Provo • Sure, the bowls, figurines, tapestries and manuscripts are stunning historical artifacts. But to Sabiha Al Khemir, they are even more. They are building a bridge of understanding between the Islamic and Western worlds.
And they are going on display at a Mormon school.
"If people are touched and their hearts are open, they will do the work [to understand]," said Al Khemir, a Tunisian-born art expert and project director for "Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges With the Arts of Islamic Culture," an exhibit set to launch its U.S. tour at Brigham Young University in February.
Al Khemir, along with representatives of BYU's Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Newark (N.J.) Museum and the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum, announced this week the start of the traveling exhibition in Provo.
The show will feature more than 250 Islamic items from museums and collections in the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The objects range from functional items, such as bowls, to the sacred, including handmade pages from the Quran. There will also be a virtual interactive display so viewers can get even closer to some of the objects.
Al Khemir credits the idea to Campbell Gray, the former director of BYU's art museum who suggested a small show for the Provo campus back in 2008.
"Little did we know it would grow," said Al Khemir, founding art director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
First, more relics were added. Then the museums in Oregon, Indiana and New Jersey signed on, followed by the theme of creating bridges to cultural understanding.
The project already has spanned some logistical chasms. Witness the who's who of institutions lending objects to the show: the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, the Benaki Museum in Athens, the Library of the Kingdom of Morocco and members of the Kuwaiti royal family.
"When you have that sincerity and belief, you keep crossing [the cultural bridges]," Al Khemir said. "You don't question. I kept going, and they kept going with me."
She hopes museum-goers will put aside any prejudices and let the art reveal what is in Muslim hearts.
Early on, Al Khemir crossed her own personal bridge. When Gray contacted her, she knew little about Mormons. Now she knows much more.
On the surface, BYU owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seemed an unlikely place to stage an Islamic art show. But Mark Magleby, BYU's museum director, called the union a perfect fit.
Mormons, he said, are "most sympathetic to religious diasporas."
Magleby noted Mormons also share with Muslims and other groups a history of using art and imagery to convey religious messages. And Latter-day Saints, like Muslims, have suffered from stereotypes stemming from their beliefs.
Magleby and the other museum directors agree that the exhibit will help viewers see what they share in common. Some of the imagery echoes that of Christianity and Judaism.
"I'm always fascinated at the resonance between different religious groups," said Mary Sue Price, the Newark Museum's director. "African-Americans and Jews talk about the travails of the ancient Jews, and African-Americans understand it."
Nadeem Ahmed, a trustee of the Utah Islamic Center, welcomes the exhibit and planned to announce it at Friday services.
"Any kind of education and knowledge of each other," Ahmed said, "is good to build bridges and understand each other."
And art is an especially effective tool, Ahmed said, because it can bring pleasure without preaching.
About the exhibit
"Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges With the Arts of Islamic Culture" opens at BYU's Museum of Art next year and then goes on the road. Here are the exhibition dates:
BYU Museum of Art, Feb. 24-Sept. 29
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Nov. 2-Jan. 13, 2013
Newark Museum, Feb. 13, 2013-May 19, 2013
Portland Art Museum, June 15, 2013-Sept. 8, 2013
For more information, go to http://www.beauty-and-belief.com
On the Web
"Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges With The Arts of Islam": http://www.beauty-and-belief.com.