MIA artifacts on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art

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For the first time in the United States, the National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian presents an exceptional group of 17th-century textiles and full-length oil portraits of Safavid Iran (1501 – 1722), on loan from the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha.
Fashioning an Empire: Safavid Textiles, on display until May 15, 2022, is part of the Qatar – USA Cultural Year 2021, an annual international cultural exchange designed to deepen understanding between nations and their peoples.


Portrait of an Armenian lady, Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, ca. 1650-1675, oil on canvas, Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Complemented by some of the finest illustrated handwritten paintings from the National Museum of Asian Art, the exhibition highlights the importance of silk in the social, economic and religious life of 17th century Iran and its role in positioning the empire at the heart of a dynamic global exchange.
In addition to fueling economic prosperity, textiles served as powerful intermediaries for new artistic ideas and spurred a dynamic new Safavid pictorial language.


Textile with inscriptions, Iran, Safavid period, ca. 1700, silk and metal threads, Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

“It is very meaningful to have this collection on display in Washington, DC, so that the public outside of Doha can see for the first time these precious Safavid textiles and these full-length portraits,” said MIA Director Dr Julia Gonnella in a press release. “These exquisite brocade rugs and textiles are a testament to the importance of Persian silk to the country of Iran as an export to the Ottoman Empire and Europe. And their details are also attractive in themselves.



Portrait of a gentleman, Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, ca. 1650-1675, oil on canvas, Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

MIA is currently leading a facility improvement project to relocate its permanent collection galleries to provide a more accessible, engaging and educational experience.
The reinvention of the collection’s galleries will introduce a comprehensive tour route, create expanded interpretive material to help contextualize the masterpieces, and provide new mobile and child-friendly resources to make the museum more accessible to families and to young visitors.


Portrait of a youth, Iran, Isfahan, Safavid period, ca. 1630-1640, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Purchase — Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian, Collections Acquisition Program and Dr Arthur M Sackler, Arthur M Sackler Gallery

Many newly acquired and curated works of art will be exhibited with a large percentage displayed in the permanent galleries of MIA for the first time, alongside the masterpieces for which MIA is known internationally.
“We are delighted to welcome visitors to this historic exhibit which tells such a poignant story of global and artistic exchange,” said Chase F Robinson, Museum Director Dame Jillian Sackler. “We are particularly proud to bring to the public the rich artistic traditions of the Safavid Empire, which ruled for over 200 years and under which Persia became a great cultural center. Painting, ironwork, textiles and carpets, as well as architecture, poetry and philosophy, reached new levels of excellence under Safavid patronage.



Qays (Majnun) First Glimpses of Layli, from a copy of Jami’s Haft awrang (Seven Thrones) (d. 1492) Iran, Safavid period, 1556-1562 Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper. Purchase – Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art

“In organizing the exhibition, I sought not only to evoke the remarkable cosmopolitanism of 17th century Iran, but also to communicate the power of textiles as one of the most effective vectors for conveying new artistic ideas between East and West, ”Massumeh said. Farhad, chief curator and curator of Persian, Arab and Turkish art of the Ebrahimi family at the National Museum of Asian Art. She is currently Senior Associate Director for Research.
Shah Abbas I (reigned 1589-1629), who ruled Iran from his new capital Isfahan, turned silk into the empire’s most lucrative export commodity. Transported by land and sea to Europe, Russia and the East, silk brought great wealth and prosperity to Iran.

Fabrics were fashioned into clothing and used as indicators of status and wealth; they played an equally important role as furnishings, upholstery, blankets and curtains.
As they travel through the exhibit, visitors will discover a range of Safavid luxury textiles, including silver-gilded or silver-coated silks, the most expensive type of fabric on the European market. These fabrics were often transformed into clothing and furnishings and, above all, into “dresses of honor”. These dresses were only distributed by the sovereign to senior officials or visiting dignitaries as a sign of respect. Some of the silks in the exhibition bear stylized patterns; others are inspired by more naturalistic motifs, inspired by Indian models, while still others draw inspiration from Western examples, presenting a formidable range of motifs and production.
Three exceptional oil portraits, a format and technique imported from Europe in the 17th century, as well as a series of handwritten illustrations show how textiles were used.
“It has been a great honor to work with the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art on Shaping an Empire: The Safavid Textiles of the Museum of Islamic Art,” said Aisha al-Attiya, director of cultural diplomacy, Qatar Museums ( QM). “Over the past year, as part of the Qatar – United States Cultural Year 2021, we have had the opportunity to introduce Qatari culture and traditions to the American people. We are happy to share important works from QM’s famous MIA collection with the American public and we are delighted that this exhibition was opened to the public on December 18, Qatar National Day. It’s a great way for us to wrap up our 2021 program.
The Qatar-United States Cultural Year 2021 saw a wide range of exhibitions, festivals, bilateral exchanges and events in Qatar and the United States throughout the year, including the opening by Jeff Koons: Lost in America at QM Gallery Al Riwaq, Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech at the Fire Station, and the US edition of Jedariat, a QM public art initiative, which saw Qatari artists leave their mark on the urban walls of several cities in the United States. The Qatar – USA Cultural Year 2021 is sponsored by ExxonMobil.
The works of Shaping an Empire: Safavid Textiles evoke not only the remarkable cosmopolitanism of 17th century Iran, but also the power of textiles as one of the most effective channels for conveying new artistic ideas between east and south. ‘Where is.
The exhibition also includes a number of Safavid rugs, one of the most sought-after luxury goods in Europe. Modified to suit Western tastes and customs, these rugs have become recognizable indicators of status and wealth among the European elite.


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