The Abbasid Dynasty was distinguished by the vast size of their empire stretching from Central Asia in the east, to Tunisia in the west. The Dynasty’s expansive rule translated into a growth in resources, knowledge, and wealth that facilitated innovation and development. Specifically, distinct cities, societies, and architecture emerged to accommodate this growth and social progress. It is within this realm of societal development that a distinct “Islamic” style art emerged. The curators of this exhibit look, specifically, at how some of the visual and methodological changes to art influenced a unique “Islamic” style.
In terms of visual decoration, the Abbasid dynasty marks a point of departure from distinct pre-Islamic designs. Specifically, the interest in Chinese porcelains became a huge catalyst of Islamic art. For example, the Ceramic Bowl uses Chinese decorative influence. The opaque, white porcelain bowl draws on the Chinese’s unique taste in porcelain and exemplifies a sense of symbolic appropriation. However, the middle of the bowl contains three lines of Arabic kufic script. These angular and illegible lines of calligraphic script depict some of the early Islamic forms of decoration. While this bowl draws on Chinese influences, evidence of a burgeoning, Islamic style is apparent in the script that decorates and enlivens the dish. As the Koran was the fundamental word of God, inscriptions ultimately became one of the defining features of Islamic art throughout history.
Additionally, new methods of manufacture were being created during this time period, adding to the distinctly unique style that was developing. Specifically, the imperial court became directly involved in some of the new ceramic technical innovations. Lustre wares manufacturing was one of specific interests of the imperial court and is evident in much of Islamic art. For example, the Bowl with Wing-Shaped Palmettes utilizes two lustre pigments. The yellow and brown lustre covers the bowl and enriches the design and color of the bowl. The center of the piece contains images of two large wings that are further decorated with thin, repeating lines. Vegetal decoration surrounds these two central wings and add visual dimension to the decoration. Ultimately, this lustre ceramic technique elucidates another way in which Islamic art was distinguishable.
Ultimately, the curators of this exhibit pose a strong argument about the beginning of Islamic art. Something I find interesting, however, is that although art was progressing in a new direction during the Abbasid reign, Islamic art remains relatively influenced by other cultures. The Chinese, for example, influence much of the Islamic art during the Abbasid dynasty and, ultimately, shape these early “Islamic” styles. This could potentially undermine the curators’ argument that these early styles were uniquely Islamic. Additionally, the burgeoning Islamic style seems to fundamentally lack a coherent technique or decorative theme that unifies the body of Islamic art during this Abbasid period. For example, the curators talk about how the expansiveness of the empire ultimately resulted in varying regional motifs and designs consistent with local desires. This makes me question if a true Islamic style was emerging when it seems to have drastically varied by region.