The Glory of Silk

Museum of Islamic Art introduced ‘Fashioning an Empire: Textiles from Safavid Iran’ Exhibition highlighting the significance of silk in the vibrant social, economic, and artistic life of the Safavid Empire (1501-1736) in Iran. The exhibition is on view in MIA’s Sheikh Saoud Gallery until 20 April 2024.

The exhibition is the result of a collaboration with the Freer Gallery of Art for the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture and was first conceived by and presented at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, Washington DC as part of the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture.

Planned under the direction of MIA curator Dr. Nicoletta Fazio, Fashioning an Empire: Textiles from Safavid Iran’ expands on the original exhibition concept, as conceived and organised in Washington, D.C.

“We have been in touch with Massumeh Farhad, the Chief Curator for Islamic collection, who is also a specialist of the Safavid period, at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art and we decided that it would be a great idea to bring this exhibition that had been presented at the Smithsonian’s with a presentation of objects from the MIA collection, to Doha. So, the original concept behind this exhibition is Farhad’s. While there have been other exhibitions focussing on this period of time, there has been no exhibition that emphasised on silk which was the reason behind Iran’s entry into the global arena,” explains Dr. Fazia on the exhibition’s concept, “Since the exhibition was very popular in the US, we wanted to bring the same concept here as Persian carpets and the stories behind it are the most sought-after exhibits at MIA.”

MIA curator Dr. Nicoletta Fazio

The MIA while taking into consideration the large personal collection of QMA, decided to expand the collection with exhibits from MIA and QMA that have never been exhibited before. Thus, the treasures within the Museum had a chance to be exhibited and along with the consultation of Farhad, Dr. Fazio and the team paid homage to the original idea while expanding it to include the treasures within.

“I learned a lot from Farhad and putting together this exhibition has been such a fruitful learning process,” says Dr. Fazio who has specialised in Medieval Studies, Islamic Art and Archaeology at the University of Genoa (Italy) and studied Cultural and Intellectual History at the Warburg Institute, Germany.

The exhibition is further enriched by a set of four full-length portraits which provide a glimpse into the diverse population and the opulence that characterised the Safavid imperial capital of Isfahan. The entry to the exhibition is with two full-length portraits that emphasise the grandeur of textile used.

“Digging into the paintings, like the large oil on canvas of the city of Safavid, has been a fascinating experience,” shares Dr. Fazio of her favorite curatorial experience in this exhibition, “because not a lot has been said about the art production of that period. I had a lot of fun in the process of the selection of paintings to depict the fashion of that period or what people actually wore, since that was one aspect we have not researched in detail.”

The exhibition begins with a presentation of the geographical and historical setting in which the Safavid ruler, Shah ‘Abbas I, established the silk monopoly and state-funded textile industry. The second part focuses on Isfahan, the capital at the time, and the empire’s main marketplace. The third part explores the art and practices of self-representation in Safavid society through fashion, pairing historical textiles with contemporary paintings and written sources. The fourth and final section, ‘Fashion Forward’, bridges the past with the present, displaying a selection of specially commissioned pieces, garments, and handbags created by Qatar-based designers inspired by Safavid textiles and paintings from MIA’s permanent collection.

Dr. Julia Gonnella, Director of MIA said:“More than 100 works will be on view, drawn from MIA and Qatar Museums’ permanent collections as well as loans from the Qatar National Library, including a wide selection of artefacts, amongst them 20 precious brocade silk textiles and 12 carpets from the Safavid period. Through the presentation of our collection, we hope to deepen the understanding and appreciation for Islamic art and demonstrate the vast diversity of Islamic culture across the world.”

The exhibition includes a final section that embraces contemporary fashion designs, with five Qatar-based designers showcasing their bespoke designs inspired by objects displayed in the exhibition. The pieces include Yasmin Mansour’s large kaftan and rug; Arman Mansouri’s two unisex blazers; Jawaher Al Darwish’s seven hand carved clutches and scarf; Noor Al Thani’s impressive abaya; and Roni Helou’s vegan, eco-printed dress that seems to take its inspiration from the Persian rugs while sending strong signals of protest as the designer does not believe in harvesting silk worms for the final material.

 These five designers were selected in collaboration with M7 – Qatar’s epicentre for innovation and entrepreneurship in design, fashion, and technology – and supported by MIA curator Dr. Tara Desjardins. M7 is committed to accelerating the growth of Qatar’s creative economy; this is done through providing local and international opportunities for designers to further their careers or businesses.  Under the leadership of Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, M7 continues to collaborate across entities within Qatar Museum to shine the spotlight on the local design community and amplify their work.

From October 23, 2023, to January 30, 2024, visitors can also delve into the treasures of Isfahan through the captivating ‘Welcome to Isfahan’ rare book display on view at the MIA Library, according to MIA Staff. This collection provides an extensive guide to Isfahan during the Safavid Empire and will allow its visitors to discover Iran’s long and distinguished history and culture, and to explore renowned architectural marvels, artistic masterpieces, delectable cuisine, groundbreaking scientific advancements, and an intriguing European perspective on the city’s distinctive style.