Tribute To An Opulent Age - Treasury of The World Exhibition in Malaysia - An interview with Sheikha Hussah Al-Sabah, who is director and co-owner of this incredibly beautiful and important collection.
It was the most lavish display of historic jewellery ever seen in Malaysia. Ms Kamal (the interviewer) finds out more about the exhibition - that was on show in Malaysia in 2010- from co-owner Sheikha Hussah al-Salim al-Sabah.
"She's the epitome of elegance in her casual grey tunic top, embellished only by a stylish striped scarf around the neck. Half expecting to see the gleam of Mughal jewels peeking from somewhere about her, I was disappointed.
The only bling that Sheikha Hussah al-Salim al-Sabah ---director of the Dar al-Athar al- Islamiyyah (Kuwait Museum of Islamic Art) and whose personal collection of Mughal jewelled art is on display at the Islamic Arts Museum — is sporting are the diamonds in her ears. And they’re definitely not from the 14th century.
“I did use to carry one of the objects, a powder flask, which I turned into an evening bag,” concedes Sheikha Hussah with a sheepish smile. “But then, my husband and I decided that it didn’t deserve to be treated so casually, so it went into the collection. Anyway, I enjoy it more in the museum.”
The Mughal collection comprises elaborate necklaces, thick bracelets, plume-like turban ornaments, protective rings for archery, hookah mouthpieces and elongated hair ornaments, as well as jewel-encrusted boxes, fly whisks, dozens of swords and daggers and scabbards. But all these represent only a fraction of the Al-Sabah collection, which, in total amounts to 30,000 pieces.“
Actually, the collector is my husband's. I’m only the collection’s director,” confides this mother of six.
Her interests were totally different to begin with. "I was more into modern American art, pop art in particular. But when my husband bought the first object in 1975, a 14th century enamelled glass bottle, I sort of saw everything that I loved in the modern movement in it — the abstraction was already inherent in that piece. It sparked the imagination and our intellectual curiosity was aroused. Then we got fascinated by Islamic art.”
The exhibition, Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals, takes its title, ‘Treasury of the World’ from the English ambassador to the Mughal court, Sir Thomas Roe (1580-1644), whose keen observations were an invaluable source of information on the culture of the times.
In a letter written on Oct 30, 1616, to Prince Charles (later King Charles I), he described the emperor Jahangir: “In jewels (which is one of his felicityes) he is the treasury of the world.”
Over the past 10 years, the exhibition has travelled to a number of leading cultural institutions, including the Louvre and the British Museum. Kuala Lumpur is the final stop and is, incidentally, the first exhibition venue on Muslim soil.
“There are many aspects to this collection in terms of the historic value and in terms of what it means to bring it here to Malaysia,” says Sheikha Hussah, a graduate of English Literature from Kuwait University. “Let’s start with the Kuwaiti-Malaysian relationship and cultural exchanges. It started when the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia opened in 1999. We were the first country to lend an exhibition to inaugurate its opening. We wanted to continue this special cultural relationship between the two countries and the two institutions; the Al Bukhari Institution and the al-Sabah collection.”
Through this travelling exhibition, she’s also hoping to introduce to the world the other face of Kuwait –– not only as a small country known for its oil production but as a city that’s a patron of art and culture.
This exhibition, says Sheikha Hussah, who’s a board member on Kuwait’s Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, isn’t only a celebration of Mughal artistry and creative work, but is also a nod to the creativity of the unsung heroes, the craftsmen and artists who sit in their small workshops producing these magnificent works of art.“This is a tribute to them. They produce something that’s everlasting, appreciated and respected — so to them we bow.”
Her personal favourite from the Treasury of the World collection is a special dagger from the period of Emperor Akhbar. “This has a special significance because it was stolen during the occupation of Kuwait. It went to Baghdad and somehow popped up at an auction in London for us to identify. The piece was eventually withdrawn and returned to us. It was a very happy end to a sad story.”
But, adds Sheikha Hussah, they’re still missing 58 objects. “One of them is a hexagonal-shaped emerald, which carries the Ayat Kursi. Imagine if you destroy this object, cut it into pieces and sell it by the carat — the historic value would be lost.” Are she and her husband on a quest to locate it? She shakes her head, suddenly looking wistful. “No, but whoever has it, I hope they’ll look after it. These objects are not possessions but are possessors of something more enduring and valuable. Whoever has it should share it with others to enjoy. That’s why our private collection has become a public one. We want others to share the pleasures that we’ve had.”
Constantly surrounded by objects of immense beauty, what’s Sheikha Hussah’s idea of beauty?
She flashes her elegant smile. “For me, it’s these exhilarating feelings that arise when you look at an object and you try to read it or engage it in a dialogue and you end up forming a relationship with it.”
Sensing my confusion, she elaborates: “There are not just objects. They speak to you. The more you look at them, the more you want to know how they were made, what material, which period, who made them, and why they were made in that way. All these factors contribute to your appreciation of the piece.”
It’s not easy being a collector, confides Sheika Hussah, who comes from a family of 12 siblings and dreamt of being a ballerina as a child. “One has to read a lot, do comparisons, go on excavations, visit other institutions and exchange notes. And when all of this is done, you also have to find the pieces which will fill in the gaps in the collection.
For instance, our collection spans from Spain to China and historically, from the 8th century to 18th century. But there are certain areas that aren’t well represented. The challenge is to find pieces from these unknown regions. The other challenge is the scarcity of these objects. Then there’s the price element. It’s good and bad news but at least there’s an interest in Islamic art, and museums are opening around the Gulf areas.”
Sheikha Hussah continues to work towards the larger goal of re-opening the Al-Sabah Collection in its former home in the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait Museum Complex, which was destroyed a decade ago."
LWDLIK- I have re-posted this interesting interview, from last year, to share with you more info on this incredible collection and its owners. To learn more about the Al Sabah collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah and its cultural events:
Collection will be open to the public very soon.. so stay posted for opening date.