Diverse Islamic art spans centuries in ‘Pearls’

An extraordinary bejeweled antique gun, complete with a case of glittering accessories, is the highlight of a new San Francisco exhibit that reveals the breadth of Islamic artistry between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Opening Friday and running through May 8, “Pearls On a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts” at the Asian Art Museum offers a “compare and contrast” view of works from a 16th-century court in Mughal, India (present-day Pakistan and India); from 17th-century Persia (Isfahan, Iran); and from the 18th-century Ottoman Empire (Turkey).

Organized in partnership with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and curated by Qamar Adamjee, curator of South Asian and Islamic art at the Asian Art Museum, the show is divided into three rooms, each focusing on an important person associated with the artwork.

Historian Abu’l Fazl, who for 30 years recorded the legacy of Emperor Akbar’s humanitarian reign in Mughal, is at the center of the exhibit’s first room, subtitled “The Writer.” Many of the works, mostly paintings, refer to Abu’l Fazl’s huge “Akbarnama” (or “Book of Akbar”), a three-volume account of royal life under the ruler known for embracing liberal and intellectual views.

Paintings in the second room showcase the expansive viewpoints of Muhammad Zaman, who incorporated Western ideas — such as perspective, light and shadow — in shimmering works with illuminating gold borders. Zaman, who painted for the Persian court of Shah Sulayman (ruler from 1666-94), was known for bold interpretations of traditional poetic stories central to Persian culture and history.

The final room of “Pearls” has the real goodies: eye-catching weapons and jewels made for Sultan Mahmud I, known as “The Patron,” who led the Ottoman court from 1730 to 1754.

Mahmud, who stabilized the region during his rule, illustrated his might by commissioning grand works of art, including a gold jeweled rifle (never fired, from 1732-33) with silver, diamonds and emeralds. It’s accompanied by an assortment of jewel-encrusted accessories: a pen box, spoon, flintlock cleaner, pen knife and dagger.

Like the other leaders showcased in the exhibit, Mahmud was interested in innovation, and technology. Under his tutelage, for example, muskets and pistols replaced swords and lances.

Noting that the exhibition includes very little religious iconography (for the purposes of the show, “Islamic” refers to a large geographical area), Adamjee say her goal was to delve beneath the surface to uncover diversity, richness, creativity and human motivation.

Pearls On a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except until 9 p.m Thursdays; closes May 8
Admission: $5 to $15
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org

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