Houston Museum of Fine Arts to expand its Islamic art galleries

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) will embark on a transformative $3.5 million project to augment its galleries dedicated to Islamic art, a significant strength of the museum’s permanent collection.

The project, due to be unveiled next year, will double the size of the museum’s Islamic art galleries to around 6,000 square feet, reconfiguring a space that now houses the museum’s library, and also includes the construction of a courtyard adjoining which will reflect the traditional architectural elements of Islamic gardens, an analogue of paradise in the Koran.

The museum houses around 1,400 works of Islamic art, including long-term loans from important collections such as the collection of Kuwaiti collector Hossein Afshar.

There is also a section devoted to works brokered in a 2012 partnership with politician Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and his wife, Sheikha Hussa Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, which originally involved the loan of around 60 pieces, a number that has since multiplied to around 300 works. The agreement allowed the sheikh to “have a semi-permanent presence in the world, where his collection would be seen, studied and appreciated”, according to Aimée Froom, curator of arts from the Islamic world at the museum.

The Carpet of “King Umberto II Polonaise” (early 17th century). The Hossein Afshar Collection at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Froom adds that the museum already had “a fledgling collection of Islamic art at the time, thanks to generous gifts decades earlier from the powerful Texas philanthropist and suffragist Annette Finnigan.”

The expansion will emphasize “cross-cultural aspects,” Froom says, and “emphasize that Islamic art is not a monolithic entity – rather it is a tapestry of diverse cultures, ethnicities, languages ​​and regional traditions, and these universalities should be properly honored and explored”.

The new street-level galleries will be housed in the Caroline Wiess Law Building designed by Mies van der Rohe and will allow hundreds of additional works to be displayed, spanning paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, carpets, metal works and other objects reflecting the extent of Islamic art from present-day countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Some cornerstones of the collection include an ancient Moroccan Quran manuscript copied in a distinctive Maghrebi script, a 16th-century Turkish stone-paste bowl, and a 17th-century cotton and silk carpet woven by Safavid court weavers who belonged formerly at the Italian House of Savoy. until the death of Umberto II, the last king of Italy.

The Islamic Art Gallery expansion follows a $450 million campus overhaul at MFAH, which was completed in November 2020.

Mildred D. Field