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Islamic Heroes and Demons at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

"The Adventures of Hamza"
The Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn
Museum Admission by Contribution: $6, students and seniors $3, children under 12 free.
Nov. 1, 2002 - Jan 3, 2003
By Paulanne Simmons

Until recently many American didn't know the difference between Muslims (followers of Islam) and Arabs (Semitic Arabic-speaking people). Certainly there were (and, alas, still are) even fewer aware of all the different peoples who have historically made up the Islamic world, or the considerable influence of non-Arabic groups like the Hindus, Persians and Mughals.

For all those who would like to learn more about the history of Asia and the Middle East, as well as enjoy a truly beautiful and arresting set of 16th century paintings, the Brooklyn Museum of Art has reunited 58 of the surviving paintings from the "Hamzanama," a Persian epic relating the adventures of Amir Hamza, an Indiana Jones figure with a missionary zeal.

Organized by guest curator Dr. John Seyller, associate professor of the University of Vermont and a leading scholar on Indian and Mughal painting, "The Adventures of Hamza" is as rich in information as it is in color and action.

The Hamzanama was begun in 1557, commissioned by the young Mughal emperor Akbar, who was so impressed with the adventurous tale told, in the Persian tradition, around nomadic campfires and in urban coffeehouses, that he ordered them to be the subject of the first royal manuscript illustrated in India during his reign (1556-1605).

Fifteen years later, the completed Hamzanama comprised 14 volumes illustrated with approximately 1,400 paintings more than two feet high, 200 of which are believed to have survived to this day.

The Hamzanama combines the exploits of two famous Hamzas: Hamza ibn Abdul-Muttalib, uncle of the prophet, born in 569, converted in 615, killed in battle in 625; and Hamza ibn Abdullah, who led the struggle against Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809).

Other important characters include Ashqar, Amir Hamza's three-eyed, winged horse, born of a demon and a fury; Malak Mah, daughter of the enemy King Na'im and the beloved of Prince Sa'id Farrukh-Nizhad; Umar Ma'dikarb, a former opponent of Amir Hamza, now a stalwart, sometimes comical warrior companion; Sa'id Farrukh-Nizhad, a prince and ally of Amir Hamza; Umar, loyal companion of Amir Hamza and a great spy; and Iraj Nawjavan Malik, leader of the Iranian fire-worshippers.

But the Hamzanama is neither a biography of a single individual nor an account of the spread of Islam; the great epic belongs rather to the realm of myth and legend, with a touch of the pure fantasy of "The Thousand and One Nights."

The museum proposes two ways of viewing the story: as a dramatic presentation by professional storytellers, and/or as a focus for the perusal of the illustrations - an exquisite gallery of giants, demons and dragons; horses, camels, bears and elephants; battles, narrow escapes, abductions, conversions, and bloody duels.

Each painting in The Adventures of Hamza exhibition is accompanied by a wall label summarizing the related text.

The paintings are also accompanied by labels that clarify technological issues: the integration of the energy and palette of the Indian painting tradition with the fine draftsmanship of 16th century Persian painting, the European influence, the Mughal painting tradition renowned for intricate patterns and lush colors - brilliant reds, startling blues, deep greens and resplendent gold; and the paintings' large scale and dynamic composition.

Indeed many paintings illustrate a whole series of events and have titles like "Badi'uzzaman Encases Himself in a Watertight Trunk and Has It Thrown into the Sea Around Noshad Fort; Malik Qasim Swims After It and Reaches Enemy Territory." One scene flows into another on the page through gesture and glance of characters, line and color.

Although some paintings do exhibit the injuries of time, for the most part, they are remarkably well preserved. Their beauty and clarity provide a unique opening on the aesthetic, cultural and ethical values of the painters who made them and the people they were made for.

According to the museum, the last time these painting were brought together was in the 18th century. Possibly it will be an equally or longer time before they are brought together again.

After January 26, the exhibit will travel to The Royal Academy of Art, London, where it will be on view from March 15 through June 8, 2003, and then the Museum Reitberg, Zurich, from June 28 through October 20, 2003. That gives New Yorkers three months to follow Hamza's singular adventures. [PS]

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