The Arts of Islam: Treasures from the Nasser D Khalili Collection, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi

Islamic art for the well-heeled
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The Independent Culture

Black gold makes things happen. In Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a new cultural quarter is in the making on Saadiyat Island, 500 metres off the mainland. The new museum-projects alone almost beggar belief. A few weeks ago Norman Foster won the contract to build the Sheikh Zayed National Museum. Tadao Ando is hard at work on a new maritime museum. Zaha Hadid is building a performing-arts centre, which will house five theatres. Frank Gehry is constructing what looks like a characteristically gleeful medley of lurching, tumbling cones, which will shortly turn into a local Guggenheim. And Jean Nouvel's new outpost of the Louvre, a building with a roof that resembles a sleek, circular, glass disc, will be jostling nearby for attention too.

Internationalism will go a long way to satisfy many, but what about those visitors and locals who, when staying in an Islamic country, may want to be reminded of the long heritage of Islam? The Emirates Palace is currently catering for that need with the first showing in the Middle East of 500 or so works from the Nasser D Khalili collection of Islamic art. Khalili is an Iranian Jew who has long believed that art has an important role to play as a conciliator, bringing nations and religions together.

The exhibition, which picks and chooses from a sprawling collection that now contains about 20,000 objects, has two great strengths – it gives us a thorough overview of the arts of the sacred book, and it shows us some of the greatest treasures from Mughal India: jewellery, paintings, and even the finest horse trappings. The Mughal emperors were besotted by horses and horsemanship. There is much else in between too, but the most dazzling objects are in these areas.

From the eighth century onwards, the spread of Islam was rapid and wide – from Spain in the West to Northern Africa, and then as far East as Afghanistan, India and China. Many dynasties came and went. The conquerors brought their own ways of making, and absorbed the local traditions too. What intrigues is to witness, again and again, how the local remains in fruitful dialogue with that which has been imported. Islamic art is by no means an art concerned exclusively with the sacred, though the sacred dominates the first half of this show. It also consists of the secular arts of opulent courts.

There is human representation aplenty, and much glorying and luxuriating in the sensual pleasures of life on earth – see, for example, a marvellous 18th-century painting from Mughal India of the Maharana Sangram Singh of Mewar out hunting on his horse, Jambudvipa, thronged by loyal retainers bearing fly-whisks, a fan, muskets in brocade bags, the parasol of state, and, perhaps most important of all, a hookah. Sangram Singh himself, head illumined by a halo, leans back on his horse, idly luxuriant, smoking with the utmost composure.

Return now to the first galleries of the exhibition, and to the comprehensive display of the arts of the book, which shows us the intricacy and changeability of Islamic calligraphy. Here we see single folios, entire Korans – some, which might have been tucked inside a turban and served as an amulet, are almost small enough to fit into the palm of a human hand. They span almost a thousand years of the most intense muscular concentration. The scripts change from example to example, often in the subtlest of ways, and when the format demands it. And when the space demands it – Islamic calligraphy was always being used to decorate sacred buildings.

For a fine overview, look at an album of calligraphic specimens from late 17th-century India, commissioned by Awrangzeb (1658-1707), an emperor of unimpeachable Muslin orthodoxy.

The enamelling looks like beaten gold. Goodness knows how many pairs of human eyes were worn out in the fight to make this work as elegantly restrained as possible.

This exhibition causes unease for one reason. Khalili sees himself as an educator – you do not have to pay to see this exhibition. But to site it in a hotel of such overbearing opulence is scarcely an invitation to any but the well-heeled.

To 22 April (00 971 2690 8206; www.artsabudhabi.com)

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