Sheila Blair and Abdur-Rahman Abou Almajd in dialog around Islamic art.
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about the role of Islamic art especially from the seventh century to modern times. At this point Sheila Blair is going to speak about her views on Islamic art.
Professor Blair teaches about all aspects of Islamic art from the seventh century to modern times. She offers surveys on Islamic art, architecture, and urbanism as well as research seminars on the Silk Road, the Islamic book, and the arts of Iran. Her research is equally broad: she has written ten books, including several international award-winners, and more than 200 articles in journals, encyclopedias, colloquia and collected volumes. Several of her books were written with her husband and co-professor, Jonathan Bloom, with whom she served as artistic consultant to the three-hour documentary Islam: Empire of Faith, shown nationally on PBS.
Editor with Jonathan Bloom, Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture, 3 vols 2009.
Islamic Calligraphy 2007, winner of the 2007 British-Kuwait Friendship Society/British Society of Middle Eastern Studies Prize and the 2008 World Prize for Book of the Year by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance; selected as a 2007 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title.
Co-author with Jonathan Bloom, Cosmophilia: Islamic Art from the David Collection, Copenhagen (Chestnut Hill, MA: McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, 2006).
Co-author with Jonathan Bloom, Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power 2000; reprint with corrections London: BBC Books, 2001; paperback New Haven 2002.
Islamic Inscriptions 1998; winner of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize for the best book on Middle Eastern studies published in Britain, 1999.
Co-author with Jonathan Bloom, Islamic Arts 1997; Japanese trans. by T. Masuya 2001.
A Compendium of Chronicles: Rashid al-Din's Illustrated History of the World, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, vol. XXVII, ed. Julian Raby 1995; winner of the Bahari Prize for the best book on Persian civilization, 1998.
Co-author with Jonathan Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800, Pelican History of Art 1994; reprinted with corrections 1995); Spanish translation Condor, Arte y Arquitecture del Islam 1250-1800, 1999.
Q: Professor Robert Hillenbrand said : Indeed Sheila S. Blair is an undisputed star in her field , we know you reconstructed the complex history of its ownership and challenged the belief of previous scholars, Could you elaborate on that statement?
Sheila Blair: I assume that here you are referring to the Great Mongol Shahnama, the first book I wrote (with Oleg Grabar) in which I reconstructed the manuscript. That showed the pages were delaminated (the front was removed from the back), probably in the 20th century by George Demotte, the dealer who offered it for sale. This provided a methodology for other scholars working on other manuscripts and showed the importance of looking at text (and not just miniature) and whole manuscripts (and not just individual pages).
Q: It is known that fields of your Interest is Islamic art, what made you take up Islamic art?
Sheila Blair: I took up Islamic art when I came to graduate school at Harvard in the 1970s. After graduating from college, I set off with a friend overland to India and ended up staying 2 years in Iran. I loved the region and came to study it.
Q: Several of your books were written with your husband and co-professor, Jonathan Bloom, Could you elaborate on that statement?
Sheila Blair: Yes, I share two endowed chairs (at Boston College and at Virginia Commonwealth University) with Jonathan; we have also written 10 books together, both surveys of Islam and of Islamlc art. Working together, we feel, is much more effective than working alone as it allows us to see things from several perspectives and bring even more knowledge to the task at hand.
Q: You wrote with Jonathan Bloom, Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture, what chapters did you edit?
Sheila Blair: We always work in tandem and equally. Sometimes I edit and he re-edits; sometimes the reverse; and sometimes we sit there together. But we have been doing this for so long that it would be practically impossible for us (or anyone else) to say that this is his work and that is mine.
Q: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power is a great work, why should it translated into important languages?
Sheila Blair: It's a basic primer about the first cultural history of the 1000 years of Islam lands, intended to introduce the subject to people, especially Americans, who know nothing. It focuses on cultural achievements, not just religion, and so gives a broad picture of society and the arts.
Q: Islamic Calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing, in Arabic script, why has calligraphy long been so important in Islamic
Sheila Blair: God's revelation to Muhammad came in the form of words, and so the word became a central focus of the faith and by extension the community that practiced that faith. Beautiful writing therefore glorified God. In the 8th and 9th centuries when there was an increasing fear of idolatry (worshiping images), the Muslim community (or at least some influential members of it) turned increasingly away from images (technically known as aniconism, the avoidance of images) and the word became more important as an official signifier of Islam. Since the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic, this writing was always in Arabic script (but not Arabic language), and writing in Arabic script became a hallmark of Muslim culture.
Q: Arabic Script, THE DEVELOPMENT OF ARABIC SCRIPT IN EARLY ISLAMICTIMES, Could you elaborate on that statement?
Sheila Blair: The earliest versions of script were rather haphazard, without formal aesthetic qualities, but as Muslims want to use the word to glorify God, they increasingly regularized the script. Most early scripts for formal purposes, especially for writing down the Qur'an, were rectilinear, the type of script that is often called "kufic" after the city of Kufa in Iraq, a center of learning in early Islamic times, although this script was used in many places.
Q: Early Manuscripts of the Koran, Could you elaborate on that statement?
Sheila Blair: Early Manuscripts of the Koran are written on parchment (probably always sheepskin) in a brownish tannin-based ink in the angular script known as kufic. While the earliest were vertical in form, at some point calligraphers switched to landscape format (i.e., horizontal, like a computer screen). We do not know why this change occurred. The best suggestion is to differentiate from the Torah (always a scroll) and the Gospel (vertical). These early manuscripts of the Koran are all anonymous (the scribes did not sign, date, or localize them) so scholars debate exactly when at where they were produced, but general consensus is that the period of production stretched from the mid or late 7th century to the 10th or 11th century, with a few produced later.
Q: The Diversification of Round Scripts, What caused the canonization of round scripts in the ninth century?
Sheila Blair: We don't know why calligraphers switched from the angular to the round scripts. There were probably several reasons. One was practical: with the introduction of paper, it was easier and much faster to write in round script. This was also the time of the switch to a black carbon-based ink. Another reason was custom: Round scripts had been used for chancery documents for centuries and gradually became accepted for religious purposes. Calligraphers could also distinguish Koran manuscripts from others by other devices, such as headings, counters (to mark verses and 5 and 10 verses) etc, so they didn't need a distinctive Koranic script.
Q: There are many western orientalists who are ardent admirer of Islamic art, why did you write about Prisse d'Avennes ?
Sheila Blair: We wrote about Prisse because his documentation of life and buildings in Egypt (and elsewhere) was extraordinary. He is often maligned as an Orientalist, but he was much more interesting and one of the few who actually learned Arabic and lived in the country. We want to place his work in its rightful context.
Q: Did you want to follow in his footsteps?
Sheila Blair: No.
Q: What about the Chair of Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University?
Sheila Blair: As the Hamad bin Khalifa Endowed chair in Islamic art at VCU, we organize an international biennial conference on Islamic art and culture. The conferences, which are free and open to the public, alternate between Doha and elsewhere and are designed to treat broad themes of Islamic art that have not been treated elsewhere. The 2005 conference in Doha covered the subject of water in Islamic art and culture. The papers have been published by Yale University Press as Rivers of Paradise: Water is Islamic Art and Culture (London, 2007). The, 2007 conference in Cordoba covered color; the papers will be published this fall by Yale University Press as Diverse are their Hues: Color in Islamic Art and Culture. They are also available as podcasts on the website www.islamicartdoha.org. The next conference will be held in Doha this October in the new Museum of Islamic Arts there. It will cover the art of the object and focus on objects in the Doha collection. Details (and sign-up) are available on the website www.islamicdoha.org.
Q: The Khalili Collection owns one of the most important illustrated medieval manuscripts in the world, could you show us the image of one the earliest surviving Arabic copy and comment?
Sheila Blair: Not for me to distribute an image from the Khalili Collection.
Abdur-Rahman Abou Almajd: Thank you very much.
Sheila Blair: You’re welcome. A pleasure to engage about a wonderful subject.
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