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Building the Moroccan Court

I laid the groundwork for this post a week ago, but then ran out of steam. Let me see if I can resurrect it.

To start with, quoting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of the galleries for Islamic art in their online gallery guide,

On November 1, 2011, the Department of Islamic Art reopened its fifteen galleries after an eight-year renovation. The new galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia were renovated and reorganized in accordance with current thinking in the field and with modern museological practices.

I wrote a post the previous April describing a visit to the Met during which we were fortunate to get “a sneak peak of a small new room with wooden ceiling and walls being carved as we watched by Moroccan craftsmen. This will be a must-see when the space re-opens near the end of the year.”

Unbeknownst to me, the NYT had given this new space extensive coverage just two weeks earlier, with an article, a slide show, and a short video. From Randy Kennedy’s article:

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art makes a big curatorial decision, it tends to do so with the kind of grave deliberation that goes into a papal bull. Gut feeling is not a prized consideration. But in the spring of 2009, in a dust-covered basement workshop in Fez, Morocco, a young curator in the museum’s Islamic department sat among a group of artisans — workers in traditional North African tile, plaster and wood ornament whose roots stretched back seven generations in the trade — and asked the company’s chief executive yet again why the museum should enlist them for an unusual mission.

The executive, a boyish-looking man named Adil Naji, reached over and took hold of the wrist of one of his younger brothers, Hisham. He hoisted the brother’s rough, callused fingers in front of the curator, Navina Haidar, and, with a climactic intensity that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Lawrence of Arabia,” exclaimed, “Look, this is my brother’s hand!”

As Ms. Haidar recalled recently, back in the much less cinematic confines of a museum construction site: “It was a very powerful moment. It made up our minds because we could see how close he was to the tradition. And we wanted to see that hand on our walls.”

She and her colleagues had gone to Morocco in search of help for a kind of project that the Metropolitan, which generally concerns itself with the work of dead artists, has rarely undertaken in its 140 years: to install a group of living artists inside the museum for the purposes of creating a permanent new part of its collection.

The last time such a thing happened was in 1980, when Brooke Astor underwrote the re-creation of a Ming dynasty garden courtyard, made by more than two dozen master builders from Suzhou, China, who spent four months on the job within the museum’s Chinese painting galleries, working with hand tools unchanged for generations.

Almost 30 years later the museum was embarking on the most ambitious rethinking and rebuilding of its Islamic art galleries in its history, a $50 million endeavor. At the heart of those galleries, which will open in the fall after being closed six years, it dreamed of showcasing the defining feature of Moroccan and southern Spanish Islamic architecture: a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard, which would function in much the same way such courtyards still do in the traditional houses and mosques of Marrakesh or Casablanca, as their physical and spiritual center.

The problem was that, while the museum owns entire blocks’ worth of historic architecture, it did not happen to have a medieval Islamic courtyard sitting around in storage anywhere. And so after months of debate about whether it could pull off such a feat in a way that would meet the Met’s standards, it essentially decided to order a courtyard up.

Which is how a group of highly regarded Moroccan craftsmen, many of whom had never set foot in New York, came essentially to take up residence at the Met beginning last December, working some days in their jabador tunics and crimson fezzes (known as tarbooshes in Morocco), to build a 14th-century Islamic fantasia in seclusion high above the Greek and Roman galleries as unknowing museum goers passed below.

One week ago, the Met released a 17 3/4 minute video (embedded at the top of the post) telling the story of the courtyard. The video’s blurb:

In 2011, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia, which house the Museum’s renowned collection of Islamic art. A vital part of the installation is the Patti Cadby Birch Court, a Moroccan court built by a team of experts—from curators and historians to designers and craftsmen—over many months. Complementing the works on view, which span the past fourteen hundred years, the Moroccan Court provides an experience of space and architecture, and demonstrates artistic traditions that still thrive in the Islamic world. This video documents a marvelous journey from Fez to New York, and the creation of a twenty-first-century court using traditional, fifteenth-century methods.

Next time you have 18 free minutes, watch it. You’ll be glad you did. Among some of the highlights is the sweet moment, after the NYT article quoted above had appeared, when the craftsmen arrive at work as local celebrities.

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