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Sufi-Inspired Artist Books

Sample of Persian Calligraphy from a Mughal Album. Calligraphy: Iran, Safavid, 16th century; margins: India, Mughal, 17th century. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. Brooklyn Museum, Purchased with funds given by anonymous donors and the Helen Babbott Sanders Fund, 1991.185

Sample of Persian Calligraphy from a Mughal Album. Calligraphy: Iran, Safavid, 16th century; margins: India, Mughal, 17th century. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. Brooklyn Museum, Purchased with funds given by anonymous donors and the Helen Babbott Sanders Fund, 1991.185

One of the great feelings I experience at the Brooklyn Museum is when I see a true connection between the Library and art collections here. This connection was felt recently at a public program showcasing the work of the widely-admired translator Zahra Partovi and the Brooklyn-based artist Kelly Driscoll. Kelly and Zahra’s work Fragments of Light II is now on view in the exhibition Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam and several other books published by Vincent FitzGerald & Co. are on view in the Library display cases on the second floor. The conversation included Zahra, Kelly, Ladan Akbarnia, Hagop Kevorkian Associate Curator of Islamic Art, and me, with a large audience made up of artists and artisans who have collaborated with Vincent Fitzgerald over the years. We had a lively conversation and the opportunity to view some remarkable books.

This panel discussion, held Saturday June 13, 2009 at the Brooklyn Museum, addressed the production, collection, and display of Sufi-inspired artist books. Zahra Partovi, whose artist book Fragments of Light II is featured in the special exhibition Light of the Sufis, discussed her art in conversation with collaborating book artist Kelly Driscoll, Hagop Kevorkian Associate Curator of Islamic Art Ladan Akbarnia, and Principal Librarian Deirdre Lawrence.

Vincent has been the primary leader in the overall conception, design and production of these books, pulling together incredibly talented artists and artisans to create them. The books, all inspired by the Sufi poetry of Rumi as translated by Zahra Partovi, are a jewel in the crown of our artists’ book collection and remain wonderful examples of how contemporary art can carry on the essence of traditional art.

How did these wonderful books come into the Brooklyn Museum collection?

Back in October 1998 the Brooklyn Museum held an exhibition entitled Royal Persian Paintings, The Qajar Epoch, 1785-1925 curated by Dr. Layla Diba. This exhibition was one of several that Brooklyn has featured over the years and an example of the Museum’s long standing interest in Islamic art. The Library collection is also rich in this area due to a series of grants from the Hagop Kevorkian Fund and donations such as the personal library of noted Islamic scholar Charles K. Wilkinson whose selected acquisitions are on view in the newly reinstalled Islamic Art galleries.The Library has a collection of artists’ books, ranging from multiples to limited editions to unique works, many of which relate to the cultures represented by the Museum’s object collections. Many of the books published by Vincent FitzGerald & Co. fall into this latter category as they resonate so well with the Islamic collections here.

I first met Vincent FitzGerald and Zahra Partovi in the Dieu Donne Galleries in 1999 at an exhibition entitled Dialogues in Collaboration: the publications of Vincent FitzGerald & Co. I remember being swept off my feet by the books on view and wanted to bring some of these books into the Brooklyn Museum collection.  Both Vincent and Zahra recognized the Museum’s longstanding interest in Islamic art and knew their books would fit in well with our collections.

Through the generosity of anonymous donors and guidance from Vincent we were given nine books created by Vincent FitzGerald & Co. The books demonstrate in a beautiful way that thirteenth-century Persian poetry can be made intellectually accessible to a present-day audience. Since we acquired these books we have featured them in exhibitions such as Working in Brooklyn: Artists Books in 2000 and they have been a favorite of visiting teachers, students and artists in the Library Reading Room. Both visually challenging and intellectually stimulating, these books speak to the future of the book as a vibrant tool for communication while being works of art in themselves. The Fragments of Light series is the most recent example of innovative ways Vincent and his collaborators challenge the definition of the book.

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About the Author
Deirdre Lawrence has been the Principal Librarian at the Brooklyn Museum since late 1983. Before coming to the Brooklyn Museum, she was Associate Librarian at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She received her M. L. S. from Pratt Institute in 1979 and has studied art history on the graduate level. At the Brooklyn Museum she has established the Museum Archives and implemented many projects to preserve and make accessible the research collections. Deirdre has overseen a major renovation project, implementation of an online catalog and several collaborative projects with other libraries. She has written articles on the collections and lectured frequently on the research collections held in the Libraries and Archives as well as Brooklyn Museum history. Deirdre has curated several exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and elsewhere. She is a visiting professor at Pratt’s School of Information and Library Science and serves as a board member at the Center for Book Arts in New York.
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