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The Power of Objects

21 November 2023

Interview by Loubna Zeidan

Nicoletta Fazio, the curator of the exhibition Fashioning an Empire: Textiles from Safavid Iran at the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), discusses the unexpected role that delicate and elegant objects play in shaping history.

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Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the exhibition, and how it aligns with the broader context of cultural exchange promoted by MIA?

Nicoletta Fazio: The exhibition was born out of a collaboration between the Museum of Islamic Art and the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C., which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, during the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture. It came together despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, pairing objects from the Smithsonian collection with some of the treasures from MIA, which are rarely displayed [due to their fragility], so it was a great opportunity.

The curator at the Smithsonian, Dr Massumeh Farhad, is one of the leading scholars and an expert in Safavid Iran, and she's also an extremely generous colleague. It was fun to work with her and to see what she had to say about what we have conceived here.

I would say that this follows the kind of path that MIA has put in place since its inception, and we're very happy with the results because it brings new topics, new experiences and new people working with us. So it's always a learning process, and it's a good one.

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The exhibition at MIA showcases additional materials that were not included in the Smithsonian’s presentation.

What motivated you to expand upon the original version of the exhibition, which was presented at the Smithsonian?

NF: The exhibition at the Smithsonian was a very focused exhibition, thoroughly researched, very serene and quiet. It was nicely displayed in one of the Freer Gallery of Art temporary exhibition spaces.

Here, as we don’t have much space restraints, and we have a whole collection to show, we were able to expand the exhibition with more objects, including more material that couldn’t travel to the US at that time.

Also, the exhibitions at MIA have always been quite powerful when it comes to creating scenography and an atmosphere and we have tried to do that also this time. We have shifted to a more didactic approach with a narrative that helps the visitors make their way into the exhibition trail.

Objects are actually much more involved than we think in shaping the historical events in this world.

Nicoletta Fazio, Curator of Iranian Lands at MIA

Could you highlight some of the most remarkable pieces on display in the exhibition?

NF: Some of them are velvet, silk velvet, which are beautiful and extremely detailed – very fine artworks. We always think of textiles as something that has to do with craftsmanship, but these are really pieces of art that required many people to be involved in the production, and an extremely careful production process. It's stunning how they came to us in their state with these very fresh colours, very vibrant.

We also display them in a way that people can get really close to them – without endangering the objects – to really appreciate the texture, the fabric of these actual textiles and how they were made.

And then there are some very unexpected objects, which are these large oil paintings of people from the era wearing really beautiful clothes. These paintings show how the fragments of textile that we have would have looked as part of complete clothes.

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The pieces on display represent a fusion of artistry and craftsmanship.

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The textiles’ vibrancy and fresh colours have endured throughout the years.

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The exhibition allows visitors to see the details of the texture and craftsmanship of the textiles.

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The paintings featured in the exhibition serve as a window into the fashion of the time.

Silk played a pivotal role in the Safavid empire. How did it influence social, economic and artistic life?

NF: Silk has been produced in Iran for centuries, so it wasn't something new, but it was the first time that it was really capitalised on as a lucrative export for the country. Iran was in a bit of a difficult position politically, internally and externally, when Shah ‘Abbas came to power. He was the man behind a major social, political, economic and cultural transformation, which he did through political reforms, quite strong ones.

We might not associate silk with politics and military campaigns and diplomacy, but it was actually at the very centre of this very key moment of Iranian history.

Nicoletta Fazio, Curator of Iranian Lands at MIA

He was a patron of the arts, but he was also someone with a very ruthless ruling method. And in order to carry on all these reforms he needed money. The way to do it was to really push forward the silk industry and manufacturing, and carpet as well. Silk was the major export of the country at that time, and that lasted for about a century.

Another strategic decision that Shah ‘Abbas took was to create a monopoly of silk production and trade. So whoever wanted to buy Iranian silk, which was particularly renowned for its quality, had to travel to Isfahan and deal with agents who were directly under the control of the Safavid crown. We might not associate silk with politics and military campaigns and diplomacy but it was actually at the very centre of this very key moment of Iranian history.

The inclusion of contemporary fashion designs is a unique addition. Could you share more details about this aspect?

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Jannatan Wa Hareera (Silk and Paradise) by Jawhr. Maple wood, semi-precious stones.

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Custom designs by five Qatar-based artists show how historical objects can still inspire today's creatives.

NF: That was an idea that came up when we started looking at the exhibition concept developed at the Smithsonian. We thought, “Let’s enliven the collection and let's bring it to people who are actually creating fashion or designers today and see where this can lead us.”

My colleague Dr Tara Desjardins is the driving force behind this part of the exhibition, which she has curated and led working in collaboration with M7. Our colleagues at M7 have identified five Qatar-based designers: Arman Mansouri, Noor Al Thani, Roni Helou, Yasmin Mansour and Jwahr. Dr Tara invited them to the museum to see a selection of the objects, and told them basically, “Do what you want, be inspired by what you see – the craftsmanship, the material, the motifs, anything that can somehow tickle your creative mind.”

The results are displayed in the last section of the exhibition, which is sort of an outro that shows how historical objects can still be an inspiration for today's creatives.

What message or impression do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

NF: I think one of the main messages is that objects are actually much more involved than we think in shaping the historical events in this world. An object that can look very fragile and very sophisticated and very elegant could actually be the backbone of an empire, could really build the wealth and the power of a state.

Through trade, it can be possible to fashion an empire, which means both to dress people, but also to craft the very soul or the very identity of a country.

Loubna Zeidan is a Senior Editorial Specialist at Qatar Museums.