The Colby Museum of Art’s newest edition: The Sea in a Jug

Through a partnership with the Welch Collection and Harvard Art Museum, the Colby Museum of Art has put together its newest exhibition: The Sea in a Jug: The Welch Collection of Islamic and Later Indian Art. This exhibit marks an important link between the museum and the College’s curriculum. the exhibit’s faculty partner, Professor Marta Ameri, and students in her class (Art and Architecture of the Islamic World 1258-1914) helped create the exhibit. Many of the art descriptions in the exhibit were written by her students.

The phrase “the Sea in a Jug” originally comes from the Masnavi, a book written by Persian theologian Rami. The title of the exhibit was proposed by one of Ameri’s students, Alaleh Naderi `21, who noted that the “largeness of the sea cannot fit into a jug, but the effort to store one day’s portion of water can help take away the thirst.” This “Sea in a Jug” concept is at the heart of the exhibit, Lunder Curator of American Art at the Colby Art Museum  Elizabeth Finch told the Echo. The scope of Islamic art is so vast that one gallery cannot do it justice. The idea behind the exhibit is to represent an  incredibly vast artistic tradition with a representative cross-section of works.

To illustrate the large span of Islamic culture and art, the exhibit includes a wall map of cities of historical importance to Islam, stretching from France to India. The map intentionally omits political borders, showing the boundless nature of Islamic art and influence. While Islamic art spans continents, centuries, and countless artists, several themes were chosen during the creation of the exhibit to help tell a story.

Much of the surviving Islamic art was commissioned by royalty, making it an integral part of the Princely Cycle. Works depicted in this section of the exhibit depict Islamic rulers living in the lap of luxury and signal these rulers’ power and prestige. The exhibit includes paintings as well as physical art, and displays a “push-dagger,” an ornamental dagger worn by rulers and noblemen in the Islamic world. This is one of the many ways in which the curators diversified the mediums of art featured in the exhibit.

The exhibit also features a majlis (Arabic for “council”), a seating with a rug and cushions against a wall. A majlis is traditionally an area for entertaining visitors in one’s house. In the same spirit, museum visitors can have a seat here and choose from a selection of adult and children’s books about Islamic art and history.

Other sections of the exhibit are based on the influence of nature in Islamic art, Islamic architecture, and Islamic calligraphy, all represented through a diverse array of mediums and eras. Several pieces will remain in the museum’s possession for up to three years, and will be available as an aid for many Colby classes, from history to religious studies. This is part of a growing initiative for object-based learning, in which students can become more involved with the actual material they are learning about.

Art historian Stuart Carey Welch was the original collector of many of the exhibit’s pieces. Welch, maintaining a longtime affiliation with Harvard University, spent decades studying and collecting Islamic art, and even re-produced the Shahnameh, an important historical Islamic book. Welch died in 2008, but his passion for this art lives on in exhibits like The Sea in a Jug.

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