Having the opportunity to write labels for objects in the collection is one of my favorite things about being an intern at the Brooklyn Museum. One of my labels is for a work entitled “Man with a Sword,” part of a group of drawings currently on display in the Arts of the Islamic World gallery. This installation of objects explores drawing as a medium of expression in the eastern Islamic world.
I chose to do research on this piece for purely aesthetic reasons as well as to satisfy my own curiosity. The drawing seemed different from other Islamic drawings I had seen, and I wanted to find out why. When you can devote your time to researching one particular object in depth, you come across an incredible amount of interesting information. Unfortunately, limitations on text length mean it’s not possible to share every bit of available research with the museum’s visitors, so the goal in writing a label like this is to convey a large amount of information in a clear and concise yet simultaneously interesting way. The most difficult thing is deciding what you want to focus on.
Compared to the other drawings in this installation, “Man with a Sword” seems oddly rigid and geometric, which is unusual when so many Islamic drawings are driven by the smooth, graceful brushwork style inspired by Islamic calligraphy. As I discovered in my research, this work was created in the tradition of Islamic astrological drawings. The Book of Fixed Stars, written by the Iranian astronomer cAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi in 964 CE, would have provided ample source material for the artist who created “Man with a Sword”: it is filled with anthropomorphic representations of different constellations. For me, the most interesting thing about Al-Sufi was that he was one of the first to translate Greek astrological works into Arabic and compare the two cultures’ constellations; Boötes, the likely inspiration for this piece, was referenced as early as Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE) and appears in numerous ancient mythologies as a hunter or herdsman. This became the focus for my label-writing, since I thought that other people would find it interesting as well.
Works on paper are light sensitive, and can only be displayed for a few months at a time. Drawings of the Islamic World will be on display until April, however, so there is still time to see “Man with a Sword” in person!