The opening of the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum in October 2018, prompted a public outpouring of delight in the media. Intrigued by the clamour I hastened a visit and can confirm the new galleries are indeed beautiful. Both feature – or so the curators tell me – roughly 1,500 objects, covering a far greater expanse of the world’s geography, and representing a more diverse range of Islamic cultures than the previous galleries. The new galleries are funded by the Albukhary Foundation, a non-profit organisation that promotes education and social and religious welfare.
Works by contemporary artists such as Rasheed Araeen, Issam Kourbaj, and Idris Khan stand alongside artworks from the Mughal court. A showcase featuring the arts of the book, such as calligraphy and illumination, from the Safavid and Mughal period is juxtaposed with a large wall case displaying contemporary artists’ books numbering, among others, the work of the early twentieth century Lebanese artist and writer Etel Adnan with the poetry of Nelly Salameh Amri about the Lebanese civil war, and the Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi from the same era whose work celebrates the Syrian poet Adonis writing about hunger and rage in Harlem. There is much in the labels and choice of objects that is new, unexpected, sensitively considered and also subtly subversive, as much as is possible while operating within the very strict confines of a large national institution.
The exhibition is accompanied by The Islamic World: A History in Objects, authored by the six curators, with over 400 illustrations. Great attention and sensitivity has been given to showcasing the strengths of the collection while balancing the need to present the range of cultures and forms of visual culture throughout the Islamic world. Refreshingly, the curators acknowledge in the introduction to The Islamic World, that both the terms ‘Islamic art’ and ‘Islamic world’ are recent constructs: