The Qajar Ceramics – Bridging Tradition And Modernity exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) in Kuala Lumpur is not your average pottery show.
Qajar Ceramics, which runs till Dec 31 at IAMM’s Special Gallery 2, took the museum’s curatorial staff and researchers nearly two-and-a-half years to put together.
The exhibition, which features a total of 78 artefacts from the 19th and early 20th century, offers a closer look at the distinctive characteristics of Qajar ceramics, highlighting their forms, aesthetics and themes.
From beautiful vases with floral motifs to fritware tiles and dishes depicting stories from Persian epics and legends, the artefacts are truly a reflection of the Persian civilisation’s artistry, finesse, beauty and splendour.
“Many museums around the world don’t really highlight works from the Qajar period, one of the reasons being availability of exhibits.
“Since we have a huge collection of Qajar ceramics here at the museum, we decided to highlight it in this year long exhibition,” says curator Zulkifli Ishak during a recent interview at the museum.
More than that, the exhibition offers an insightful study into the Qajar dynasty, which marked Iran’s transition into modernity, championed by Naser al-Din Shah, one of the Qajar rulers.
Making several trips to European countries, Naser introduced Western science, technology and educational methods to his country and tried to convert traditional Persian art into modern styles but still keeping it traditional at the same time.
“The Qajar-era was a time of struggle to maintain Persian tradition and identity while embracing innovation and modernity.
“Inspiration was found by artists in the Qajar dynasty in the traditions of the grand Persian empires of old such as the Sasanian empire while at the same time incorporating modern ideas from Europeans that were making headway in Persian society,” explains Zulkifli, 38.
“They struggled to catch up with modernity but at the same time, they really adored their past history, the former Persian glory.”
In keeping things accessible, the exhibition is divided into 10 themes such as epic stories, floral motifs, loving couples and colours.
There is also a small section that shows ceramic artefacts which are defective.
“Where (handmade) craft is involved, there is bound to be mistakes and defects. We wanted to highlight the struggles of the ceramists,” says Zulkifli.
The exhibits are divided between flat tiles and pottery, which include plates and vessels and reflect the main decorative schools of Isfahan and Tehran.
While the ceramics produced at the Isfahan school carry a more floral motif, those made at the Tehran school mostly emphasise royal-historical motifs, battlefield themes and everyday life scenes.
Also, images of Persian heroes might have been intentionally used to solidify the rule of the Qajar dynasty by tying Qajar royalty to Persian mythological kings.
One of the highlights at the exhibition is a 19th century Qajar fritware dish with a short foot-ring depicting a demure woman’s face at its centre, known as khorshid khanum.
The khorshid khanum, a popular mythical motif used to adorn various objects produced during the Qajar-era, reflects the typical ideal of female beauty, which includes arched and connected eyebrows, large eyes and a small closed mouth with a beauty spot above.
Another highlight is a Qajar tile panel, which is probably the oldest artefact in the exhibition.
According to Amin Amirdabbaghian – an Iranian PhD researcher involved in the exhibition – the panel is composed of 24 fritware tiles that date back to late 18th century.
“Based on the motif series used in the panel, which is full of symbolism, there seems to be a heavy influence of the Safavid dynasty which was before the Qajar dynasty,” says Amin, 30, referring to one of the most important ruling dynasties in Iran from 1501 to 1722.
The scene depicted is that of a paradise-like garden with a central blue vase, the base of which features two peacocks and flanked by two cypress trees.
Amin says the cypress tree, which symbolises immortality, is an influence from Zoroastrianism which was the major pre-Islamic religion in Iran while the peacocks, an Indian influence, represents beauty.
There is also a research publication, which carries the same name as the exhibition, available for purchase, providing an in-depth look into the Qajar dynasty and the artefacts on exhibit.