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Entertainment & Arts

LACMA exhibit ‘Gifts of the Sultan’ shows the art of gift giving in the Islamic world

The Mogul emperor Shah Jahan sits cross-legged, in three-quarters profile, wearing a magnificent purple robe, jewels draped around his neck, a gold cloth wrapped around his head. His fine features are set off by a full beard and a slight smile. The emperor, who ruled India for 30 years and built the Taj Mahal, sits in the center of a busy painting, a constellation of supplicants swirling around him like planets orbiting a star.

The small but lovely picture, no bigger than a laptop screen, depicts the Persian Ambassador Muhammad Ali Beg offering tribute to Shah Jahan. Courtiers and soldiers flank a gilded throne, while at the bottom of the painting a parade of bearers lifts trays of gifts for the emperor’s dilection.

Those gifts — and the act of giving — are the subject of a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art running through Sept. 5. Called “Gifts of the Sultan,” the show brings together artifacts from 40 institutions, as far afield as Paris and Doha, Qatar, including reuniting manuscript pages that had been cut up and sold to collectors.

“It’s the first exhibition I’ve conceived post 9/11,” says LACMA curator Linda Komaroff. “I was interested in a universal theme that wouldn’t just apply to Islamic art. Islamic art isn’t an easy topic in general to digest. The average person isn’t familiar with it. But gift giving is something we understand.” (Several dozen works from Russia planned for the show won’t be seen because of a continuing legal dispute over Russian loans.)

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The picture of Shah Jahan, which comes from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, is a good example. It depicts the act of giving and was itself a gift to the House of Windsor from India. The show brings together an eclectic array of gifts, more than 200 works, including jewelry and textiles, spanning 11 centuries and a wide range of geography and culture.

To say that gifts were important to Islamic court rituals is an understatement. It takes two pages for a painter to show the line of presenters sent by a Persian shah to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1567. The official reason for the visit was diplomatic: The shah wanted to wish the new sultan well, so he dispatched a procession of 700 ambassadors and 34 camels piled high with treasure.

But below the surface, the presentation communicated other meanings. The Persian offerings included a priceless old illustrated Koran that served to stress the dynastic and religious legitimacy of the Shiite Iranians, compared with the upstart Sunni Ottomans. The Turks, on the other hand, were the new superpower in the Mediterranean world. The Persian ambassador is painted prostrating himself before the sultan; the ambassador and his entourage are already wearing robes given to them by the Turks, a gift that underscores the submissive nature of the diplomatic mission.

“Gift giving was a fundamental activity for the great Islamic courts,” writes Komaroff in the catalog, “not only for diplomatic and political purposes, as reward for services rendered, or to celebrate annual events like the New Year or more personal occasions such as weddings, birthdays and circumcisions, but also as expressions of piety.

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“Gift giving to further princely ambitions or diplomatic goals, to seal peace treaties, to promote devotion, or reward loyalty was integral to maintaining a vast network of personal, political, economic and religious relationships, and rare, costly and aesthetically pleasing objects were at its core.”

The show is organized in three sections. First there are personal gifts, such as jewelry and garments and books. A pair of gold bracelets, for instance, dating from the 11th century display fine craftsmanship, especially on the top where a diamond-shaped area is decorated with concentric triangles of curlicues.

The second features religious gifts, such as a glass lamp made in the 14th century for a madrasa (a religious school) in Egypt. The lovely hourglass-shaped lamp is a pale coral color with a beautifully styled Arabic inscription praying for the glory of the sultan who commissioned the work.

The third and largest section exhibits pieces made for royal treasuries and often given as diplomatic tokens of good will. The Ottomans, for example, sent Catherine the Great a silk and gold-embroidered tent.

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Many of the royal courts kept records of what the gifts were worth — both those given and those received. “The price mattered,” Komaroff says. “It’s like when people give wedding gifts today: They often think about what they received. The ruler would generally try to outdo what his fellow ruler sent him — unless he was annoyed by him.”

The museum also invited three contemporary artists from Islamic countries to create works exploring the theme of giving. Shahzia Sikander, for instance, was born in Pakistan, where she studied traditional Indo-Persian miniature painting before moving to the U.S. For the exhibit she created a large-scale painting inscribed with verse from an Urdu poet.

And LACMA reached into its own treasury for items such as the Ardabil Carpet, a fragile work of densely knotted silk and wool that is infrequently displayed. Considered one of the finest examples of Persian rugs ever created, the fantastically ornate 16th century carpet was made as a matched pair in the royal workshop of Safavid Shah Tahmasp I.

Given to a mosque in Ardabil, Iran, the carpets were seriously damaged, eventually sold and refurbished. One rug wound up in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. J. Paul Getty purchased the second and — fittingly — gave it as a gift to LACMA.

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