A wide world of art history

The San Francisco Asian Art Museum exhibit opening Friday is called “Arts of the Islamic World from Turkey to Indonesia” — not “Islamic Art.”

It’s an important distinction.

The latter would mean Muslim-­religious art, which is distinct from this exhibit featuring objects from the Islamic world, which encompasses many lands and civilizations.

Besides Turkey and Indonesia, source countries include Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China and the Philippines. Their varied arts, originally influenced by preceding Roman and Byzantine styles, reflect cultures of those countries.

And so, the show of 60 artworks in the Asian’s Teteuchi Gallery includes Persian ceramics, a Chinese incense burner from the Qing dynasty, an Indian watercolor from the 18th century, a Pakistani carpet from 100 years before then, and so on.

There are manuscripts, textiles, metal wares, historic photographs, and even puppets in the show.

“The Islamic world is more diverse and complex than most outsiders have thought,” according to curator Forrest McGill. “One of our intentions with this exhibition is to give a sense of the richness and extraordinary variety of Islamic art.”

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, Islam expanded quickly from its homeland in Arabia. Sometimes it spread as Arab dynasties expanded, but more often populations embraced Islam after exposure to its tenets and culture through traders and teachers.

Today far more Muslims live in other parts of Asia than in the Arab world. In the visual arts — especially in architecture, calligraphy and textiles — works from the Islamic world have gained international appreciation and admiration.

From strictly religious works about the holy city of Mecca, to Indian minarets, intricate marble screens and bulbous gold domes, to Turkish calligraphy, there is rich variety in this show.

During part of the Islamic exhibit’s run, the museum will also feature “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” running Oct. 24 through Jan. 25. This show explores the ancient cultural heritage of Afghanistan from the Bronze Age through the rise of the Silk Road in the first century — a span of some 2,500 years.

The traveling exhibit features artifacts such as the “Bactrian hoard,” a 2,000-year-old treasure cache discovered in 1978 (by a Soviet archeologist, before the country’s invasion the following year), but hidden from view until 2003.

Afghan officials have called the priceless artifacts “a testament to the Afghan people and to the heroism of the brave and selfless Afghans who preserved and protected them.” From San Francisco, the exhibit will travel to Houston and to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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If You Go

Arts of the Islamic World from Turkey to Indonesia

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; until 9 p.m. Thursdays; show runs Friday through March 1, 2009
Tickets: $7 to $12; $5 after 5 p.m. Thursdays, free for children under 12; free first Sunday of every month
Contact: (415) 581-3500; www.asianart.orgartsentertainmentOther Arts

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