New IMA exhibit informative, overwhelming

Walking into the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s new special exhibit “Beauty and Belief,” the first thing that caught my eye was a projected image of a phrase written in Arabic calligraphy.

“God is the Creator of Everything.”

Below the image, an almost 30-foot-long scroll stretched the length of the first room. On it, legal statements, verses from the Qu’ran and other writings mixed together.

This first room was almost perfect. The projected phrase presented the visitors with the essence of all the Islamic art in the exhibit: coming from God, in God’s words for the benefit of God.

The scroll represented the importance of written language to Islamic art, and also the intricacy with which the art of the exhibit was created.

However, the room was marred by the diagrams on the side walls.

One, depicting a huge timeline, presented an undigestible amount of information about the history of the Islamic world. The timeline works perfectly well for the exhibit catalogue, where a reader can flip back to it as a reference as he or she reads the text.

It does not work at all in the exhibit, however, obfuscating the beautiful presentation of the projected calligraphed phrase and exhausting the visitor before he or she even enters the bulk of the exhibit.

On the second wall, a giant map is meant to depict the size of the Islamic world, which spread quickly from its Arabian center.

The map, which on its own is not  very impactful, also detracts from the simple-yet-powerful projected phrase.

This first room represents both what was fantastic about the exhibit and what was flawed.

The works in the exhibit, which is quite large, were beautiful in and of themselves, and revealed much about Islamic culture.

The intricacy with which the artists crafted their works is astounding.

One of my favorite pieces was a leaf which bore a calligraphed character. The artist used a technique which left the veins of the leaf in tact but the skin only within the boundaries of the character. It was beautifully organic.

The works had impact in that they were by-and-large made to serve functional purposes, yet they still speak to the larger Islamic belief system.

Tiled floor, bowls, incense burners and even a jug filter were all displayed, and each presented a different facet of Islam.

The exhibit curators were right to point these connections out in their descriptions on the walls of the exhibit.

I learned a lot about Islamic art and culture from “Beauty and Belief” which, honestly, is the whole point.

Nevertheless, it is important for visitors to understand how to approach the exhibit, which involves looking at its flaws.

The curators present too much information. The wall diagrams, followed immediately by a video introduction to the exhibit, taxes the visitor immensely.

Exhaustion and over-saturation is a real problem, and would have been easy to correct.

Instead of presenting the whole timeline of Islamic history in the first room, for example, the curators would have been better off splitting it up and putting pieces by relevant pieces from those periods.

The simple truths of Islamic art, which elegantly present the essence of the art in the exhibit (the Arabic-English translation wall, for example), should have played a more prominent role.

That said, the exhibit is well worth visiting if approached the right way. Do not try to read everything. Glance at the timeline if you wish, but don’t get concerned with all the dates. Skip the video presentation entirely.

For the rest of the exhibit, soak in the elements that tie the diverse collection together: intricacy, every-day materials presenting religious messages and, overall, the absolute dedication of all art to God.

The exhibit is open through January 13, 2013. Tickets are $12 for adults, and the exhibit is well worth the admission.

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