29 March 2007

Persia: Thirty Centuries of Art

An exhibition in the Hermitage Amsterdam (since 2004, there is a satellite of the Hermitage Museum on the Amstel River) is now showing 200 works of Persian art from the St. Petersburg collection. This cosmetic spatula with a handle in the form of the naked goddess is a rare example of Parthian ivory work (1st-2nd C. AD). Although it comes from a private collection, the closest comparable ivory statuettes are from Susa in Elam (roughly modern Khuzestan), the ancient heartland of the Persian nation. The oriental naked goddess is sometimes pictured (as here) holding a child, but more often she cups her breasts in her hands or extends her arms toward the beholder. The image is very ancient, dating back at least to the Innana/Ishtar figurines of the Old Babylonian period, and was very widespread: she appears in Mesopotamia, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, and then sailed on to Cyprus, whence she entered into our own inheritance as Aphrodite rising naked from the foamy sea.

(Photograph courtesy of the State Museum the Hermitage, St. Petersburg)

I want to write more about the naked goddess, and about the show in Amsterdam's Hermitage (31 March-16 September 2007), but I'll be travelling for the next few days so this must wait. Still, I'd like to take a moment to fast-forward 2,000 years....

This white silk burqa, created by the Italian fashion designer Gabriella Ghidoni and her Afghan partner, Zolaykha Sherzad, was shown on the cat walk in Kabul in July 2006 -- the first fashion show in Afghanistan for over 30 years. The model is not Afghan, as is evident from her scandalous display of naked fingers and toes. Otherwise, the garment caused no great rise of emotion among the Afghan women invited to attend the fashion show. In the western press, however, the reaction was very different: many journalists thought it a disgrace to design such a garment. I'm not so sure. If you're forced to choose between wearing a burqa or having acid thrown in your face, you might take a "let them wear silk" attitude and get something out of living on the old Silk Road. What do you think?

(My thanks to Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Director of the Textile Research Centre, Leiden, for the 'burqa on the cat walk' photograph)

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