Bonhams, Islamic and Indian Arts Sale, 19 June 2011, Lot 58

I tend not to comment on politics here, especially Nigerian politics. I follow them but I don’t think I do understand them well enough for any opinion worth your time. And, anyway, I probably use the very same sources that you do, thus having little to add. (Although in private I do have opinions, however uninformed, and feel for anybody who was injured or lost relatives in any of the outbreaks of violence. Allah ya kiyaye Najeriya. Allah a kawo sulhu. If I remember my Hausa correctly.) So, instead of commenting on yesterday’s events, I’ll offer something I know a little bit more about: another comment on the religious posters I collected in Kano and the international trajectories of this tradition of visual piety.

A few weeks ago I mentioned here that I had stumbled across the illustration of an Egyptian print depicting al-Buraq in the catalogue of a British auction house. I got in contact with them and they were really kind and helpful. Yesterday I had a brief telephone conversation with the owner. Today, I went to Bonham’s in London and had a chance to have a quick look at the whole set of prints. I worry a bit about the impression I made but, in my defence, I hadn’t slept well and had a stiff walk there after waiting half an hour for a bus that is supposed to come every 4-6 minutes. With my social inadequacies and student wardrobe I don’t come across as particularly professional at the best of times but today I actually failed: I really should have asked to sit down and spend a bit more time with these prints and looking a bit more closely. I am sure that would have been alright and much more professional than sitting here now and realising the details I should have paid more attention to. Anyway. What’s done is done. And, it’s been helpful nevertheless, first of all for the opportunity to see in the original and actually feel some of these prints I had been reading about. So, what else did I find out (apart from a lesson in how not to conduct your research)?

The set I looked at consists of ten chromolithographs that, according to the owner Ali Ahmed, were produced in Cairo in the 1920s. This coincides with the period during which according to one of the scholars who studied these prints, Peter Schienerl, this tradition of chromolithography took roots in Cairo. They illustrate Nuh/Noah’s Ark, Ibrahim/Abraham about to sacrifice his son Ishmael/Isaac, the court of King Solomon, al-Buraq, the Imam Ali ibn Talib accompanied by his sons Hassan and Husayn, and Khaled bin al-Walid. The chromolithographs are of two different sizes, 416x567mm and 250x330mm. The set of larger prints includes Nuh/Noah’s Ark, Ibrahim/Abraham’s sacrifice, al-Buraq, Ali with his sons, and Khaled bin al-Walid. The smaller prints illustrate Nuh/Noah’s Ark (2x), Ibrahim/Abraham’s sacrifice and al-Buraq. The printer’s marks are only visible on some of the larger prints and, according to Bonham’s (yes, I need to get back to my Arabic lessons), they identify their producer as Matba’at al-funun al-Jamilah. This appears to be the company, Fine Art Printers, to which Schienerl refered to as the major producer of what religious chromolithographs in Cairo between the 1920s and the mid 1970s. The smaller prints lack printer’s marks. I am not sure whether they are of the same age as the larger prints. Schienerl suggested that the smaller prints represented another generation of religious chromolithographs that emerged in the 1970s. But, who am I to question the assessment of the owner.

Personally, I was particularly surprised by the quality of the larger prints. Unlike the prints I collected in Kano, they displayed a larger variety of colours and shading was executed more delicately. The smaller chromolithographs, however, were characterised by a reliance on block colours and hatching similar to the Nigerian prints. I think this is particularly apparent if one compares the larger sized chromolithograph depicting Abraham attempting to sacrifice Ishmael/Isaac with the smaller sized one in the set and the print I collected in Nigeria in 2008 (sorry, Bonham reserves the copyright for its images so I can’t juxtapose them here, instead pls. make use of the links).

Again, some of the chromolithographs in the set displayed a close resemblance to the respective motif in the set of prints I collected in Kano. These include the illustrations of Nuh/Noah’s Ark, Ali and his sons, al-Buraq and Abraham’s sacrifice of Ishmael/Isaac.

Interestingly enough, the larger of three prints in the set illustrating Nuh/Noah’s Ark presents the motif on a plane sheet of paper without any decorative borders but includes inscriptions including of the shahada on the ship’s pennant. In this it resembles an illustration of the same motif by Kriss & Kriss Heinrich and collected in Cairo in the 1950s as well as the print I collected in Kano in 2008. The two smaller sized chromolithographs are distinguished by a decorative border including (and here it comes again, I need to take Arabic lessons again) what I guess are the respective verses from the Qur’an. They also present a mirror version of the motif depicted in the larger print in the set. No other inscriptions have been incorporated into the image. In all but the absence of the inscription in the pennant, the Nigerian print appears to follow the larger of the three chromolithographs.

Another interesting aspect that was raised during the conversation with the prints’ current owner Ali Ahmed: He explained that this kind of images was more closely associated with Shi’ism rather than practices of Sunni Islam. Interestingly enough, Elisabeth Puin and Schienerl indeed argued that this tradition of religious imagery may be traced back to Iran. However, these images appear to have been produced and found audiences among Muslim populations in an area stretching from Morocco to the west to Syria in the east, from the costs of the Mediterranean to the north to the Sahel belt to the south. If I am not mistaken, the areas on the African continent are predominantly, if not exclusively, Sunni. So the appeal of these images cannot be limited to Shia Islam. Maybe, Khenchelaoui provided a clue here when he discussed similar chromolithographs within the context of pious practices associated with Sufi Islam in Algeria, in particular the reverence of the Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani. Or, maybe, Ahmed’s assessment reflected contemporary interpretations of Islam’s teaching about the arts and the use of religious imagery that have changed since the period during which these chromolithographs were produced in Egypt. I don’t know (yet) but these certainly are interesting questions to explore. No?

All references here. (Oh, the ease of inserting just one link, I should have posted my bibliography on a separate but associated page much earlier!)

Comments

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