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Why was Dallas selected to receive an Islamic Art Collection loan?

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Dallas is increasingly becoming an attraction and sponsor of Islamic art, culture, and intellectualism. Even though the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex doesn’t have the largest American Muslim population, it has become a cultural center of diverse Muslim discourses including interfaith, art, religious scholarship, and civic culture.

From the New York Times to the Dallas Morning News, national press has been talking about last week’s announcement by the Dallas Museum of Art of acquiring a large Islamic Art collection on loan as of May 2014. The collection comes from London, England, where it was kept by its owner and collector, Edmund de Unger, a Hungarian orientalist who was passionate about Islamic art which he had collected over decades during the 20th century.

The Keir Collection, named after the house where de Unger lived and kept his treasures, is being loaned to the Dallas Museum of Art by de Unger’s sons who inherited their father’s estate after he passed away. The loan is a renewable 15 year agreement, where the trustees of the collection assume all costs of packaging and shipping as well as conservation and printing material. The Dallas Museum will assume the costs of insuring the collection according to the Dallas News.

Interestingly, the loan is in practice a steal from the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. According to the New York Times, the collection was to be loaned to the Germans until a Mrs. Sabiha El Khemir, identified as a scholar of Islamic Art, convinced the trustees of the collection to give it to Dallas where it would have a bigger exposure! By acquiring this 2000 piece collection, the United States adds to its wealth of Islamic Art and Dallas becomes the country’s third major and most important owner/host of Islamic Art collections (after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC.)

Now, many people are amazed that Dallas would be acquiring such a large and valuable portfolio of Islamic art. Sabiha El Khemir, the scholar who is now acting as the advisor to the Dallas Museum of Art about the Keir Collection, was quoted (or perhaps misquoted) to have called Dallas a “tabula rasa” of Islamic Art. “Tabula rasa” means a blank slate. Actually, I see Dallas otherwise. Dallas has been a cradle of Muslim cultural discourses and exchanges for a few decades now. By no means is this city or its metroplex a blank slate or a newcomer to Islamic art specifically. The Islamic Art Revival Series, the CAMSCI at UNT, the screening of the documentary Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World , the upcoming Legacy of Timbuktu exhibit, and many other initiatives and events make Dallas fertile ground for a new and bigger seed in Islamic art cultural exchange. North Texas indeed has paved the grounds years ago for a cultural growth in Muslim American exchanges. And this is why this collection is coming to a location near you, right here in Dallas.

So what is Dallas going to see in this huge collection coming to town in May? Dallas Museum of Art Director, Maxwell Anderson, said that the collection will be introduced by its “signature work, the rock crystal ewer, or pitcher.” Other art crafts include carpets and textiles, lusterware, manuscripts, rare rock crystal vessels from the 10th to the 12th centuries, among other things that represent a geographical area that stretches throughout the Middle East and Asia.

The Muslim community in Dallas is looking forward to this exhibition as another way to bridge relations with the non-Muslim culture. Art is a unique tool to bring peace and understanding because it speaks a common language, that of beauty. Let us see what this new ambassador of hope will bring to our city and country. See you all at the Dallas Museum of Art in May!

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