Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art Will Present an Exhibition on Textiles and Paintings From 17th-Century Iran in Celebration of Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture

“Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha” Will be on View Dec. 18 Through May 15, 2022
December 14, 2021
News Release

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Floral textile with portrait of well-dressed man

For the first time in the United States, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art can enjoy an exceptional group of 17th-century textiles and full-length oil portraits from Safavid Iran (1501–1722), on loan from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Complemented by some of the finest illustrated manuscript paintings from the collection of the National Museum of Asian Art, “Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha” underscores the importance of silk in the social, economic and religious life of 17th-century Iran and its role in positioning the empire at the nexus of a vibrant global exchange.

“We are delighted to welcome visitors to this landmark exhibition that tells such a poignant story of global and artistic exchange,” said Chase F. Robinson, the museum’s Dame Jillian Sackler Director. “We are especially proud to highlight for the public the rich artistic traditions of the Safavid empire, which ruled for over 200 years and under which Iran became a great cultural center. Painting, ceramics, textiles and carpets, as well as architecture, poetry and philosophy reached new levels of excellence under Safavid patronage.”

“For the exhibition, I sought to create a sense of the remarkable cosmopolitanism of 17th-century Iran and communicate the power of textiles as one of the most successful conduits for transmitting new artistic ideas between the East and the West,” said Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and The Ebrahimi Family Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art at the National Museum of Asian Art. She is currently serving as the senior associate director for research.

Textiles served as powerful intermediaries for new designs and techniques, which stimulated a new Safavid pictorial language. The exhibition also includes a number of Safavid carpets, one of the most desirable luxury commodities in Europe. Modified to satisfy Western tastes and customs, these carpets became recognizable indicators of status and wealth among the European elite.

“These exquisite carpets and brocade textiles speak to the importance of Persian silk to the country of Iran as an export to the Ottoman Empire and Europe,” said Julia Gonnella, director of the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. “And their details delight on their own as well. It is very meaningful to have this collection on view in Washington, D.C., for audiences outside of Doha see these precious Safavid textiles and full-length portraits for the first time.”

As visitors journey through the exhibition, they will encounter a range of Safavid luxury textiles, including silks made with gilt silver or silver-covered threats, the most expensive fabric on the European market. These fabrics were often fashioned into clothing and furnishings and, most importantly, into “robes of honor.” Such robes were distributed by the ruler only to high-ranking officials or visiting dignitaries as a sign of respect. Some of the silks in the exhibition carry stylized designs, others are inspired by more naturalistic patterns, inspired by Indian models, while still others draw on Western examples, presenting a tremendous range of motifs and production. Three exceptional oil portraits, a format and technique imported from Europe by the 17th century, and a series of manuscript illustrations demonstrate how textiles were used.

This exhibition has received financial support from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha and Qatar Museums in celebration of the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture.

“It has been a great honor to work with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art on ‘Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha’” said Aisha Al Attiya, director of cultural diplomacy, Qatar Museums. “Over the past year, as a part of the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture, we have had the opportunity to introduce Qatari culture and traditions to the people of the United States. We are happy to share important works from Qatar Museums’ renowned Museum of Islamic Art collection with American audiences and are delighted that this exhibition will open to the public Dec. 18, Qatar National Day. It is a great way for us to close out our 2021 program.”

The exhibition will be on view in the museum’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (galleries 23–24) Dec. 18–May 15, 2022.

About the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is committed to preserving, exhibiting and interpreting exemplary works of art. It houses exceptional collections of Asian art, with more than 45,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today. Renowned and iconic objects originate from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East and the Islamic world. The museum’s Freer Gallery of Art also holds a significant group of American works of art largely dating to the late 19th century. It boasts the world’s largest collection of diverse works by James McNeill Whistler, including the famed Peacock Room. The National Museum of Asian Art is dedicated to increasing understanding of the arts of Asia through a broad portfolio of exhibitions, publications, conservation, research and education.

The National Museum of Asian Art was the Smithsonian’s first dedicated art museum and the first art museum on the National Mall. Since opening its doors as the Freer Gallery of Art in 1923, it has acquired an international reputation. The museum is preparing for its centennial in 2023—a milestone celebration and a springboard for the museum’s transformative vision for its next century, which will broaden and deepen the museum’s impact and reach, both onsite and online.

About of the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), opened in 2008, is one of the world’s premier institutions of Islamic art. As one of Qatar Museums’ first projects, the MIA safeguards masterpiece collections of Islamic art spanning some 1,400 years and showcases them through extraordinary exhibitions. Representing the full scope of Islamic art from the seventh to the 20th centuries, the MIA collection includes manuscripts, ceramics, metal, glass, ivory, textiles, wood and precious stones. The works have been collected from three continents, including countries across the Middle East, and reaching Spain and China. The MIA presents a changing programme of exhibitions illustrating the heritage of the Islamic world and extensive educational activities for school children and families, making the museum a vital part of the community. Designed by renowned Chinese American architect I.M. Pei, MIA has become a famous museum in the region and internationally, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. The museum announced in spring 2021 that it would embark on a facilities enhancement project and reimagine and reinstall its permanent collection galleries to provide a more accessible, engaging and educational experience. The MIA will reopen in autumn 2022. Gonnella has served as director of the MIA since 2017.

About Years of Culture

Under the leadership of its chairperson Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar Museums (QM) has developed the “Years of Culture” initiative—an annual international cultural exchange designed to deepen understanding between nations and their people. Though the formal programming lasts only one year, the ties of friendship that are strengthened and formed are long-lasting. Culture is one of the most effective tools to bring people closer together, encourage dialogue and deepen understanding between nations. Previous Years of Culture have included Qatar-Japan 2012, Qatar-UK 2013, Qatar-Brazil 2014, Qatar-Turkey 2015, Qatar-China 2016, Qatar-Germany 2017, Qatar-Russia 2018, Qatar-India 2019 and Qatar-France 2020.

The Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture follows the signing of a cooperative agreement Sept. 14, 2020, during the 2020 Qatar-United States Strategic Dialogue in Washington, D.C., between Qatari Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and the former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. This year’s program was inaugurated at the Katara Opera House Jan. 16 with a special concert by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and the U.S. Air Forces Central Band (AFCENT), with a special piece composed by Dana al-Fardan and performed by the AFCENT band. Led by Joo Young Oh, the recently appointed concertmaster of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, the program, which began with the national anthems of both countries, featured a variety of Qatari and American compositions.

Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture is planned in collaboration with leading institutions in Qatar and the United States, including Qatar Museums, the Embassy of Qatar in the United States, the Embassy of the United States in Qatar, Qatar’s Ministry of Culture and Sport, Qatar Foundation, the National Tourism Council, Doha Film Institute, Qatar National Library, Katara, the Qatar America Institute for Culture (QAIC), the Supreme Council for Delivery and Legacy and Qatar Football Association.

The Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture is supported by Qatar Museums, with platinum sponsors Exxon Mobil and Qatar Airways.

About Qatar Museums

Qatar Museums (QM), the nation’s preeminent institution for art and culture, provides authentic and inspiring cultural experiences through a growing network of museums, heritage sites, festivals, public art installations and programs. QM preserves, restores and expands the nation’s cultural offerings and historical sites, sharing art and culture from Qatar, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) region with the world and enriching the lives of citizens, residents and visitors.

Under the patronage of His Highness the Amir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and led by its chairperson, Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, QM has made Qatar a vibrant center for the arts, culture and education in the Middle East and beyond. QM is integral to the goal of developing an innovative, diverse and progressive nation, bringing people together to ignite new thinking, spark critical cultural conversations, educate and encourage environmental stewardship and sustainable practices, and amplify the voices of Qatar’s people. Since its founding in 2005, QM has overseen the Museum of Islamic Art and MIA Park, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Qatar, QM Gallery Al Riwaq, QM Gallery Katara, and the Tasweer Qatar Photo Festival. Future projects include the soon to open 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum and Dadu, Children’s Museum of Qatar.

Through its newly created Creative Hub, QM also initiates and supports projects—such as the Fire Station Artist in Residence, the Tasweer Qatar Photo Festival and the creative hub for innovation, fashion and design M7—that nurture artistic talent and create opportunities to build a strong and sustainable cultural infrastructure.

Animating everything that Qatar Museums does is an authentic connection to Qatar and its heritage, a steadfast commitment to inclusivity and accessibility, and a belief in creating value through invention.

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