Special Exhibitions

Pearls of Wisdom: 
The Arts of Islam at the University of Michigan
October 15–December 21, 2014

Pearls of Wisdom image

In his treatise on penmanship, the medieval calligrapher Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi equates the calligrapher’s art of beautiful writing to a jeweler stringing pearls. To his mind, both practitioners order the universe in a wise and harmonious fashion. A calligrapher’s training begins with learning the proper proportions of beautiful writing. In the Arabic script, this proportional system of writing is based on the rhomboid—the shape the ink-soaked tip of the reed pen makes when impressed on a writing surface. Each letter of the alphabet is then formed proportionately by measuring its height and width with strands of rhomboids. These calligraphic measuring marks indeed appear as if strings of pearls, thus revealing a continuously dynamic and creative engagement across art forms within Islamic traditions.

The objects included in this exhibition served a wide variety of functions and span several centuries in time. Rather than arranged chronologically, geographically, or by media, the objects in the exhibition are organized by themes inspired by al-Tawhidi. These include the intersections between function and decoration, the aesthetic power of everyday objects, visual play, wit, and magic, connections across art forms, and light symbolism and illumination. Therefore, the exhibition not only highlights the strengths of the collections at the University of Michigan but also explores various themes integral to the conception and production of art in the Islamic world from the medieval period until the present day.

Click here for the online version of the exhibition, which includes a list of events and supplementary materials.