Art: Hajj, Journey to the Heart of Islam

Avoid Grayson Perry’s urns for a fresh experience of what the British Museum does best: a stunning and informative exploration of a religious practice

-George E Harris

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Until 15 April 2012

Grayson Perry’s reign of terror is dissipating.  The British Museum has offered an outstanding series of special exhibitions in recent years, but for several months there has only been a confusing “art exhibition” of his unremarkable sculptures.  Opening this week, Hajj – journey to the heart of Islam is one of the Museum’s trademark explorations of a religious practice, combining history and artwork to educate the visitor with a consistent theme.  You can now save the price of a ticket to Perry’s circus for a fresh experience of everything the Museum does best.

The new exhibition is set in centre of the museum, in the dome shaped Reading Room, and is split into ten loose partitions.  On the way into the room, the Muslim call to prayer can be heard faintly in the background.  Along with an introduction to the 5th pillar of Islam, there is a collection of quotations and images of those who have made the pilgrimage.  The Hajj is described as “a journey in space to the centre towards which one has always turned one’s face in prayers”, which sets the tone in the exhibition’s task of sharing with non-Muslims an idea of the experience and undertaking.

The exhibition is not merely a study of Islam.  Like recent exhibitions including Treasures of Heaven, the metaphysical origin of the pieces is described from a secular perspective.  The five different pilgrimage routes that took prominence throughout history are presented as glimpses into the lives of those who travelled them.  There are many of the books, pieces of navigational equipment and items of clothing that ancient and medieval travellers took with them. The most impressive of these items is a large palanquin used to transport the Sultans to Mecca as recently as the 1920s.  While the focus is on history at this point, it’s disappointing that the dates and claims of the Koran are related as fact.  This was probably a pre-requisite of King Abdullah’s support for the exhibition, but the blurring of the boundaries between legend and fact tarnishes the quality of the experience.

The most impressive pieces follow this section, and explore the textiles used to clothe the Ka’ba, the cube shaped ‘house’ at the centre of the sanctuary in Mecca.  The woven door to this building is exceptional, a sumptuous work that heaves with the detailed script woven across its vast expanse.  There is also a short film featuring some stunning aerial shots of the modern day pilgrimage, and breathtaking photographs of the entire sanctuary crammed with neat rows of worshippers.

Before the ending section that deals with the journey home, the curator has included a series of works of art capturing the Hajj.  The best of these is Ahmed Mater’s photographs comparing the thousands of pilgrims to minute circles of iron filings.

While Hajj does not contain such jaw dropping pieces as past exhibitions like Kingdom of Ife and Book of the Dead, it is a welcome return to form for the British Museum, and will educate and inspire visitors.  The exhibition breaks new ground in what it offers, and provides a moving centrepiece to the museum’s wealth of historic and artistic wonders.

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