Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art Exhibition in Celebration of Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture 

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Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art Presents Exhibition on Textiles and Paintings From 17th-Century Iran in Celebration of Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture

Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha” was on View Dec. 18 Through May 15, 2022

For the first time in the United States, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art enjoy an exceptional group of 17th-century textiles and full-length oil portraits from Safavid Iran (1501–1722), on loan from the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Complemented by some of the finest illustrated manuscript paintings from the collection of the National Museum of Asian Art, “Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha” underscores the importance of silk in the social, economic and religious life of 17th-century Iran and its role in positioning the empire at the nexus of a vibrant global exchange.

“We are delighted to welcome visitors to this landmark exhibition that tells such a poignant story of global and artistic exchange,” said Chase F. Robinson, the museum’s Dame Jillian Sackler Director.  “We are especially proud to highlight for the public the rich artistic traditions of the Safavid empire, which ruled for over 200 years and under which Iran became a great cultural center. Painting, ceramics, textiles and carpets, as well as architecture, poetry and philosophy reached new levels of excellence under Safavid patronage.”

“For the exhibition, I sought to create a sense of the remarkable cosmopolitanism of 17th-century Iran and communicate the power of textiles as one of the most successful conduits for transmitting new artistic ideas between the East and the West,” said Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and The Ebrahimi Family Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art at the National Museum of Asian Art. She is currently serving as the  senior associate director for research.

Textiles served as powerful intermediaries for new designs and techniques, which stimulated a new Safavid pictorial language. The exhibition also includes a number of Safavid carpets, one of the most desirable luxury commodities in Europe. Modified to satisfy Western tastes and customs, these carpets became recognizable indicators of status and wealth among the European elite.

“These exquisite carpets and brocade textiles speak to the importance of Persian silk to the country of Iran as an export to the Ottoman Empire and Europe,” said Julia Gonnella, director of the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. “And their details delight on their own as well. It is very meaningful to have this collection on view in Washington, D.C., for audiences outside of Doha see these precious Safavid textiles and full-length portraits for the first time.”

As visitors journey through the exhibition, they will encounter a range of Safavid luxury textiles, including silks made with gilt silver or silver-covered threads, the most expensive fabric on the European market. These fabrics were often fashioned into clothing and furnishings and, most importantly, into “robes of honor.” Such robes were distributed by the ruler only to high-ranking officials or visiting dignitaries as a sign of respect. Some of the silks in the exhibition carry stylized designs, others are inspired by more naturalistic patterns, inspired by Indian models, while still others draw on Western examples, presenting a tremendous range of motifs and production. Three exceptional oil portraits, a format and technique imported from Europe by the 17th century, and a series of manuscript illustrations demonstrate how textiles were used.

This exhibition has received financial support from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha and Qatar Museums in celebration of the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture.

“It has been a great honor to work with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art on ‘Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha’” said Aisha Al Attiya, director of cultural diplomacy, Qatar Museums. “Over the past year, as a part of the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture, we have had the opportunity to introduce Qatari culture and traditions to the people of the United States. We are happy to share important works from Qatar Museums’ renowned Museum of Islamic Art collection with American audiences and are delighted that this exhibition will open to the public Dec. 18, Qatar National Day. It is a great way for us to close out our 2021 program.”

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