By Clara Chivers
The Converging on the Object symposium took place just before closing of The Courtauld Gallery exhibition Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq. ‘The Courtauld Bag’, a piece of Islamic metal work dated c.1300, is the focus of this exhibition, which argues that the object is of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty. Court and Craft, alongside this symposium, marks a significant moment in the history of The Courtauld, which is consciously widening the scope of their scholarship into non-western art. The bag is intriguing; there are questions about its provenance, date and purpose. The coordinator of the symposium Dr Sussan Babaie aptly descried the event as ‘a response to the challenges posed by the silence of the object.’ Converging on the Object was a hugely rewarding day. By approaching the ‘Courtauld Bag’ through their various specialities, the speakers brought it to life and this interdisciplinary approach opened up the transcultural possibilities for its interpretation.
Curator at The Courtauld Gallery, Alexandra Gerstein, revealed how the gallery came to acquire the bag. Considering the collecting practices in 19th-century England, Alexandra discussed the object within the context of the collecting of Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-88), whose collection is now at The Courtauld. Judith Pfeiffer from the University of Oxford dated the bag in the Ilkhanid period of Mongol rule (1255-1353 CE). She explored the richness of the visual and literary changes which reveal the complex and ongoing cultural exchange during this time. Pfeiffer focused the historian and statesman Rashid al-Din, who developed a new vision of the human past and present. As the Mongols adopted Islam, Islam itself changed, which had significant ramifications for its material culture.
Ruba Kana’an from the Aga Khan Museum analysed the bag into the marketplace and the context of Mongol traders and craftsmen. This paper explores the rich material culture of Mosul and by focusing on legal texts it reveals how metalworks were commissioned. Many of the objects in the exhibition describe Mongol ritual feasting and so a timely (post lunch) speaker, Paul D. Buell of the Max Plank Institute, Berlin shed analysed Mongol food and drink.
Ladan Akbarnia from the British Museum presented an interesting comparative piece: a coffer at the the Brooklyn Museum. Comparing this to the Courtauld Bag was an opportunity to discuss the fluidity of cultural identity, East-West cultural connections and Chinese synthesis in the post-Mongol period. Independent Conservator Diana Heath offered us a wealth of information from her close technical examination, showing some fascinating images from before and after the conservation work occurred.
In a thought-provoking finale, the contemporary Iraqi-born artist, Jananne Al-Ani, discussed her recent series of film and photographic works. It became clear how her artistic practice impacts the way she understands the surface of the bag. For Jananne the intricate patterns on the surface of the object naturally translate into the abstract forms of desert landscapes from her aerial photographs.
In her conclusion, Sussan remarked that the bag remains ‘alive.’ Indeed, the symposium considered only a handful of ways this piece could be interpreted and showed that there were many other avenues of research. In the final discussion Professor Deborah Swallow commented that the notion of the limitless ways in which we can see objects is an inspiring metaphor for what our discipline of art history is about.