This way to paradise

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Deedee Cuddihy applauds an exhibition of Muslim art and culture

OPEN SESAME. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow until April 1998

A major new exhibition about Muslim art and culture at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow has lived up to its advance publicity. For the show, which runs until April next year, was being described before the launch as something of a magical experience and Open Sesame with its gorgeous artefacts, dramatic lighting and evocative music does seem to have a special kind of atmosphere.

Bushra Iqbal, a member of the exhibition's consultative committee, was moved almost to tears on the opening day. "I've lived in Scotland for 25 years, " she said, "and this is the first time I've seen an exhibition which truly reflects my background and culture. We all carry an idea of our past with us and, for me, this is it."

Open Sesame takes visitors on a walk through an idealised, traditional Muslim city (set very firmly in the past) with mansions, mosque, market place and citadel; on into a village, then a nomad's encampment and, finally, to Paradise.

The journey begins in the domestic quarter of the city where, to the accompaniment of lute music, visitors pass by the white walled homes of the rich and catch a glimpse, through delicate filigree windows, of interiors set with fine furnishing and textiles.

In the nearby market place, merchants from many lands sell their cloth, jewellery and ceramics while the crowds are entertained by story tellers and puppeteers. There are vendors dealing in lucky charms and professional letter writers offering their services from portable stalls.

From the mosque which lies at the heart of every Muslim city, they hear the call to prayer which draws them to this place of worship, furnished with decorative windows set with coloured glass, fine prayer rugs, the Qur'an and the ablution vessels which are used five times a day to wash before prayer.

A citadel or fortress was also a common feature of the traditional Muslim city. As well as viewing some of the beautifully made armour and weaponry from ancient times, visitors to the exhibition can learn of the tragic Jihad or Holy War in 19th-century Sudan, when 11,000 Muslim soldiers, rebelling against western domination in the area, were killed by an army of British-led men. "Souvenirs" were taken from the battlefield and a number of these, including a battered copy of the Qur'an, are included in the show. (Several items were donated by a Glasgow-born journalist, Burton Benedict, who reported on the 1898 conflict for the London Daily Telegraph.) After a brief glimpse at village life, the journey continues into the desert where, under a black-tented ceiling, the life of the nomadic Bedouin tribes with their colourful wall hangings, cushions, carpets and costumes, is brought into focus. However, nomads are coming under increasing pressure to integrate with the modern world and their traditional way of life is rapidly disappearing.

The journey ends in Paradise, life after death, represented here by the vast and magnificent 17th-century Iranian Wagner Garden Carpet. Writing in the catalogue for the show (an excellent buy at Pounds 4.99), Open Sesame's curator, Ulrike Al-Khamis, states: "Throughout its history, Persia was a leading contributor to Muslim garden design. In addition, they applied their designs to carpets, thus creating, as it were, mobile gardens that could be transported anywhere and would immediately evoke a lush, paradisal setting, even when spread out on the floor of a royal tent pitched in the desert. "

Although the title of the exhibition conjures up images of children's fairy tales, Open Sesame is not a show which can be fully appreciated by little ones unless there is an adult on hand to interpret the displays for them. The set is a clever abstract of a Muslim city, where areas such as the citadel and market place are hinted at rather than replicated. There are a few spice containers to be sniffed, some lids to be lifted and even a couple of "magic carpets" to sit on (beside a small selection of Arabic children's books), but the main interaction at Open Sesame is that between your imagination and the artefacts.

A programme of workshops will offer songs and stories for pre-fives and Primary 1 (P1), printmaking for P4 and upwards, and puppet workshops for P6 and 7. The workshops, which are free and open to all schools, will run until early June and be repeated twice in the autumn and spring terms. To book, phone education officer Jem Fraser, tel: 0141 287 27478

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