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'Gifts of the Sultan' opening at LACMA

June 4, 2011 | 10:00 am

ShahThe Mogul emperor Shah Jahan sits cross-legged, in three-quarters profile, wearing a magnificent purple robe, jewels draped around his neck, a gold cloth wrapped around his head. His fine features are set off by a full beard and a slight smile. The emperor, who ruled India for 30 years and built the Taj Mahal, sits in the center of a busy painting, a constellation of supplicants swirling around him like planets orbiting a star.

The small but lovely picture, no bigger than a laptop screen, depicts the Persian Ambassador Muhammad Ali Beg offering tribute to Shah Jahan. Courtiers and soldiers flank a gilded throne, while at the bottom of the painting a parade of bearers lifts trays of gifts for the emperor’s dilection.

Those gifts — and the act of giving — are the subject of a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art running through Sept. 5. Called “Gifts of the Sultan,” the show brings together artifacts from 40 institutions, as far afield as Paris and Doha, Qatar, including reuniting manuscript pages that had been cut up and sold to collectors.

“It’s the first exhibition I’ve conceived post 9/11,” says LACMA curator Linda Komaroff. “I was interested in a universal theme that wouldn’t just apply to Islamic art. Islamic art isn’t an easy topic in general to digest. The average person isn’t familiar with it. But gift giving is something we understand.” (Several dozen works from Russia planned for the show won’t be seen because of a continuing legal dispute over Russian loans.)

The picture of Shah Jahan, which comes from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, is a good example. It depicts the act of giving and was itself a gift to the House of Windsor from India.

For the Arts & Books article on the exhibition, click here.

-- Michael J. Ybarra

Photo: Shah Jahan Receives the Persian Ambassador, Muhammad Ali Beg. Ink, colors and gold on paper. Credit: The Royal Collection, Windsor.