Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur

This past week, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to renew my non-immigrant visa at the Royal Thai Embassy. While there, I had a chance to visit with some friends and also to stop at the Islamic Arts Museum, something that has been on my to-see list since I first went to KL a few years ago.

The Islamic Arts Museum is located in a large park not far from the central train station. It is surrounded by expressways, though, making it very difficult to reach on foot. The museum is just up the street from the National Mosque, a beautiful blue-roofed complex that is worth a visit.

The collection is not as well-curated as I had hoped, although it covers a diverse range of subjects from architecture to textiles, ceramics to metals. Also, the collection represents all the major cultures in the Islamic world from Africa to the Middle East to India to Southeast and East Asia. Here is a selection of some of the pieces I saw.

There was a large selection of beautiful Quran. This book is the central religious text for Muslims and there is a wonderful tradition of hand-painting copies of the text, complete with exquisite illustrations, calligraphy, and gold-leaf decorations.

The exhibit also explained the different fonts of calligraphy – Arabic and otherwise – used in the displayed Quran. The scripts are beautiful, written from right to left, some highly stylized and others with more distinct characters. 

There were many examples of fine metal working, especially silver. My understanding is that Islamic art generally avoids representations of humans or animals and so there is a lot of emphasis on geometric patterns (which represent the perfection of creation) and floral patterns.

There were many ceramic pieces. Blue seems to be a popular color and this turquoise glazed three-legged pot was practically glowing, the color was so vibrant. If you look closely (sorry, hard to see clearly through the glass), there is stylized calligraphic script around the top band of the pot.

This example of cloisonné, metalwork decorated with enamel. Very fine detail and, again, very vibrant colors.

This piece, a painted glass bottle, is one of the few exceptions I found to the “no people, no animals” prohibition. A little bit of research while writing this entry and I discovered that this type of restriction is known as aniconism. New word for the day. 

The final piece I want to share with you is this finely sculpted chess set. The detail was amazing and I can only imagine the pressure the craftsman must have felt to not make a mistake and waste all the hard work completed so far.

I hope you enjoyed the selection of pieces from the museum. Sorry for not posting more while on the road. I’ve found the Xanga site to be uncooperative in the past few weeks, often freezing while a page is loading.  

 

Bangkok … Bananas!

Many cities in Asia try to trumpet their lively arts scene, positioning themselves as cities of culture on the pages of tour guidebooks and travel magazines.  The Big Mango is no exception.  Last week the Ministry of Culture launched the first “Bangkok … Bananas!!” contemporary arts festival.

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Above, a crowd gathers to watch a stage performance while a sculpture titled “Alien” watches them.

It was a combination of everything from live performance to sculpture installations to cinema screenings.  Interestingly, it was geared heavily towards Thais – i.e. no Thai subtitles on films or at live events. 

It is great that Thais are getting more exposure to their own contemporary arts scene, something that is sorely lacking here.  But I think that, given the drop off of tourists (arrivals down some 30% year-over-year) caused by both the global economy and the ongoing political unrest here, Bangkok … Bananas!! is the type of event that could draw tourists.  The only thing is, you have to tell them about it and you have to make sure it is accessible.

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Nearly a full moon over Siam Paragon mall, site of many of the Bangkok … Bananas!! events.

In true Bangkok fashion, the setting for most of these art events was the shopping district – where Rama I and Ratchaprasong roads meet.  In fact, most of the staged events took place in the two public plazas located between three of the largest malls: Siam Discovery, Siam Center and Siam Paragon.

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The best event, in my opinion, was the series of nightly film screenings.  These were done outdoors with a screen set up between two malls.  This is reminiscent of the history of Thai motion picture exhibition, which used to be done from the back of a truck that would travel from town to town, setting up the screen and showing the movies, the sound coming from a speaker on the top of the truck.

In fact, there was a restored movie truck, repainted with the name and claims of an old pharmaceutical company, as these were the usual sponsors of these village screenings.  Harking back to the old days, they had a classic Thai silent film one night, with veteran voiceover actors providing the dialogue live from a table at the rear of the plaza.

All of this was great fun, but largely unintelligble to me.  All the more sad because several of the films they showed were true classics of Thai cinema, films that are rarely seen and are not available on DVD. 

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Of special interest to me were the projectors.  My first job was in a cinema and I spent 13 years working for the AMC Theatres chain.  So I was thrilled to see two classic 35mm projectors and watch the projectionists do changeovers at the end of the reels.