Surface Versus Structure
The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries in the Near East broke down many old state and religious barriers and fostered the widespread extension of Islam throughout an area that eventually extended from Spain in the west, to India, and even Indonesia, in the east. This new common bond of faith and doctrine, spread through the medium of the Arabic language, is reflected in the astonishing variety of forms, techniques, and styles found in the arts of the Islamic world. The collection of the Rhode Island School of Design provides an opportunity to examine the technical skills and aesthetic achievements of Muslim artists and craftsmen, and more specifically those of Itan and other parts of the eastern Islamic world. One immediately noticeable trait of Islamic art that developed over the centuries was an inclination towards highly sophisticated surface treatment over refinements of form and structure -- a characteristic which also predominates in Islamic architecture, where dazzling surface decoration covers large flat surfaces that seldom fully express a building's interior volumes or spatial organization. There is no parallel distinction in either Arabic or Persian between our terms "decorative arts" and "fine arts." With respect to local terminology, the most useful distinction lies between products of the library (kitabkhana), where incredibly refined schools of painting and calligraphy were patronized, and the workshops (karkhanas) where everything from wine cups to prayer carpets and tomb cases were crafted by a diverse range of artisans. In this exhibition, the main focus falls on ceramics and metalwork although it will be apparent that spectacular accomplishments were also made in stone and wood carving. A number of textiles have also been added to provide a more appropriate visual context for the other objects.