Baltimore filmmaker shines light on Islamic art

A fragment of an 18th century Quran covering the chapters 19  through 23, in the collection of the Walters Art Museum

Matters of faith continue to divide people in dreadful ways, but there has always been at least one thing that religions have in common — the urge to express belief through art.

That's a point driven home in a sumptuous 90-minute documentary by Baltimore filmmaker Robert Gardner airing this week on PBS. "Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World," narrated by Susan Sarandon, provides a welcome look into a cultural legacy little known and little appreciated in this country.

"There are many, many shows about Western art," Gardner said, "but just about no television documentaries about Islamic art."

Part of a series called PBS Arts Summer Festival, hosted by Baltimore-born actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, "Islamic Art" explores such architectural gems as the Taj Mahal and the Great Mosque of Damascus, intricate metalwork, vibrant paintings and rugs.

Gardner's company, which includes his wife, son and daughter, spent about two years on the project, funded by Virginia-based Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit producer of films aimed at fostering better understanding between faiths.

The film crew, with veterans of"The Wire"on board, spent months on the road, capturing extraordinary footage that evokes a sense of place while providing vivid aesthetic detail.

"There were some tough places to work," said Gardner, 65, of Roland Park. "It was a 10-hour drive to the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, a place you can't go now because of the [Islamist rebel movement]. The Taj Mahal is in the most populous city in the most populous state in India, so it was difficult for the crew to maneuver through the streets."

Another problem turned out to be timing. Many of the sites in the film are major tourist destinations, leaving a small window for shooting before visitors arrived — dawn until 9 a.m., for example, in the case of the splendid Alhambra palace in Spain.

"But people were great everywhere," Gardner said. "They knew we were there to celebrate the beauty of their places."

And that beauty is stunning, whether in the eloquent calligraphy of a sacred manuscript or the colors and designs in a rug.

The "forest of columns" inside the Great Mosque of Damascus reveals layers of architectural brilliance, all in the service of providing the faithful with an environment conducive to prayer. There are exquisite shots, too, of the Alhambra, with its deceptively plain fortress walls concealing a marvel of elegant ornamentation, where decorated stucco surfaces suggest intricate cloth.

At the Djenne mosque, the world's largest mud building, the adornment comes simply from the way that permanent scaffolding — essential for a structure in continual need of upkeep — forms geometric patterns on the exterior walls. There's a kind of ornamentation inside, too, in the subtle play of natural light on the 99 columns that stand for the names of God in the Quran.

Some of the images seen in the film are not from far-off places, but the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where, coincidentally, an exhibit of literary and visual images about gardens in the Islamic and Christian traditions just opened.

Walters director Gary Vikan and Amy Landau, associate curator of Islamic art and manuscripts, are among several scholars from this country and abroad seen on camera in "Islamic Art," which Gardner screened at the museum in April.

"I felt like a proud mama to see so many Walters items featured in the film," Landau said. "We have one of the top five collections of Islamic art in North America."

The documentary does not attempt to cover the entire history or geography of Islamic art. There's a thematic approach instead, with sections devoted to a single broad topic: The Word, Space, Ornament, Color, Water. Art discussed in one section turns up in another, giving the film a cohesive sweep (characterless music underscoring everything is not as helpful).

"Writing the show was difficult because it's such a complicated subject," the director said. "We had 1,000 pages of transcripts from the interviews. We had to use a backhoe to get it down to a 60-page script."

There's still a lot of information packed into the documentary, which includes a few de rigueur re-enactments of historic events (the footage comes from previous Gardner projects filmed in Iran). Those unfamiliar with Islam will learn just enough about its practices to appreciate how they apply to art.

The emphasis on the Quran, for example, leads directly to the often elaborate designs of calligraphy on mosque walls. The techniques of writing also reflect the faith, as when calligraphers attempt to avoid variations in the application of ink so that no human touch seems to be involved.

Many ornamental pieces stem from the Quran's promise of heaven, with all the water and verdancy not found in the desert. The prominence of geometric design in Islamic art reflects the critical role of geometry in architecture and, as Islam spread, navigation.

"The misunderstanding about Islamic art is that there are only geometric patterns," Gardner said. "A big surprise to me is that there is a lot of figurative art in Islamic art. There are even images of Muhammad, just not in a religious context, only historical."

Not surprisingly, there are no images of the prophet in the film; any depiction of Muhammad is likely to set off intense objections. Gardner made the same choice for his acclaimed PBS documentary "Islam: Empire of Faith" in 2001.

"That show aired right before 9/11 and quite often after," he said, "so people brought me more projects related to the Islamic world."

With his latest film, Gardner continues his non-polemical examination of a topic that couldn't be much more divisive today, when artistic expression is stifled in some Muslim communities. "Islamic Art" respectfully celebrates the glories of the past.

"If people get curious to know more about Islamic culture because of this show, that's great," Gardner said. "I hope we can be a part of that."

On view

"Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World" airs at 9 p.m. Friday on WETA, Channel 26.

"Paradise Imagined: The Garden in the Islamic and Christian World" runs through Sept. 23 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N.Charles St. Free admission. Call 410-547-9000 or go to the