Early Cross-Cultural Exchanges

Swan_neck_jarMy late friend Eqbal Ahmad used to collect Gandharan Art. It was beautiful. Pre-Islamic culture was denigrated in Pakistan, and he felt the need to do his bit to preserve it.  But perhaps most important, it was for Eqbal, who was shaped in the struggle against colonialism, a reminder that the first major conquest of what would become the East by what would become the West was also productive and syncretic. Now a new exhibit looks at the influence of Western modernism on Islamic art. Holland Cotter reviews an exhibition of Islamic art at Hunter College, co-curated by 3QD contributer Alta Price.

The show is notable for several reasons. First, it tackles a little-studied subject. We’ve had major exhibitions on the influence of Islamic culture on Europe. We’ve had relatively few that trace influence the other way, Occident to Orient. (“Royal Persian Painting: the Qajar Epoch, 1785-1925” at the Brooklyn Museum a decade ago was a stellar exception.)

Possibly because “Occidentalized” sounds unexotic, 18th- and 19th-century Islamic art has been largely ignored. Few of the 30 small decorative objects at Hunter have been exhibited before, though all are from the collection of a major museum.

Which brings us to another — some might say the primary — attraction of the show. The owning institution is the Metropolitan Museum, where the Islamic galleries are closed for renovation. This Hunter show, unassuming as it is, is by default the largest display of the Met’s Islamic collection in the city.

“Re-Orientations” is actually the offshoot of a larger project: a yearlong seminar led by Ulku U. Bates, professor of Islamic art at Hunter, using material in the Met holdings to examine the early effects of Western modernism on Islamic cultures, its impact kicking in at different times in different places.