It’s probably not too early to predict the biggest art-world happening of 2019. It also happens to be the best – and the most Malaysian. While the world has been absorbed in the watch and jewellery collecting habits of the nation’s first couple, something much more creditable has crept up on the six million annual visitors to the British Museum. Its newly-opened gallery of Islamic art is large in terms of size, and massive in terms of message.
The name of the new gallery is not immediately recognisable to the British public but is pretty much in the household category for Malaysians. ‘The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World’ is the most visible project of the Yayasan Albukhary so far. This venture, which was previewed by Tun Mahathir a few weeks ago, is now open to all, and at no charge.
The new name will be no more mysterious than the old one for the previous Islamic art gallery: the John Addis Gallery, in honour of a little-known British diplomat. John Addis meant a lot to the British Museum, as he gave them his collection, but the Albukhary name is known to more visitors than Mr Addis’.
The British Museum is the latest in a line of top institutions to overhaul its approach to Islamic art. In a show of how the world is changing, every new sponsor’s name on display is Muslim. The Victoria and Albert Museum got the game going with its Jameel Galley of Islamic Art, opened in 2006 by no less an enthusiast than the Prince of Wales. Curiously, the name has been pared down to the Jameel Gallery over the years, although the museum hasn’t removed the old sign with its original name. Did they change it because it was too long or because the ‘Islamic’ word became more contentious?
Saudi Arabia has also become more contentious in recent weeks. The Jameel family are from that country and are also sponsors of the world’s number-one prize for contemporary artists inspired by Islamic tradition.
After the V&A came the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which emerged from its 10-year refurbishment with the unwieldy but geographically precise, ‘Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia’. The old galleries were closed down after the 911 bombings, which at the time seemed an unfair punishment handed out by a city that had just gone through the attack. In the end, the new galleries were an admirable tribute to different Islamic cultures.
Among the most prominent areas of this enormous space are two Koc Family Galleries, after a substantial gift from the Vehbi Koc Foundation in Istanbul. In Turkey this is an inescapable name, but as with Albukhary it is less well known outside its homeland. Long ago, benefactors of this part of the Met included J.P. Morgan and William Randolph Hearst.
Then came the Louvre museum in Paris, whose astonishing reworked Islamic galleries were funded largely by another Saudi, Prince Waleed Bin Talal.
What do all the new names have in common? They have as much money as the old American robber barons but happen to be Muslim. They are also proud and positive about Islamic culture in its many manifestations and would like Muslims and non-Muslims alike to appreciate 1,400 years of creativity rather than sporadic incidents of destructiveness.
At the same time as all this goodwill is being shown to leading Western institutions, museums of Islamic art have been springing up around the world. These are mainly in the Gulf, but also as far apart as Malaysia and Canada – where the Aga Khan placed his collection in 2014 after the UK authorities got cold feet about his planned purchase of a disused hospital. London’s loss became Toronto’s gain, and the Aga Khan Museum is still the only dedicated museum of Islamic art in North America. It’s unlikely that D.J. Trump will be rushing to rival Canada on this one. In the meantime, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia has become one of the most venerable of these institutions, about to celebrate its 20thanniversary.
Apart from being ambassadors of Islamic heritage, what all these projects have in common is that they are lovely to look at. There is not a carbuncle in sight, which might be why enlightened Western art lovers, such as Prince Charles, remain committed to the aesthetics of Islam. His Royal Highness has in the past referred to certain modern buildings as carbuncles, but he won’t be doing that with any of the Islamic venues. Most of these have either used the most impeccable young talent or brought highly esteemed oldies, such as I.M. Pei, out of retirement for a massive pension bonus.
The newcomer at the British Museum is the most stunning so far. For once there is a consensus in the UK media and no doubt beyond. Art reviewers in that country are not the friendly, encouraging bunch you’ll find in Malaysia. The last thing you would expect them to be unanimous in is their praise of an Islamic-art gallery.
For the first time that I’ve observed, the star ratings keep getting higher. It’s like a West End musical that appeals to everyone – an unheard-of phenomenon. One of the hardest-to-please of all the reviewers is in The Guardian, and he called it “a miracle”. An exceptional compliment from an atheist.
WHAT: The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World
WHERE: The British Museum, Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London