Sultans of Swag

By Harvey, Doug | Humanities, July/August 2011 | Go to article overview

Sultans of Swag


Harvey, Doug, Humanities


On The Gift, Lewis Hyde's classic 1983 study of the anthropological intricacies of gift-giving, the author equates this fundamentally social act with the very art-making, asserting that our connection to the constantly renewed waters of creativity is carried in the fragile and intricate interpersonal choreographies that determine an artwork' s movement from one hand to another. "A work of art is a gift, not a commodity/' he neatly summarizes; "where there is no gift there is no art."

In the late nineteenth century, when Kaiser Wilhelm ? wanted to cement Germany's diplomatic relations with the fading Ottoman Empire, he arrived bearing gifts, including a jewel-encrusted gold pocket watch decorated with a rniniature portrait of himself, a large rococo clock, two nine-branch candelabra, and, a little later on, one of his personal state-of-the-art revolvers, complete with jewel-encrusted ivory handle. Not to be outdone, His Imperial Majesty, Abdülhamid U, the thirty-fourth Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, not only reciprocated with a variety of obligatory jewel-encrusted artifacts, but crated up thé entire elaborately carved decorative limestone façade of the eighthcentury Umayyad Caliphate palace of Mshatta - a recently excavated (in what is now Jordan) archaeological treasure of incalculable value, and perhaps the most munificent personal gift in recorded history. Certainly the heaviest shipped internationally.

The residue of this relationship - ^including the slightly surreal revolver with its diamond "W" monogram and a single monumental rosette from the Mshatta façade - make up just a small portion of "Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts." This ambitious and curatorially innovative exhibition assembles more than 225 works of art from America, Europe, and the Middle East into an engaging mosaic currently on view at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Muséum of Art). Next it travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for display in the fall of 2011, then on to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, for Spring 2012.

The basic idea is to examine more than a millennium's worth of the history of Islam and Islamic art through a very specific social lens. "We hope that 'Gifts of the Sultan' will introduce new audiences to Islamic art by focusing on a practice shared by all cultures - gift exchange," said Linda Komaroff, exhibition curator and LACMA curator of Islamic Art. While this appears at first to be a simple and elegant method for spotlighting some of the greatest achievements of artists and craftsmen throughout the Islamic world - like most cultures, Islam puts on its best aesthetic face for courtship and the reception of honored guests - it reveals the complex social circumstances underlying the creation and circulation of most artworks.

The decades-long, jewel-encrusted one-upmanship between Kaiser Bill and Abdülhamid II, for example, served as stage dressing for an intricate political negotiation involving German military advisers and the Baghdad Railway - a web of intrigue whose fallout extended to the Armenian genocide and World War L A radiant green velvet kaftan from sixteenth-century Iran is embossed with elaborate silver embroidery in an ornate geometric latticework studded with taboo figurative cameos - which may have been a deliberately provocative gesture when gifted by the Shah Muhammad Khudabandah to Ottoman Sultan Murad ??, as it was given in the middle of a war in which Iran lost substantial territory to the Ottomans. Why send an offensive bathrobe to a foe who's busy pumméling your armies? Plus Muhammad Shah was almost blind. What was going on here? Sometimes the negative spaces can be as compelling as the pattern itself.

Two impressive, large-scale, oil-on-canvas portraits of Fath 'Ali Shah· - the ruler Of Persia during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - testify to his court's remarkable patronage of the arts, but also to his desperation to form alliances with England and France in the wake of Russia's aggressive annexation of Georgia. …

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