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Treasures from Kuwait''s famed al-Sabah Collection debut in Houston, Texas

By Sherouq Sadeqi and Heather Yamour

(with photos) HOUSTON, Jan 26 (KUNA) -- Treasures from the internationally renowned al-Sabah Collection debuted at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Texas, in a first-of-its-kind exhibition showcasing 1,400 years of Islamic art from the far-reaches of the Islamic world. The 70 pieces on display from the private collection of Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and his wife, Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, is one of the first exhibitions of Islamic art work presented by the MFAH, and was unveiled at the Arts of the Islamic World Gala on Friday. Curators from Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (DAI), which oversees the extensive al-Sabah art collection, carefully selected a symphony of artwork demonstrating the rich and varied cultures of Islamic societies around the world and throughout history, from Andalusian Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, for the long-term loan to the MFAH.
The al-Sabah collection, one of the greatest private collection of Islamic art in the world, includes 30,000 pieces, and is currently on permanent loan to the State of Kuwait. The exhibition titled Arts of Islamic Lands: Selections from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, displays founding artistic elements within Islamic art, such as calligraphy, geometric ornamentation, and arabesque stylization found in priceless works dating from the 8th century to the 18th centuries. Visitors can observe 8th century limestone architectural elements dating from the Umayyad empire, a 9th century chess board originating in India, engraved ceramics, metalwork, textiles and hand-blown glass from the 9th century through the 13th century, textiles from the 12th century Mamluk empire and the 17th century Ottoman empire, a 15th century ceiling panels from Andalusia Spain, Iznik pottery and tiles from Persia and Central Asia, and scientific instruments dating to the 18th century. Also on display are several pieces from the al-Sabah Collection's famed cache of Mughal jewelry in India, from the mid 16th to 17th century.
The al-Sabah Collection is widely recognized as the greatest holding of Mughal jewelry in the world, which visited the MFAH in 2003 during a world-wide tour. This includes a solid gold 100 Mohar presentation coin, weighing roughly 1 kilogram and one of only two in known existence. "This is a small exhibition but these objects explain and give a general idea of what is Islamic art. We have chosen different materials, ceramics, metals, textiles, just to show multiple sides of Islamic art and to dispel misperceptions," according to Dr. Giovanni Curatola, organizing curator with the DAI and professor of Islamic Archeology and Art History at the University of Udine, Italy told KUNA.
"People think Islamic art is only religious art. Yes, of course there is religion, but I am confident visitors to the exhibit will take away the extraordinary quality and refinement and the variety of objects and material in Islamic art, according to Curatola. "It is not less important than Chinese art or European art of the same period. It really is a great art and if you have a great art, you have a great civilization and a great society."

It took curators six months to bring the exhibit to Houston. Plans are underway to potentially launch exhibitions in Italy, Finland, South Korea and Singapore, where there are few Islamic art collections available to the public.
Sheikha Hussah, Director General of DAI, told KUNA in an exclusive interview that to this exhibit seeks to deepen cultural understanding in a place like Houston where there is no presentation of Islamic art. "Like all exhibitions, it expands beyond formal borders. You enter a world of culture that is not familiar to the people in Houston. But when they view it, they will find similarities and difference between what this exhibition represents and their own culture. And by trying to understand the another culture, one understands their own culture," Sheikha Hussah explained. "This exhibit is to allow people to enjoy, study, compare and learn. And it is for these reason that we are motivated to pieces of art from one part of the world to another." Sheikha Hussah expressed hope that this collection will help clarify Islam's negative association with religious extremism in the West. "People only hear about Islam associated with terrorists, they don't know Islam contributed to a lot of the Western civilization. So by looking at beautiful objects, it makes one feel like you want to learn more about the culture," Sheikha Hussah said. Certain pieces on display hold special meaning to her. Those that bear the scars of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in 1990, when Iraqi troops confiscated artifacts and treasures from Kuwait's National Museum and burned the facility to the ground. Most were later returned in 1991, but many were left damaged or broken.
"I call these the wounded pieces. These are the ones that were taken back to Baghdad and they left their marks by bad handling." One such object is a magnificent cobalt blue luster-painted frit ware jar from Damascus, Syria, dated in the 13th Century. "This is a star piece in the exhibit. You can see some chip on the sides, which tells a story of the occupation of Kuwait." Since that time, under Sheikha Hussah's leadership at the DAI, the collection has been displayed around the world, including London's British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York while awaiting the restoration of Kuwait's National Museum to be complete. It is projected to finish in 2015. Currently, the DAI holds regular lectures with scholars from top universities and art institutions from around the world, and other education events in Kuwait. Since the mid 1970s, Sheikha Hussah and her husband, Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, have cultivated one of the most extensive collections of Islamic art in the world, but she says it is not in collecting antiquities, rather the research and history behind every piece that she is most passionate about. She credits her husband for spurring her interest. "With every piece he brings home, he brings knowledge. I start to research the piece, to learn more about it. It is a learning process and that is the thing I love most, and the thing I like to transmit as well." During her visit to Texas to oversee the exhibition's opening, Sheikha Hussah visited Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush at his ranch for a social visit. The meeting was also attended by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, several officials from the MFAH and the director of exhibitions at the DAI, Abdulkareem Al-Ghadban. Sheikha Hussah said the 41st president appeared in good health, after being recently hospitalized for bronchitis.
"I was pleased to see he is good and his health is better," she said. "the visit was to call and show appreciation, for he spearheaded the liberation of Kuwait and we will never forget that.
"He looked at the catalogue of the exhibition and enjoyed it, and asking many questions," she noted.
The exhibition marks a new partnership with the DAI. The privately held al-Sabah Collection, one of the greatest collections of Islamic art in the world, will place some 60 objects, ranging from carpets, ceilings and architectural fragments to exquisite ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, scientific instruments and manuscripts, on long-term loan in a dedicated gallery at the MFAH.
The MFAH will be the exclusive American partner for the display of the many treasures from the al-Sabah collection. This collection, unveiled to the public on January 26, will mark an extraordinary agreement of cooperation between the two institutions. (end) si.hy.rk KUNA 261152 Jan 13NNNN