19th century Australia.
Museums and public institutions in Australia have not, until recently, extended or promoted their Islamic collections. In this issue, David Alexander, an international authority on Islamic arms and armour, examines a rarely exhibited 16th century Ottoman archer's ring from the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria; and curator Andrew Jamieson discusses some of the exceptional illustrated pages and albums from Melbourne University Library's collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, currently on display at the University's Potter Gallery.
Adelaide is the only city in Australia with exhibition space permanently dedicated to Islamic art. The Art Gallery of South Australia and Asian art curator James Bennett have pioneered new understanding of the complexities and rich heritage of Islamic art in Southeast Asia - witness the outstanding exhibition Crescent Moon (2005). James Bennett here discusses two recent AGSA acquisitions and their unique cultural context.
As Nasser Khalili said in a recent interview, 'the moment has come for the "people of the book" - Jews, Christians and Muslims - to speak openly to one another and to see clearly the close cultural, social, spiritual and intellectual ties that have existed among them for centuries.' As the world becomes increasingly politically charged, what better way to begin that conversation than through an appreciation and love of the arts?
4 THE SPATIALITY OF THE CROSS IN ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE AND LANDSCAPE - Samer Akkach
7 CALLIGRAPHIC CREATIVITY: MIDDLE EASTERN MANUSCRIPTS - Ian potter museum of art, University of Melbourne - Andrew Jamieson
10 WASHING FROM THE INSIDE OUT: TURKISH BATHS DOWN UNDER - Susan Aykut
13 ISLAMIC HEIRLOOMS FROM SOUTH SUMATRA - Art Gallery of South Australia - James Bennett
16 AN OTTOMAN TURKISH ARCHER’S RING - National Gallery of Victoria - David Alexander
18 ARTIST PROFILE: the Oud and Joseph Tawadros - Merry Pearson
19 ARTIST PROFILE: Nusra Qureshi ‘s ‘miniatures‘ - Haema Sivanesan
20 EXHIBITION PREVIEW: OPULENCE AND VIRTUOSITY - The arts of Islam: treasures from the Nasser D. Khalili collection - J.M. Rogers
23 BOOK REVIEW: Ordered spaces, constructed Worlds - Charlotte Schriwer
24 TAASA MEMBERS’ DIARY March – May 2007
25 TAASA ACTIVITIES: REPORTS
26 WHAT’S ON IN AUSTRALIA: March – May 2007 a selective roundup of exhibitions and events - Compiled by Tina Burge