Arts / Marking the achievements of Islamic people

“O HUMANKIND!” chapter 49 of the Holy Koran says: “Surely, we have created you from a single pair of male and female and made you into tribes and families so that you may know one another.”

Qing Dynasty cloisonné vase with Islamic inscriptions, early 18th century. Vatican Anima Mundi Museum

It’s the surest possible indication that for Muslims, the ultimate purpose of society is knowledge and communication, not division and dispute and with that in mind, the National Museum of Australia has picked up a remarkable international exhibition and turned it into its own.

Largely comprised of artefacts from the Vatican Anima Mundi Museum and the Sharjah Museums Authority, the show features more than 100 objects marking the achievements of Muslim people around the world, capturing their daily lives, customs and spirituality in textiles and clothing, musical instruments, ceramics and jewellery.

There are no prizes for guessing at the museum’s intent. The rise of Islam in Australia and the all-too-common dismissal of Muslims as “terrorists”, means that knowing one another and knowing about Islam is now essential for Australians of all faith.
It’s likely to be popular, says senior curator Carol Cooper, but it’s not dumbed-down. Nor is it a “treasures” show. Some of the objects, she says, are humble – a girl’s dress, a hookah and an exquisitely crafted saddle.

Moroccan gimbri or lotar (lute) late 19th-early 20th century. Vatican Anima Mundi Museum.

Some items are not commonplace. For instance, there is a remarkable fragment from a “Kiswah”, the black covering of the Ka’ba in Mecca, central point in the Muslim Haj, or pilgrimage. That single item had one devout Muslim “shivering all over” at the very sight of the cloth, Cooper says.

Muslims, of course, have been living in Australia since its very earliest days, evident in the many Muslim names that permeate our older Australian communities. With this and the theme in mind, she and co-curator, ANU Islamic scholar Katherine Aigner, have extended the exhibition from its origins to include sections on two of the Muslim peoples who have most impacted upon Australian life.

These are the Afghan (actually, mostly Pakistani) cameleers whose routes formed the basis of our great desert roads and the Macassan traders, the “trepang” (sea cucumber) fishermen who have intermarried with Arnhem Land communities for centuries.

Bejah Dervish, cameleer, 1953, by Noelle Sandwith. NMA

As the exhibition will show, through art we even know what the most famous cameleer, Bejah Dervish, looks like from a portrait by English artist Noelle Sandwith. And the Macassans have long been pictured in bark paintings of the far north. The Australian “modules”, Cooper believes, work well within our shorter time dimension.
The original exhibition “So That You Might Know Each Other“ doesn’t originate from Australia, but from the Vatican Museums’ Anima Mundi – Peoples, Art and Cultures collection.

The collection, formerly the Ethnological Museum, was strengthened by Pope Pius XI in 1924-25 when he hosted the Universal Missionary Exposition of more than 100,000 items, designed to demonstrate the value of non-European artistic and religious expressions. Much of the work on show at the NMA was displayed there.

After the exposition, 40,000 items remained in Rome until, in 2014, the Vatican got together with Sharjah Museums Authority in the Gulf to stage the exhibition at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisations. This is the basis of the present show.
The exhibition testifies to the diversity of Islamic cultures. Very much like Catholicism, Islam absorbed art and social practices wherever it went – demonstrated in the Silk Road exhibition at the NMA some years ago.

Makassar boiling down trepan, 1964. Bark painting by Mathaman Marika, Rirratjingu Clan, Yolngu people. NMA

The show encompasses artefacts from Morocco, Ghana, Iran, Indonesia and China as well as the heartland of the monotheistic religion that swept the world after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD.
Cooper and Aigner are keen about the potential for interfaith dialogue that the exhibition presents, and have talked to Islamic leaders and identities, such as Prof Amin Saikal at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the ANU. NMA staff even went to Friday prayers at the Canberra Mosque recently and were amazed to find there were 1000 people praying.

Cooper says the quotation from the Koran that forms the title of the show sums up its ultimate purpose – “to reach out to people so they can learn about respect”.

“So That You Might Know Each Other”, National Museum of Australia, April 20-July 22, free admission.

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