The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to Create New Galleries for Art of the Islamic Worlds, Slated to Open in Early 2023

Culminating a 15-year initiative, the new galleries will more than double the Museum’s gallery space for Islamic art, and feature masterworks from the Museum’s collection and the renowned collection of Hossein Afshar 

The prestigious al-Sabah Collection remains on view in its dedicated gallery space

HOUSTON—FEBRUARY 9, 2022—Today, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, announced that new galleries devoted to art from historic Islamic lands will open to the public in early 2023. With the new galleries more than doubling the Museum’s current gallery space for Islamic art, the MFAH will be able to present its permanent collection, enhanced by a significant selection of Persian masterworks from the distinguished collection of Hossein Afshar, and the exceptional objects on loan from The al-Sabah Collection. The extended loans from the Afshar collection are the second such partnership initiated by the Museum, the first being the 2012 landmark agreement with The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. The opening of the galleries culminates a major 15-year initiative at the MFAH to develop special exhibitions, new scholarship, signature acquisitions, and dynamic public programs.

The new galleries will be sited on the street level of the Mies van der Rohe–designed Caroline Wiess Law Building. While permanent gallery space has been devoted to Islamic art for almost a decade, with the new galleries, hundreds of additional works—exquisite paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, carpets, and metalwork spanning more than 1,000 years—will reflect the breadth of historic Islamic lands: present-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Türkiye, Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, and Morocco.

“Ten years ago, we established a landmark partnership with The al-Sabah collection to share with the MFAH their extraordinary holdings of art from Islamic lands. We remain enormously grateful to Sheikha Hussa Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah and the late Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah for that commitment, which continues today. These new and expanded permanent galleries devoted to Art of the Islamic Worlds are made possible by a new partnership with Hossein Afshar, creator of perhaps the most extensive collection of Iranian art in private hands. We are immensely grateful to Mr. Afshar, who has endowed a gallery for the Arts of Iran and placed his collection on long-term loan in Houston so that we may enhance our effort to reflect the city whose many communities we serve,” commented Gary Tinterow, Director and Margaret Alkek Williams Chair of the MFAH.

“The new galleries are a culmination of the strong partnership between the Museum, our dynamic Houston communities, and two extremely significant collections of Islamic art,” commented Aimée Froom, curator of Art of the Islamic Worlds at the MFAH. “We are proud to be one of the largest permanent displays in the United States for art of the Islamic worlds. The galleries are as diverse as Houston itself, and our goal is to continue to expand our presentation of the rich multiplicity of cultures and traditions as reflected in the extraordinary art from Islamic lands.”

Overview: The New Art of the Islamic Worlds Galleries
With nearly 6,000 square feet of space, including an adjoining garden, the new galleries will highlight a trove of major and in many cases rare objects never before presented in such depth. The Museum will be able to show, for the first time, the full strengths of its own collections, as well as the extraordinary range of Persian art from the Afshar collection, in a presentation that highlights the similarities and diversity of the art, and features some of the most fundamental aspects of Islamic art, such as the art of the word, as well as universal, enduring themes, including faith and piety, courtly splendor, love and longing, and earth and nature. Plans for the outdoor space include the eventual installation of a fountain and landscaping inspired by Islamic gardens.

Highlights of the inaugural installation include:

Iran, Rudaba’s Parents Converse about Her Love for Zal,” folio 77v from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, attributed to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz under the direction of Sultan Muhammad, c. 1520–40, ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper, the Hossein Afshar Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
• The union of Rudaba and Zal produces Rustam, the greatest hero of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings. This folio is from the celebrated copy of the Shahnama prepared for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (reigned 1524–76). The now-dispersed manuscript once included 759 text folios and 258 paintings of the highest quality.

Moroccan, Qur’an Manuscript in Maghribi Script, 1318, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on parchment.
• This magnificent Qurʾan manuscript is a rare survivor, with a colophon identifying the patron and date of production. Like many Qurʾan manuscripts from North Africa and Spain, this one was copied in the distinctive maghribi script, named after this region of western Islamic lands. Penned on parchment, it displays an elaborate program of illumination.

Türkiye, Tondino, first half of 16th century, stonepaste; painted in blue under transparent glaze.
• The delicate blue spiral scroll pattern of flowers and stems is characteristic of the earliest stone-paste ceramics produced in the famous Ottoman workshops of Iznik, Türkiye. This plate epitomizes the rich trade between Italy and Türkiye: Its shape is inspired by the Italian tondino. Similar to early Iznik wares, this dish emulates Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, borrowing East Asian visual motifs while also incorporating new decorative patterns.

Iran, “King Umberto II Polonaise” Carpet, early 17th century, silk pile, gilt-silver, and foil-wrapped silk thread on a foundation (warp and weft) of cotton and silk, the Hossein Afshar Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
• Lustrous silk pile and precious-metal-wrapped threads make this carpet one of the most exquisite examples woven by Safavid court weavers. Though they appear muted as a result of tarnish and fading, these carpets were once coveted in Europe for their brilliant sheen and bold colors. The moniker “Polonaise” was coined after examples woven with Polish coats of arms were shown at the 19th-century Exposition Universelle in Paris. This carpet was owned by the Italian royal family and was among the possessions of the House of Savoy until the 1983 death of Umberto II, last king of Italy.

India, Huqqa Base with Landscape, mid-17th century, zinc alloy; cast, engraved, and inlaid with silver and brass (bidri ware).
It is extremely rare to find architecture depicted on metalwork, and this example is the finest of its kind among known bidri ware pieces. Palm trees, willows, flowers, and an abundance of bird life overtake this seemingly abandoned structure. When the huqqa base was in use, bubbling water inside would have enhanced the sensory effect of the flowing stream rendered on the exterior.

The al-Sabah and Afshar Collections at the MFAH
The cornerstones of the Art of the Islamic Worlds presentations at the MFAH are nearly 1,400 objects that are on extended loan to the MFAH through landmark partnerships that share with the public two renowned private Kuwait-based collections.

Nearly 300 objects from The al-Sabah Collection, representing the full chronological, geographical, and media spread of art from the Islamic world, making it one of the most comprehensive and authoritative collections of Islamic art in the world, are on extended loan to the MFAH. The partnership was established by the Museum’s landmark 2012 agreement of cooperation with the late Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Sheikha Hussa Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah. The al-Sabah collection remains on view in its dedicated space in the Law Building, near the new galleries.

The Hossein Afshar Collection is one of the most significant collections of Persian art in private hands, assembled over the past 50 years. Some 1,043 masterworks are on extended loan to the MFAH following a 2017 agreement. The MFAH created two exhibitions from the Afshar collection: Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands (2017), presenting works from the 6th to the 19th century, which traveled to the High Museum of Art and the Toledo Museum of Art; and Between Sea and Sky: Blue and White Ceramics from Persia and Beyond (2020), which featured ceramics from the Afshar and MFAH collections. The presentation in the new galleries will be the most extensive yet of works from the Afshar collection.

About the Art of the Islamic Worlds Initiative
The early 2023 opening of the Art of the Islamic Worlds galleries marks more than 15 years since the launch of the AIW initiative at the MFAH. The initiative was established in 2007 by a patron group unique to Houston: philanthropists with strong cultural heritage links to historically Islamic lands who have committed to support acquisitions of Islamic art from across centuries and cultures—from North Africa to China; Central Asia to India. Since its start, more than a decade of exhibitions, acquisitions, scholarly research, and international collaboration has brought the achievements of Islamic artistic traditions to U.S. audiences. 

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Spanning 14 acres in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the main campus comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, the Caroline Wiess Law Building, the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, and the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present collections of American and European decorative arts. The MFAH is also home to the Glassell School of Art, with its Core Residency Program and Junior and Studio schools; and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.

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