Zahra Khademi (Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia) on a Qajar Underglaze-Painted Table Top

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Close Looking
from the 05/2019 Issue

Filed under: ceramics
The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) is a seminal and pivotal cultural institution dedicated to the arts and culture of places including, but not limited to, Southeast Asia, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Egypt. Its current exhibition looks at the Qajar dynasty, which was notable for its distinct shifts in visual language and culture. Sandwiched between two significant markers of history, the Safavid and Pahlavi dynasties respectively, this exhibition draws upon an extensive collection of Qajar ceramics to examine this region as it stood on the cusp of modernity.
Zahra Khademi has been working as a researcher at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia for five years. Her responsibilities revolve around the IAMM’s collection of Iranian art from the Islamic period. In performing her role as a Researcher, she conducts several tasks which include researching and writing, developing the acquisitions, and managing exhibitions, gallery talks and organising Iran-related events. She also has experience of working as a Cultural Heritage Expert at the headquarter of Iran's Cultural Heritage Handicrafts and Tourism Organization.

¹ Underglaze-Painted Table Top
Iran, c. 19th century, Qajar Period

Credit: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia


Zahra Khademi (ZK): I love this piece because it is representative of the museum’s collection of Qajar ceramics. This is a 19th-century portrayal of the well known story of Shaikh San’an receiving a cup of wine from a Christian maiden’s hand. This story is featured in Farid al-din Attar’s 12th-century work, The Conference of the Birds (Manteq al-tayr). There is an inscription that is in the centre of the table top, between the shaikh and the maiden, that evidences this.

The couple is surrounded by men — both young, unbearded men and older, bearded men. It is most likely that most of these men were religious dignitaries, and their differences in appearances can be read as markers of varying cultural backgrounds. This includes the size and shapes of their beards and moustaches, their hairstyles and their hats. It is interesting that Sufi-styled disciples stand on the side of Shaikh San’an, and beardless youths in European garb flank the Christian maiden.

This story has been depicted in manuscript paintings throughout history, but it received renewed interest in the 19th century. In Qajar Iran, parallels were drawn between Asian Persia and the figure of Shaikh San’an. On the other hand, the young Christian maiden functioned as a symbol for Europe. In the 19th century, interactions between Europe and Persia increased dramatically. Given that context, this story was now read allegorically as Persia falling in love with Europe.


ZK: The late nineteenth century was a period of transition for Persia. It was on a quest towards modernity, and wanted to secure its standing in an increasingly Eurocentric global order. We see this reflected in its arts and crafts production, particularly the iconography and techniques used in ceramics. If we categorise this broadly, ceramic production was informed by four main impulses — reviving the glory of Persia’s pre-Islamic ancestry, highlighting the glorious past of their Safavid roots, adhering to the strict religious precepts of the ulama, and stepping into modernity and westernisation (farangi ma’abi). As craftsmen oscillated between these notions, the outcome was a complex combination of artistic licence and societal compliance.

The kings ruling over Persia at the time were keen to modernise the country, and one of the ways they did this was to introduce European mannerisms and ways of life. If you visit the Golestan Palace in Tehran, you’ll see evidence of this shift in taste. The palace’s Container Halls (Talar e Zoruf) house a variety of European and Chinese porcelain items that highlight the Qajar kings’ preference for foreign objects. Using these luxury objects would have been considered a symbol of social status. As tastes and preferences shifted towards the European, the design and function of ceramic objects began to change as well.

Qajar ceramic production was also informed by the introduction of photography. Notably, Naser al-din Shah took to photography as a hobby and commissioned photographs of historic buildings in Iran. Besides photography, lithography was also brought to Iran. This new technology allowed books to be reproduced much quicker and with more illustrations. Potters and tile-makers would have undoubtedly had access to photographs and books that were now being brought into the country or produced at higher volumes. Although they might not have travelled to Europe themselves, they would have seen photographs and lithographs of Europe and its culture.

Paintings during this period of time were also produced on a large, monumental scale that hadn’t been seen before. Oil paintings from Europe were rather trendy, and the Shah sent Persian artists to Europe to study. When they came back, they were armed with new artistic notions such as realism and naturalism.

We’ve featured about 70 ceramic objects from our own collection in this exhibition, including flat tiles, dishes and chargers, bottles and pourers, vases and jars, hookah bases and spittoons, bowls and decorative vessels, such as kashkul (begging bowls). I titled this exhibition Qajar Ceramics: Bridging Tradition and Modernity because I felt that this title would be both realistic and accurate. Having conducted research into the period, I realised that there were simultaneous attempts to revive older techniques and utilise newly introduced foreign innovations in traditional crafts.

² Qajar Ceramics: Bridging Tradition and Modernity
Installation View at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Credit: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia


ZK: During the Qajar period, poverty and unrest affected the entire country and craftsmen were no exception. There was a drastic decline in pottery and ceramic exports and a lack of consistent patronage further impeded ceramic production. Furthermore, the capital of the empire was moved from Isfahan to Tehran in 1797 when the Qajar dynasty was founded. This weakened regional centres of pottery production.

In the face of these events, Qajar rulers played an important role in rejuvenating and supporting the arts. In particular, Fath Ali Shah’s patronage of the arts allowed for the production of ceramics to flourish. He commissioned the restoration of walls and the refurbishment of shrine complexes, such as the Fatima Masumeh Shrine in Qom. These projects required large quantities of glazed ceramic tiles, and so this would have formed the bulk of the ceramic production then. Later under the reign of Naser al-din Shah, the newspaper Waqāyeʿ-e ettefāqiya reported the shah’s order for Iranian pottery workshops to begin producing ceramics there were of better quality than imports from Europe. As a result of this decree, other aristocratic members of the royal family began turning their attention towards ceramic production and the development of better techniques of making. However, their efforts did not succeed. This was due stiff competition from cheap imported ceramics from East Asia and Europe. There was also a great lack of porcelain-making expertise as the working conditions of local craftsmen continued deteriorating.

Artists, including potters, would have been attuned to all of these different developments. Artists weren’t simply throwing off the shackles of tradition to run into modernity’s embrace or vice versa. The arts of the Qajar period is that of negotiation and transition.
³ Qajar Ceramics: Bridging Tradition and Modernity
Installation View at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Credit: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia


ZK: I dedicated a significant portion of the exhibition to the process of making and firing these ceramic objects because I think it is important that viewers get a sense of how these kilns would have worked. In our catalogue, we even provided readers with a timeline of how kilns have developed over time across different cities. Kilns would have looked different across Isfahan, Kashan, Azerbaijan and Tehran. We went into great detail about how ceramic objects would have been placed into these kilns as well, differentiating between tiles that would have been placed flat into the kiln and those that would have been placed standing. I wanted to give our readers and visitors as much information as we possibly could.

I also spent a lot of time consulting scholars and masters in Iran who possessed great knowledge of the skills involved pottery making. It was very important for me to study this field from Iranian masters (ustads) and scholars point of view, so as to collect, record and transfer this information for an international audiences. I am glad that all these efforts led to a publication and exhibition that is informed by historical context, the form of Qajar ceramics, newly discovered documents and treaties, and the pottery making technologies of the time.

I’m from the city of Lalejin in Bahar County, and it’s a wonderful centre for pottery production. The exhibition includes photographs of traditional kilns and workshops in Lalejin today, which my family help me to photograph. Lalejin celebrated its registration as the World Pottery Capital in 2016, a privilege given by jurors of the UNESCO-affiliated World Crafts Council. Production of earthenware in the city dates back 700 years, helping Lalejin become a hub for pottery in Iran. According to official statistics, more than 80% of the city's 17,000 residents are involved in pottery in one way or the other.

This tradition of pottery transcends generations, and is usually passed down from father to son. The processes that are being used today would be the same, if not very similar, to those used more than a hundred years ago during the Qajar period. The knowledge and skills of pottery making constitutes intangible cultural heritage, and needs to be safeguarded. Although the Iranian ceramic industry hasn’t been ascribed that status by UNESCO officially, I hope to raise awareness about this, and to showcase these families of potters’ knowledge as being worthy of that honour.
Qajar Ceramics: Bridging Tradition and Modernity is now open.
The exhibition will run at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) until 31 December 2019.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.

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