New MFA Houston Islamic art galleries opening

Building upon a historic, decade-long collaboration with the renowned al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, which has brought hundreds of objects of Islamic art on extended loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Museum will mark the 10th anniversary of that initiative by opening new, permanent galleries for Art of the Islamic Worlds on March 5, 2023. The new MFA Houston Islamic art galleries have been endowed by collector Hossein Afshar and will present for the first time the full extent of MFA Houston holdings in Islamic art with an extensive selection of Iranian masterworks on long-term loan from the Afshar Collection.

Carefully assembled over the past 50 years, the distinguished Afshar Collection conveys the rich artistic traditions of Iranian civilization from the 7th to 19th century, in several hundred exquisite paintings, significant ceramics, precious inlaid metal ware, and finely woven silk fabrics and carpets.

The MFA Houston has devoted permanent gallery space to Islamic art for more than a decade, and the new MFA Houston Islamic art galleries nearly double previous display space for Islamic art. Hundreds of objects—exquisite paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, carpets, and metalwork spanning more than 1,000 years—will reflect the breadth of historic Islamic lands, including present- day Morocco, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Türkiye, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

The opening of the new MFA Islamic art galleries culminates a major, longtime initiative at the MFAH to develop special exhibitions, new scholarship, signature acquisitions, and dynamic public programs in Islamic art. The extended loans from the Afshar Collection are the second such partnership initiated by the Museum; the first was the 2012 landmark agreement with The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, which has placed several hundred objects from that exceptional collection of art from Islamic lands on extended loan to the MFAH.

“Encompassing diverse cultures, ethnicities, languages, and regional traditions, this new presentation, with the Museum’s own growing collection paired for the first time with the Hossein Afshar Collection, will convey the extraordinarily vibrant contributions and legacies of Islamic civilizations,” Aimée Froom, curator, Art of the Islamic Worlds at the MFAH, said

The New Hossein Afshar Galleries for Art of the Islamic Worlds

Installation view of the new Hossein Afshar Galleries for Art of the Islamic Worlds at the 
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Installation view of the new Hossein Afshar Galleries for Art of the Islamic Worlds at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photograph by Richard Barnes.

With nearly 6,000 square feet of space, which includes the eventual use of an adjoining garden, the new presentation will highlight a trove of major, and in many cases rare objects never before displayed in such depth. The Museum will be able to show, for the first time, the full strengths of its own Islamic art collections, and the extraordinary range of Iranian art from the Hossein Afshar Collection.

Highlighting the similarities and diversity of the art across cultures, communities, regions, and time, the MFA Houston Islamic art presentation is organized into six galleries that outline fundamental aspects of Islamic art.

Gallery 1: Introduction to Art of the Islamic Worlds

The introductory gallery highlights enduring themes within Islamic art across a range of manuscripts, metalwork, ceramics, and textiles: calligraphy as the highest art form; intricate, recurring patterns of geometric and floral forms; and the splendor of objects from daily and courtly life across Iran, Syria, Türkiye, Spain, North Africa, and South Asia.

Galleries 2 and 3: Early and Later Iranian Art from the Hossein Afshar Collection

Across these two galleries, the Afshar Collection reveals the stories told by the exquisite paintings from the pages of the Persian national epic, the Shahnama (Book of Kings); large-scale oil paintings; exquisite luster ceramics; and monumental silk carpets from the apex of Safavid carpet production.

Exploring universal themes of faith and piety, feasting and fighting, love and longing, kingship and authority, and earth and nature, these galleries also convey the role of trade, migration, and cultural exchange in the development of the arts of Iran, highlighting its importance to artistic and technological advancements in Islamic lands and beyond.

Gallery 4: Sacred and Secular Arts of the Book

Intricately illuminated Qur’an manuscripts, illustrated histories, single-page paintings, and book covers from across historical Islamic lands are presented in this gallery, along with sumptuous accessories and calligraphers’ tools, including lacquer pen cases, inlaid scribes’ boxes, inscribed scissors, and ceramic sand shakers.

Gallery 5: Blue and White between China and Iran

The stonepaste plates, bowls, bottles, and trays on view in this gallery reflect the significant, yet understudied, contribution of Persian ceramics to the world history of ceramics. The story of blue and white ceramics began more than 1,300 years ago on the long-distance trade routes connecting East Asia and Islamic lands, where rare, Persian blues—cobalt, lapis lazuli, and turquoise—were used locally on Persian ceramics and exported globally.

Gallery 6: The Fabric of Life: Textiles and Carpets of Islamic Lands

Magnificent carpets and textiles, as well as paintings and garments, provide a glimpse into the everyday presence of these woven treasures. An integral part of daily life, the art of weaving prospered especially in the wool-, silk-, and cotton-producing regions of Islamic lands. Textiles and carpets also played a significant role in sacred and secular ceremonies, as well as in economic trade.

The March 5, 2023, opening of the new MFA Houston Islamic art Art of the Islamic Worlds galleries marks more than 15 years since the launch of the AIW initiative at the MFAH. The effort was established in 2007 by a patron group unique to Houston: philanthropists with strong cultural-heritage links to historically Islamic lands, who have committed to supporting acquisitions of Islamic art across centuries and cultures—from North Africa to China; Central Asia to South Asia.

Since the initiative’s start, more than a decade of exhibitions, acquisitions, scholarly research, and international collaboration has brought the achievements of Islamic artistic traditions to Houston and global audiences. Central to this initiative have been landmark partnerships that have placed two distinguished private collections of art from Islamic lands on long-term loan to the MFAH: The al-Sabah Collection and the Hossein Afshar Collection.

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