Keir Collection of Islamic Art shines at Dallas Museum of Art

Sunday 02/07/2017
Priceless. Crystal ewer from the Keir Collection. (Courtesy of DMA)

Washington - At dinner in London a few years ago, Sabiha al-Khemir announced her appointment as the first senior adviser for Islamic art at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). A colleague laughed. Didn’t Khemir know there was no Islamic art in Texas?
Khemir said she knew that if she went to Dallas there would be Islamic art. A native of Tunisia, she was founding director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, which opened in 2008. She is a writer, illustrator and scholar whose self-professed goal is to build bridges between cultures. Early in her career, she served as a consultant to the seminal ex­hibit Al-Andalus: The Art of Is­lamic Spain, which showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992.
This past April, Khemir and the DMA opened a gallery for rotating exhibits from the Keir Collection, one of the most historically and geographically comprehensive pri­vate holdings of Islamic art.
“For me, it was such a personal thing. I didn’t have peace until I got the Keir Collection to the mu­seum,” Khemir said. In the United States, only the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington house more Islamic art than the DMA.
Khemir negotiated a 15-year loan from Richard de Unger, whose fa­ther, Edmund, started acquiring Islamic art in the 1950s after immi­grating to England from Hungary. He named the collection after Keir on Wimbledon Common, his first home in London. The collection in­cludes approximately 2,000 treas­ures and is particularly known for its lustre ceramic ware and carved rock crystal. The DMA plans to ex­hibit 150 pieces at a time. Most of the art has never been shown in a museum setting.
Intentionally located just past the information desk on the first floor, visitors cannot miss the gal­lery. Light fills the rooms. Spe­cialists and newbies, locals and tourists journey past Quranic manuscripts; Persian miniature paintings and a priceless rock crystal ewer to a room full of lus­treware set in a solar pattern. The gallery features textiles, Edmund de Unger’s first interest. Designers organised the works by medium, then theme, such as Islam’s influ­ence on the West’s renaissance.
“The balance, proportion, refine­ment and elegance of the gallery makes you go quiet. A guard told me he’d be happy to be locked in at night,” said Khemir, who said she often roams the gallery incognito. She found a woman mumbling to herself in French, surprised that Dallas had Islamic art. Spiritually moved, an Iranian doctoral stu­dent burst into tears.
Even Richard de Unger, a spe­cialist in his own right, was left lost for words.
“As president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Dallas/ Fort Worth, I have had the privi­lege of taking a number of Arabs through the collection,” said Jim Falk, who supported bringing the masterpieces to Texas, which has the fifth largest population of Mus­lims in the United States.
“Their surprise is uniform. The fact that the collection spans so many countries and ages is rare and gives even people from the re­gion a greater appreciation of their history and civilisation,” Falk said.
Most visitors head for the rock crystal ewer from the Fatimid period (909-1171) of Egypt. They take a magnifying glass next to the case and peer into one of the ewer’s carved roundels. No matter which spot they choose, they see reflected the splendid cheetah that dominates the surface of the ewer. Experts are still trying to figure out how its creator accomplished the feat. At the time, scientists and art­ists in the area were fascinated by light and optics.
“The ewer reminds us that we don’t see everything visible,” Khemir said.
The same could be said for one of her favourite pieces, the Homb­erg ewer made in Syria in 1242 by Ahmad al-Dhaki, a metalworker from Mosul in present-day Iraq. Brass inlaid with silver, it features scenes of Islamic courtly life on the upper half and Christian saints and clergy on the lower. It embodies the cultural diversity of Iraq. If you remove one part of the ewer or the country, you destroy what it was.
“What creates fear is not know­ing,” Khemir said. “I think what the gallery is trying to do is to open the eye and the heart. We didn’t plan to open the exhibit in an an­ti-Muslim context but it’s all the more helpful and needed now. We need to put a face to Islamic histo­ry and the centuries of beauty that spilled out to Europe and all over.
“We must get to know the other and stop talking about Islamic cul­ture without really knowing what it is.”