Exhibitions and events
Inspired by the east – connecting collections

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art is the latest milestone on the long road of exploring the relationship between Europe, America and what used to be called the ‘Orient’. Ten years ago, an exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia also examined these influences, focusing on the decorative arts of East and West. There were two ingredients missing then. The first was paintings, the second was the British Museum.

What we have now with this exhibition is a true collaboration between two institutions half way across the globe. By bringing these two museums and their collections together, we hope to present an updated study of the nexus between East and West. It is not an entirely new understanding, but rather more an analysis of different understandings – and misunderstandings – over the centuries.

The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia’s chief purpose is to highlight not just the achievements of Islamic culture, but its influence across generations. The museum looks back 1,400 years to Mecca, a cultural meeting place as complex as any in the 21st century. Inspired by the east focuses instead on 500 years of more recent encounters.

Model of the Alhambra – the fortified palace in Granada, southern Spain, built by its last Muslim rulers during the 1300s.
Diego Fernández Castro (b. 1847) late 19th century. Wood, enamel, plaster, bone inlay, alabaster. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Travel has changed a lot during this period – and so has the concept of the ‘East.’ For the purposes of this exhibition, the concept of the ‘East’ refers to the Middle East and North Africa. Some 19th century Western artists travelled or lived among Muslim communities. Others never strayed far from the comfort of their studios. Both categories of artists created works that enabled the growing population of Europe and America to see many different ‘Orients’. Most of the paintings struck a chord with Western audiences. Many showed a world that was worthy of respect. Such was its impact that a few of these Western travellers even converted to Islam after their exposure to the Muslim world, such as Nasreddine Dinet – a French artist formerly known as Alphonse Etienne Dinet.

At Prayer, Ludwig Deutsch (1855–1935), 1923 . Oil on panel.
© Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

These ‘Orientalist’ artists were then ignored for decades. But, at the same time that Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s book Orientalism was published in 1978, it became clear that the paintings he disapproved of were growing in popularity again.

During the late 20th century, it was the works of art themselves – rather than the unfavourable comments about the artists – that reawakened the interest of collectors around the world. This was especially true of the Islamic world. The numerous depictions of Muslims and their culture show that it was not all about negative stereotypes, generalisations or romanticisation. Through this exhibition both our museums are instead attempting to show a quest for understanding. Then, as now, art was a vehicle of wonder, admiration and enlightenment. 

Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847–1928), The Prayer. Oil on canvas, 1877.
© Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

These works of art have come almost full circle. What began as an inspiration to early western travellers and others encountering the Islamic world has led to these beautiful artworks, these impressions of the Orient. And these are what they are, impressions. Through this exhibition, we hope to shed light and perspective, both from the Western observer’s point of view, and the Eastern-observed point of view, through the various objects that form the basis of this inspiration. And the range is enormous, from a painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman of The Prayer to the Turkish Orientalist artist Osman Hamdi Bey’s Girl Reciting Qu’ran; from a 16th-century Iznik plate to a 19th-century near-perfect copy of the same plate by Theodore Deck. In all the examples used in this exhibition, the connections and influences are clear for visitors to see.

The French ceramicist Deck created a near-perfect imitation of an Ottoman plate (right) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.
Glazed and gilded pottery dish, Iznik, Turkey. Ottoman dynasty, 1601–1625.

The same level of cultural connectivity and curiosity from the West has rarely been seen over the last 100 years. Art offers new hope. With the British Museum, as well as other significant British institutions – and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia each providing half of the objects displayed in this exhibition, as well as half of the curatorial direction – it is beyond doubt that the title is apt.

The British Museum has a historic collection, ours is more recent. It is all the more pertinent, in this increasingly divisive world, that museums work together and play a bigger role in bridging that gap, no longer confining themselves to just being storehouses of the world’s cultural heritage alone. But instead, to present an impartial and fair narrative of the past, to focus on humanity rather than preconceptions, in order to instill respect and promote understanding of different cultures.

Early portrait medal of Muhammad Shah (ruled 1834–1848), 1835–1840. Enamel, diamonds, gold. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Both museums are committed to what the British Museum’s Director Hartwig Fischer has called the world’s ’shared humanity’. To quote from Rudyard Kipling, ’there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth’ when two seemingly hostile forces are brought together in the right circumstances. Kipling is seldom considered a messenger of universal respect and understanding, but even he was undoubtedly inspired by the East.

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art is open from 10 October 2019 – 26 January 2020. Find out more and book tickets.

Supported by Jack Ryan

Sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank

Organised with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia 

The exhibition will be at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, from 20 June – 20 October 2020.