The Gingko Library and a toast to the East-West Divan

By Michael Hornsby | January 1, 2017


Recent news has made the need for dialogue and exchange between East and West feel more essential than ever. Fear of a Muslim terrorist-refugee bogeyman was one of the key things exploited by Donald Trump in his successful presidential campaign. Against such a grim backdrop, the arrival in Berlin in November of the annual conference of the Gingko Library “The Mercantile Effect: on art and exchange in the Islamicate World During the 17th – 18th Centuries” provided heart-warming relief. Co-convened with the Courtauld Institute and originally scheduled to take place at Istanbul’s Pera Museum, the venue was changed relatively last minute due to Turkey’s own political turmoil. “We couldn’t hold an academic conference in a country that was imprisoning academics”, said Barbara Schwepcke, the Gingko Library’s energetic director.

The opening day began at the Museum for Islamic Art, with guided tours by members of Multaka, an initiative that trains Syrian and Iraqi Refugees as museum guides in four state museums on Berlin’s Museum Island. Our guide, Narine Ali, was studying Visual Communications in Damascus, before arriving in Berlin eight months ago. She is now enrolled at Humboldt University and reading Religions and Cultural Studies. After a brief stop in front of the Gate of Babylon – a meeting point, said Narine, echoing the Arabic meaning of the word Multaka – the first piece we visited was the Aleppo Room.

Unintentionally exposed bare brick museum wall visible through the missing panels of the 16th-century painted wooden panel from the home a Christian merchant, which has since been destroyed. The bare brick called to mind images of apartment buildings in Aleppo right now.

Conflict was infused into the tour in an unexpected way, as almost every item we stopped at among the museum’s large and impressive collection had been damaged, or narrowly escaped destruction during the Second World War. Carpets which had damaged by fire during Allied bombing: the monumental gate of Mschatta – jaw droppingly huge and intricate; the cupola from the Al Hambra whose owner had kept it in his country residence during the war, and which only had some slight burning, possibly by Russian soldiers invading from the East.

The Director of the Museum, Stefan Weber, joined us to tell the story of this piece’s previous owner, Arthur von Gwinner, who lived in the Moorish Palace in the 19th century. Gwinner bought the tower before selling it back to Spain on condition that he could take the intricate wooden dome. Gwinner later became a successful banker and diplomat, and was instrumental in the construction of the Baghdad Railway, which itself was wrapped up in the story of how many objects in the museum came to Germany.

During his time with the group, Herr Weber was keen to discuss the various journeys of the collection. These are often long and complex, such as the Seljuk mihrab from the Bey Hekim Mosque in Konya – speculatively connect to the doctor (hekim) named in Rumi’s Mathnawi. After being discovered by art historians in the early twentieth century, the magnificent green mihrab was sold in in its composite pieces. The museum set out to buy the pieces in 1906, and by 1967 had put most of it back together, albeit with some spelling mistakes in the outer band of calligraphy.

Weber speaks like a man who is used to being challenged as to why the objects in the museum are there at all. Narine is not one to argue. “We have our history here with us, which is really beautiful,” she said of her fellow recent arrivals from Syria and Iraq to Berlin. After the tour, I asked if it was emotionally difficult for her to show people the Aleppo Room or other artefacts from her war-torn country. Quite the contrary: “the first time I set foot in the museum,” she said, “it made me feel grounded in Berlin. The faces I saw were like the faces I know from home.”

Later, Herr Weber told me that the English-language tour we had been given was not ‘the full Multaka’. More often, the organisation offers the tours to fellow refugees, and the visits take the form of a dialogue about each piece. “You can see the people stand taller and prouder”, he said.

From Museum Island we walked to the Barenboim-Said Academie, a new permanent home and teaching facility for the East West Divan Orchestra, established by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. The design of the auditorium – two offset elliptical levels, the top one undulating almost vertiginously - was donated by Frank Gehry. The building itself cost just 99 Euros, which the German Government stipulated be paid at a rate of one Euro per year. At the same time, the Federal Government provided a 20 million Euro subsidy towards the 32 million Euro renovation costs. They are also paying the scholarship costs of 90 students from the middle east, including Israel, to study at the Academie each year. A vast hand-woven carpet designed by German artist Christine Meisnar and inspired by a view of the Joran River Valley covers three stories’ worth of wall. After the opening night on March 4, 2017, the program will include 100 concerts per year.

The Gingko Library’s project is wide-ranging. In addition to the annual conference they publish books in ten fields of the humanities, taking as their inspiration Mark Linz, a towering figure in publishing, credited with transforming the American University in Cairo Press into a world-class publishing house. The Barenboim Said Academie stepped in as venue when Istanbul was deemed untenable, thanks to an existing partnership over another ambitious project with the Gingko Library, which was formally announced on the conference’s opening night. For the 200-year anniversary of the publication of Goethe’s East-West Divan – the German bard’s homage to Hafiz – Gingko will publish The New East West Divan featuring 24 poets, 12 from ‘East’ and 12 from ‘West’ and all translated into English. An ‘interpretation’ phase will then begin, wherein poets, musicians and scholars will be invited to elaborate on the poems. Expects Gehry’s auditorium to be ringing with the sound of the same poetry in the years to come.

Goethe included essays and explanatory notes in his own East-West Divan, beginning with the quote from Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season…” One can easily sympathise with the Gingko Library and their collaborators in their belief that now is the season for further efforts to promote exchange and understanding between ‘East’ and ‘West’.

As if to underscore our current moment in history, the arrival of the customary wine at the opening reception was delayed by traffic problems causes by President Obama’s visit to Berlin, part of a final European tour on which he is assuring his European counterparts of America’s deep commitment to international cooperation and community, and attempting to allay fears of what a Trump Presidency might bring.

Thankfully, for the sake of poetry and international understanding, the wine was present in abundance when NAME – one of the poet’s selected for the new East-West Divan – recited"

“A Toast to ..
A Toast to…
A toast to… “

But this was, after all, an art historical conference.  In the opening keynote, Dr Anna McSweeney  picked up the story of Herr Gwinner and his Alhambra Cupola, showing how his uniquely intimate relationship with the palace formed part of a special obsession with the building amongst the wealthy classes of Europe at the time, for whom it was a very nearby piece of the Oriental ‘other’.

The subjects of presentations covered a vast geographical scope. Cornucopia readers present will have been particularly interested in the session chaired by Dr Lale Uluc of Bogazici University on day two, which included Dr Gule Kale, McGill, Dr William Kynan Wilson on his research into the Peter Mundy costume album, and Alexa Ray from Sotheby’s

Those who missed out can be contented with the book The Mercantile Effect: on art and exchange in the Islamicate World During the 17th – 18th Centuries, due out later this year.

Posted in Fine Art, Islamic Art, Orientalism, Travel
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