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Tell us about the magnificent room we are in…

Tell us about the magnificent room we are in…

(Dp-news - Christies) Rebecca Gibson talks to Sara Plumbly, Islamic Art Specialist about tughras, calligraphic seals or signatures of Ottoman sultans that were affixed to all official documents , her love of language and growing up in the Middle East.


Tell us about the magnificent room we are in…
This room is from Damascus, Syria and dates from the early 19th century. It would originally have stood about 60-80cm. off the ground, the lower wall possibly set with marble mosaic. Although it is unclear exactly who the room was made for, there are a number of tughras, normally seals of Ottoman Sultans, on the cornices which give the name of ‘Abd al-Qadir Jilani who was the founder of the Qadiriya tariqa, one of the oldest Sufi religious orders. He died in the 12th century, but the presence of these tughras suggests that the room probably had a place in the house of an important Sufi figure and a member of the Qadiriya order. Interestingly, the majority of the tughras here are inverted possibly suggesting that they were conceived to be viewed through the multiple mirrors inset in the walls.

Why Islamic art?
I was exposed to Islamic art from a very young age. Growing up I spent a lot of time in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. I did my undergraduate degree in Arabic and I suppose it was really the language that brought me into contact with the art and history of the Islamic world. My year abroad spent living in Egypt as part of my language training really opened my eyes to the arts. Alongside my studies I also spent that year working in the Gayer Anderson Museum in Cairo, which is a wonderfully preserved example of 17th domestic architecture that sits right next to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun at the heart of Islamic Cairo.


Islamic art dates back to the dawn of civilization. Where does a newcomer to the category start?
The most important thing to point out here is that of course Islamic art does not date back to the dawn of civilization! Islam is the most modern of the great world religions and its culture and practices draw a lot on those of others. The first thing that springs to mind when most people think of Islamic art is, I imagine, the absence of figural imagery. Although not always the case, because of sensitivities associated with depicting figures in a religious context there is a certain emphasis put on the line, whether this be in the context of calligraphy, geometry or other types of surface decoration. I think that an appreciation of this is something which a newcomer to the field must begin with.


Tell us about a piece of islamic art that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up…
I suppose my favorite monument in Cairo, which I visit every time I go back. It is the Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan which was built between 1356 and 1363 and which stands just below the Citadel. It is a breathtaking masterpiece of Mamluk architecture. It is as refined in detail as it is impressive in scale. The sense of serenity one gets walking through the monumental portal is a sharp and sometimes welcome contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Cairene streets. In the 19th century, the Mosque of al-Rifa’i was built just next to it, the government’s attempt to associate themselves with the perceived glory of earlier periods and seek legitimacy and support in the face of increasing British control.


A Contemporary art specialist might say their favourite artist is Jasper Johns whilst an Old Master picture specialist might say Rembrandt. What would an Islamic art specialist say?
The anonymous artist! There are of course a number of celebrated masters in particular fields within Islamic art - Yaqut al-Mustasimi for example in the field of calligraphy, Sinan for architecture, or Muhammad bin al-Zayn in metalwork. However, in our field so little comes signed and/or dated that you first look not for names, but for the qualities of the piece itself. You come to appreciate works of art not for the name which they bear, but for other factors including its rarity, its condition, its beauty…
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