Apollo Magazine

First Look: Nur

Sabiha Al-Khemir, curator of ‘Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World’ at the Focus-Abengoa Foundation in Seville, talks to Apollo

Two pages from a Qur'an manuscript written in gold in Kufic script on blue parchment (late 9th–early 10th century) Raqqada Museum of Islamic Arts, Tunisia

In this ongoing series, Apollo previews a range of international exhibitions, asking curators to reveal their personal highlights and curatorial impulses. Sabiha Al-Khemir is the curator of ‘Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World’ at the Focus-Abengoa Foundation in Seville, Spain

Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

The concept is from the Arabic word ‘NUR’ which has a physical and metaphysical dimension. The exhibition includes pieces from international collections and brings together 150 objects related to light through themes of beauty and knowledge.

What makes this a distinctive show?

The works, small and large, of various media, from across centuries, and from Spain to central Asia, come together to communicate something of the spirit of the culture that produced them. Many have not been exhibited before.

How did you come to curate this exhibition?

Four years ago I was approached by Focus-Abengoa, the cultural organisation under the umbrella of the solar energy company Abengoa, to develop an Islamic art exhibition around the theme of light. I found the Foundation interesting, the theme of light attractive, and was inspired to do a project in Spain.

What is likely to be the highlight of the exhibition?

The highlight is not one particular object, but the experience of the exhibition itself as a journey. The exhibition has a multi-layered narrative, which results in a visceral experience that transcends Islamic art itself.

And what’s been the most exciting personal discovery for you?

Tiny pieces that reveal an immense world, like an inkwell less than 6 cm in height, with gold and silver inlay. Its small figurative imagery has the impact of work on a larger scale.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in preparing this exhibition?

Some challenges were standard ones that come with any large-scale project. Others were particular to ‘Nur’. There was a great deal of navigation and negotiation to be done due to the various cultures and languages involved. Most of this goes on behind the scenes, but it is a great feeling when things finally fall into place.

How are you using the gallery space? What challenges will the hang/installation pose?

The gallery space offers an unexpected perspective and allows the objects to speak while appearing discrete and suspended in time. The visitor gets the feeling of embarking on a journey of discovery to a different world. The challenge is to enable this without props, but I think we have succeeded!

Which other works would you have liked to have included?

Often works that don’t materialise get replaced by unexpectedly great additions. A page from the famous ‘Blue Qur’an’ comes to ‘Nur’ from Tunisia, which was not possible in my last exhibition because it coincided with the political changes there. I would have liked a whole Qur’an section!

‘Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World’ is at the Focus-Abengoa Foundation in Seville, Spain, from 26 October 2013–9 February 2014, and tours to the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas from 30 March–29 June 2014.

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