Samuel Huntington got it wrong, at least when it comes to art. Civilizations don't clash, but share and mutually inspire. So argues "Beyond Orientalism," an exhibition opening on July 25 at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) in Kuala Lumpur, www.iamm.org.my. The show examines Islamic art's impact on Western artists, highlighting how Islamic calligraphy, tile designs, and geometrical motifs pop up in the most unlikely places, from Tiffany lamps — some of which drew on 16th century Persian works — to the art of M.C. Escher, whose elaborate drawings of endless staircases and interlocking patterns were apparently inspired by Islamic designs.
Although the debt owed to Islamic art by painters like Henri Matisse and Paul Klee is well documented, Muslim influence on Western aesthetics began far earlier, says the curator of "Beyond Orientalism," Lucien de Guise. The Muslim domination of Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries enabled the transmission of advanced artistic and architectural techniques — as well as great accomplishments in music, science, philosophy and even cuisine. Until the industrial era, when interest in Islamic arts declined in the West, "Europeans were totally in awe of Islamic art," argues de Guise. "They couldn't get enough of it."
Bringing marginalized or forgotten traditions to light is something of an IAMM speciality. "Faith and Power," an exhibit on women in Islam earlier this year, unearthed the history of Muslim women as fighters, rulers and scholars. On the wall at the exhibit's close, a quote from Megawati Sukarnoputri, who in 2001 became Indonesia's first female President, read: "It appears that I am considered to be a housewife? What's wrong with that? It does not mean a housewife does not understand politics."
The museum itself, opened by the Malaysian government 10 years ago, focuses not so much on Islam's traditional heartland in the Middle East as on its Asian domains, the works of which are often overlooked in Islamic-art collections. Among the IAMM's standouts is a rare 19th century Koran, made for a Malay sultan with lashings of gold illumination. Precious, too, are the Chinese calligraphic wall scrolls with Koranic quotations — not merely because paper scrolls rarely last, but because so many were buried by fearful Muslims or destroyed by Maoists during the Cultural Revolution. Several are testimony to the fusion of Chinese and Islamic artistic traditions, bearing inscriptions that from a distance look like the traditional Chinese characters meaning "long life" but turn out to be Koranic inscriptions when viewed up close.
The IAMM is a gorgeous monument to the porous qualities of Islamic culture. With its elegant restaurant, storytelling sessions for children and calligraphy workshops, the museum is a neat expression of Islam Hadhari, or "civilizational Islam," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's campaign to promote a moderate, modern version of the faith. Designed by Italian and Malaysian architects, the building is a bright, white and sleek place, with fountains, courtyards and a huge inverted gold-and-white dome hanging from the ceiling. "We wanted natural light, to make the place seem open and inviting, especially for non-Muslims," says de Guise. There, civilizations are far from clashing. Instead, they gently nestle up against one another, surprising and delighting as they do so.
By Carla Power