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THE NATURE OF ISLAMIC ORNAMENT, PART IV: FIGURAL REPRESENTATION

September 16, 1999 - January 2, 2000

One of the most misunderstood aspects of Islamic art is its supposed ban on figural representation. In fact — and surprising to many people — figural imagery is relatively common during many periods in various Islamic cultures. A special exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 1999 will examine these traditions and the variety of figural forms found in Islamic art, as well as the religious issues involved and the resultant tendency toward greater abstraction in ornamentation.

Approximately 30 objects in various media, drawn primarily from the Metropolitan Museum's own holdings and all featuring some form of figural decoration, will be seen in the exhibition The Nature of Islamic Ornament, Part IV: Figural Representation. The final exhibition in a four-part series on Islamic ornament dating from the 8th to the 18th century, it will be on view from mid-September 1999 through January 2000. The previous three exhibitions in this series have focused on other important components of Islamic ornament: calligraphy, vegetal patterns, and geometric patterns.

The exhibition is made possible by the Hagop Kevorkian Fund.

Objects featured in the exhibition will demonstrate the differing degrees to which figural representation was incorporated into the art of Islamic cultures. An early Islamic textile from Egypt, never before exhibited, demonstrates the continuity of tradition from pre-Islamic into early Islamic times. While the technique, materials, and pattern of the piece suggest pre-Islamic preferences, the highly stylized depiction of a large-eyed figure in the border cartouche links this textile to early Islamic tendencies toward abstraction.

In medieval times, in territories ruled by the Turkic Seljuqs and their successors, objects were frequently decorated with figural motifs. Always formal and stylized, some of these figures relate to specific stories from legend and literature. More frequently, however, as in the depictions of princely activities on a brilliant blue bowl from 12th- to 13th-century Persia, the imagery is of a more general nature.

A 17th-century dagger, whose nephrite handle terminates in the beautifully modeled head of a nilgai, or blue bull, will also be on view. This splendid artifact illustrates an emphasis on naturalistic representation — unusual in the Islamic world — that nevertheless prevailed in India under the Mughals.

The Nature of Islamic Ornament, Part IV: Figural Patterns is organized by Daniel Walker, the Patti Cadby Birch Curator in the Department of Islamic Art.

Educational programs
A variety of educational programs, including lectures and gallery talks for general visitors, will be available in conjunction with the exhibition.

Related exhibitions
The Nature of Islamic Ornament, Part I: Calligraphy was exhibited from February 28 through June 28, 1998, and Part II: Vegetal Patterns from September 10, 1998, through January 10, 1999. Part III: Geometric Patterns will be on view from March 17 through July 18, 1999.

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January 11, 1999

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