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'Gifts of the Sultan' exhibition made whole — in Qatar

The Los Angeles County Museum of Arts exhibition was diminished by Russia's ban on art and artifacts loans to American museums. A LACMA team helped set up Qatar show.

April 04, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Lithographs pertaining to 1829-30 diplomatic mission of Khusraw Mirza of Iran to Russian Court.
Lithographs pertaining to 1829-30 diplomatic mission of Khusraw Mirza… (LACMA )

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art finally has fulfilled the vision it had for its biggest foray into Islamic art — a goal thwarted until now by the government of the Russian Federation.

The only problem is that Angelenos would have to travel more than 8,000 miles to see it.

In "Gifts of the Sultan: the Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts," now on view in Doha, the capital of Qatar, art that Islamic rulers had sent long ago to the czarist courts are finally on display — courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum and National Library of Russia inSt. Petersburg, and the Kremlin Museum in Moscow.

Russia's ban on art and artifacts loans to American museums forced LACMA to exhibit a somewhat diminished version of the show. Both in L.A. and at its next stop, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, about 30 works that Russian museums had agreed to lend to the exhibition before the ban never went on display.

Initiated in the fall of 2010, the embargo imposed by Russia's Ministry of Culture remains in effect, despite the State Department's ongoing efforts to work out a resolution.

The ban stems from Russia's ire over an American federal court ruling in mid-2010, ordering it to return a trove of sacred books and rabbinical writings known as the Schneerson Library to Chabad, a Jewish religious movement that began in 18th century Russia. The texts had been seized during the Russian Revolution, before Chabad was transplanted to its current home in the United States.

With loans from many other sources and pieces from LACMA's own collection, the L.A. and Houston iterations of "Gifts of the Sultan" still had more than 200 works.

But for Linda Komaroff, the curator of Islamic art who put together "Gifts of the Sultans," a LACMA team's three-week visit in March to install the show at Qatar's Museum of Islamic Art provided some delayed satisfaction. "It was worth it to me to put another six months of my life into it, to see the show the way I envisioned it," she said this week. "It does look better with the Russian loans."

"A lot of glitzy objects" were on view in L.A. despite the Russian boycott, Komaroff said, but "this was the extra bling — the jewel-encrusted saddle and stirrups, and all kinds of other courtly paraphernalia, and they're just spectacular looking. It's an array that added another layer of meaning. It was exciting for me to see it, but I wish it was in the exhibition here."

Perhaps the most striking piece denied to Angelenos remains missing from the show in Qatar — a gold- and silk-embroidered Turkish tent from the 1700s that was a gift to Catherine the Great. Komaroff said that even before the ban came down, she and her counterparts at the Hermitage had been wrestling with how to set the tent up properly while on tour. In St. Petersburg it has a custom-made aluminum and plexiglass support grid that couldn't be transported, and in the end, she said, the Hermitage decided not to let it travel.

Komaroff said she was happy to meet curators and directors of the three Russian museums at the March 18 opening in Doha. The ban clearly came from higher government authorities, she said, and there were no hard feelings among museum folk on either side.

"If it were up to curators and museum directors around the world, we'd all get along," Komaroff said. "We recognize the importance of these cultural interchanges. I don't know if our governments always recognize it."

The ban puzzles Americans such as Sarah Pratt, a USC professor of Slavic languages and literatures who studies cultural relations between America and Russia.

Chabad tried to help LACMA last May — to no avail — by filing a legal stipulation saying it would not "disrupt in any manner the nonprofit exchange of art and cultural objects between the Russian and American people, which is fully protected by the law of the United States."

"There's nothing on the surface that makes any sense that anybody can tell," Pratt said. "Nobody I know can quite fathom it. It may be one of those things that is dictated by certain internal pressures that we can't see."

In talks with State Department officials last year as LACMA tried to reassure Russian officials and secure the loans, Komaroff said, she learned that Russian authorities weren't satisfied with the law safeguarding foreign art loans from seizure and wanted a separate treaty with the United States to cover exchanges of cultural property.

Asked for an update, a State Department spokesman said the issue remains unresolved and discussions are ongoing. The Russian Embassy's press office inWashington, D.C.did not return calls, and Seth Gerber, Chabad's attorney, said it had no comment.

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