The Institute Du Monde Arabe (IMA) is a rich treasure trove of the Arab world and it’s cultural and spiritual gems. You will hear time and again of beautiful experiences I discovered through IMA, such as the magical Qasbah music evening I attended there.
This time I would like to write about one of the Institute’s major exhibits, ‘Oriental Gardens, From The AlHambra to The Taj Mahal’. The epic exhibit was from the 19th of April to the 25th of September 2016, tracing the history of Oriental gardens from the Iberian Peninsula to the Indian subcontinent and from the earliest civilizations to the present day.
The exhibit was an elaborate serenade to the exquisite gardens that have earned their reputation as a piece of paradise on Earth. IMA outdid themselves, by adding an outdoors section to the usual indoors exhibit space, as you can’t talk of a garden and not show one! The walk through time was especially precious, because of its ephemeral nature as the end of the Exhibition marked the end of the garden as well. It would be so delightful if they kept it on.
The outdoor garden was set up on two levels to provide multiple perspectives. You could stroll through the displays at ground level, or you could climb to the mezzanine level, where a metal walkway would carry you above the gardens and allow you to view their splendor from above.
I loved how each of the plants had a plaque that documented its name, origin and description. They were treated like art pieces in a museum, worthy of being savored. One of the plaques explained how the trees and plants of an Oriental garden were chosen for their beauty, their fruit, and their fragrance. It mentioned palm trees (of course), cypress trees, citrus trees, vines, jasmine flowers and roses.
It brought me so much joy to see some familiar plants like the olive tree standing tall. Olive trees hold a special place in my heart as they represent Palestinian pride and resistance so beautifully. I saw citrus trees and Zaatar the cousin of oregano; and some unfamiliar ones like the small, sweetly abundant, yellow “Santolina”flowers and the “Carob” tree that gives Egyptians a popular juice drink called “kharoub”, as welling as being the source of the unit of measurement used for diamonds, the ‘carat’.
Another favorite, was the Islamic geometric hanging gardens, skilfully created with signature French flair, by Francoise Abelanet. Francois not only added the geometry aspect as a twist of modernity but also brought the two classic islamic traditions, of oriental gardens and geometric design and mixed them together powerfully. He also whimsically created a perfectly symmetrical, anamorphosis tableau that was only recognisable when viewed through a rectangular frame on the elevated mezzanine.
I always feel the spiritual impact of Islamic geometry, and the sense of infinity it invokes. The elegant patterns are a beautiful reminder of God’s infinite Being and Power. The simple managing principles of geometry that allow for numerous harmonious repetitions is astounding, following a delicate order of studied variance, as a visual testament of the connection within God’s rich and seemingly diverse creation. Are there any bounds to God’s unparalleled ability to create beauty?
Beneath the hanging gardens, there was a mini cafe that invited you to sit, with “un crème” in hand and read, or just bask in the beauty of the nature and architecture surrounding you.
The inside halls of the exhibition were equally wonderful, showcasing hall upon hall of marvels on the oriental garden. They unveiled the motivations and inspirations behind these masterpieces of nature, referencing everything from fashion to literature. The exhibit takes you on a journey through art pieces that were sourced from all over the Arab and Muslim world, as far as Iran, North Africa, the Gulf, India, Central Asia and Turkey.
The exhibition began with the source of all life, water. The clear liquid that has no color, taste, or smell, and yet holds the secret to the existence of life on earth. Flowing forth from fountains that held court at the center of the inside and outside exhibits, it was used as a guiding theme throughout, celebrating its fundamental place at the heart of life. As art reflects life, so the fountains were surrounded by pieces worth reflecting over in their serene waters.
We were led from the functional oriental gardens of Mesopotamia, 6000 years ago, all the way through the mythical tales of the hanging gardens of Babylon, and on to the Golden Age of Islam, the Renaissance of luxury gardens and finally to the public parks of present day.
One of the artists who stood out for me, was Majorelle. The large photography pieces of the famed French artist, had a specially reserved room of their own. His technique of mounting his photography on acrylic, in the traditional Diasec style, deepens the effect of the colors and adds a gloss to the pieces taking the emotional effect to a third dimension. You feel totally enveloped by lush lush nature. Magnificent.
I was excited about this exhibit from the moment I read its title, as it resonated with my love of nature, architecture and gardens. Spaces say so much just by the virtue of how they are set up.
I have a special attachment in my heart to the traditional courtyard style of housing, because of the simple walls that face the outside world, protecting the modesty of the colorful inside world. The sacred space, reserved for the self, family and loved ones, alongside its movement and profound beauty, is tucked away inside a secret garden at the inner courtyard garden, at the heart of the home.
I feel the same metaphor rings true for us in how we are to care and give attention to our beauty. We are to be modest in the display of our physical modesty in public, so that is but a mere hint of the beauty within. And in our case, when we cultivate soundness of heart and kindness of spirit, we glow with a special kind of beauty that radiates from within. On another note, oddly, It’s become apparent to me that we tend to take our closest family and friends for granted, When we should make an extra special effort to give our best to those close and dear inviting them into our inner most beautiful world of love and gratitude.
My dream home, where I hope to grow old and shower love and gratitude on my loved ones, is to be simple, modest, and nurturing a secret garden within, filled with the sweet heady scents of jasmine everywhere!
I love the contextual information that comes with visiting an exhibit. I would have loved to go with an expert guide, but the plaques did their part beautifully and I have a much more appreciative understanding of the influence of the oriental garden throughout history both in the East and West and will be able to recognize and appreciate its presence in courtyards and gardens today.
Now come along with me as I take you on a walk through the exhibits. We’ll begin our tour outside and find our way through to the inside halls, accompanied by photos and listings of the plants I could capture. I hope this glimpse gives you a sense of the peace and awe that the exhibition gave me.