Al-Sabah in Seoul: Art from the Islamic Civilization at National Museum of Korea

Al-Sabah in Seoul

"I am a lifelong learner and art has been a great teacher." 

-Sheikha Hussah Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, Co-owner of the Al-Sabah Collection

The Taj Mahal, the Grand Mosque of Djenné, Andalusian calligraphy. All are contributions to the (art) world afforded to us by Islam. They are aesthetic expressions that aim to reach into divine dimensions. We hear of jihadists (often with Arabic names) and listen to pundits who exacerbate people’s ignorance of a faith with one billion plus adherents and feel intimated, sometimes reviled,  by a part of the world that a lot of people may not come into contact with, let alone understand at the most basic of levels. Surely the more we are aware of a culture’s contribution to humanity, the more we can appreciate it. Admire it perhaps.

For this reason I am delighted that the Art from the Islamic Civilization exhibit is currently running in Seoul at the National Museum of Korea thru October 20th. The exhibit is a slice of 300 artifacts from Kuwait's Al-Sabah collection. Some of the pieces are truly mesmerizing. I found myself being drawn into the various Qur’ans on display as well as the marble and wooden pieces with in-laid Arabic calligraphy. At $10 USD I found the exhibit pricey by Korean standards (a lot of museums in Korea are free or cost less than $5), but considering what is on display, I considered the price of admission a true bargain. 

I think the organizers did a phenomenal job with the presentation and staging of the exhibit. The rooms are adorned with Arabic arches that give the venue a North African vibe. I’ve had a very fond experience with Islam due to personal and travel experiences, but I was interested in how the exhibit would be received by its Korean patrons. Would they think suicide vests would be on display? Would their eyes roll over in boredom? While in line waiting to purchase my ticket there was a Korean woman waiting to gain entrance to the general museum (the part that displays Korean history). When she realized she was in the wrong line, she huffed, “ISLAM?!?” and quickly dropped out of the queue. Would the display do Islamic art any justice? Would it provide any elucidation? China is by no means a muslim country, but you can’t stroll around Beijing with coming across a fair share of Chinese operated halal restaurants. Yet Seoul is a city of 10 million plus, and you can probably count the number of Korean muslims in Seoul on a few pairs of hands.

To my observation the exhibit was very well received. Interestingly enough, there were a lot of children present— presumably in summer camps— at the exhibition. They really seemed engaged and impressed, as were the adults. I think what helped were the smart phone-like audio guides that gave detailed information about the pieces on display. Moreover, some of the items of the exhibit were inspiring in their own right. Many a camera were snapping and the artifacts stimulated a lot of discussions. Having spent a fair share of time around Korean youth, my presumption would be that the words #islam #museum #art wouldn't generate much interest. However, I think Sheikha Husah’s exhibit has helped to pique the curiosity of those who get the opportunity to attend . . . and maybe some will leave awe-inspired.