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"The Legacy of Genghis Khan" at Los Angeles County Museum of Art--again

6/14/03 By Ahmad Kamron Jabbari

The response by Dr. Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA] to my May 27, 2003 commentary on the appropriateness of the title of "The Legacy of Genghis Khan" exacerbates rather than soothes the wounds caused by this title and attitude.

To expose the arbitrary nature of my argument she asks why I was not offended by the title of "Timur and the Princely Vision," an exhibition organized by LACMA a few years ago. The fact is that I was offended by both of these titles. Why should every act of Iranian/Persian resurrection from death and mayhem become, in the hands of western scholars, a credit to those who have shattered our lives and murdered our citizens?

I certainly hope that these titles are "knee-jerk" reactions and not a face of that "latent and manifest orientalism", as Edward Said has so eloquently put it, at play in certain circles of Western scholarship in general, and American scholarship in particular.

Regarding my comment on the absence of the pottery of the Golden Horde, I accept the curator's explanation that it was difficult, but certainly in my view not impossible, to obtain them.

In the interest of fairness, I have posted both my earlier commentary and her response below. I should also like to make a minor correction to her response. My Ph.D. is not in political science, but rather in Economics. Since 1980, however, I have published over 250 scholarly books on the variety of subjects related to Iran and the Middle East, including 15 titles on art and architecture, among them Dr. Komaroff's Ph.D. dissertation, "The Golden Disk of Haven."

Ahmad Kamron Jabbari, President
Mazda Publishers, Inc.
Costa Mesa, CA
June 9, 2003

"The Legacy of Genghis Khan" at LACMA
A Commentary by
Ahmad Kamron Jabbari, President
Mazda Publishers, Inc.
Costa Mesa, California.
May 27, 2003

An exhibition on the art of Il-Khanid Iran (Persia) is presently on display at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). While we are pleased to see an exhibition of Iranian art from this period we are, nevertheless, dismayed by its title. It is the erroneous belief of the curators and writers of this exhibition that a few Chinese-inspired motifs (which also existed prior to the invasion of Genghis Khan) are the making of a "legacy." The invasion of Iran in 13th century by the three sons of Genghis Khan was brutal. Nearly three million perished in an act of genocide that finds its parallels only in the extermination of Jews and the Armenians in the 20th century. Given that the Genghis invasion disrupted all kinds of production for nearly three decades and that the art that followed was wholly that of the Iranian phoenix rising from the ashes (rather than the contributions of its brutal nomadic invaders), we find the title of this exhibition least appropriate and troubling. An analogy that may best explain the displeasure of the Iranian community with this title would be to name Jewish art following Hitler's atrocities as "The Legacy of Hitler."

The paucity of the art objects from Il-Khanid Iran is another problem. Many examples of pottery, painting and metalwork are excluded. For example, the pottery of the Golden Horde is wholly absent. In addition the objects on display are sometimes not of the highest quality.

Nevertheless, we are looking forward to listening to the papers that will be presented by those scholars who have been invited to come to LACMA in the month of June. Perhaps they will be able to shed new light on the Iranian art of this period and give us convincing argument that indeed Genghis Khan's brutal invasion, massacre, and devastation of Iranian towns and cities deserves to be treated as a "legacy" of which history can be proud of.

Response by Dr. Linda Komaroff, Curator of Islamic at Los Angeles County Museum of Art

I was deeply disappointed to read Ahmad Jabbari's somewhat narrow view of the Legacy of Genghis Khan exhibition. His remarks included several factual errors. To wit: 1) Iran was not invaded by "the three sons of Genghis Khan." The first invasion, begun ca. 1219, was under the command of Genghis Khan and his youngest son Tolui. In the next significant wave of the Mongol invasions of Iran (and Iraq), in the 1250s, Hulegu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was in command. 2) There is surely no "paucity" of works of art from the Ilkhanid period in the exhibition. Of the 206 catalogue entries, some 163 can be classified under the heading "Ilkhanid" with another 8, including a ceramic tile, called "Golden Horde." 3) As just indicated the ceramics of the Golden Horde are not "wholly absent." Indeed, given the fact that there is relatively little high quality and well-preserved pottery from the Golden Horde--by comparison with Ilkhanid ceramics, we naturally would have included mostly Ilkhanid wares. 4) As to "many examples of pottery, painting and metalwork" being excluded--of course this is so. An exhibition is not a book. An exhibition involves complicated loan negotiations with numerous institutions and costly shipping of often fragile objects. That we were even able to bring together 163 Ilkhanid works of art from some 40 lending institutions represents an enormous undertaking. 5) As to the quality of the works in the exhibition--the vast majority are of the highest aesthetic quality while others were chosen for reasons of historical or archaeological importance.

Finally, the crux of Mr. Jabbari's problem with the exhibition has to do with its title. We have made no attempt to deny the enormous destruction and loss of human life that occurred as a direct or indirect consequence of the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, however, the title "The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353" seems to us to describe what the exhibition is about. The word "legacy"--meaning something handed down, clearly has to do with the aftermath of the Mongol invasions, which led, by the third quarter of the 13th century, to a period of great creativity and experimentation that would resonate not only in Iran but in Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India. I know that Mr. Jabbari's field is not the history of art (political science as I recall) and it is simply wrong to say that the impact of the Mongol invasions on Iranian art was limited to "a few Chinese inspired motifs." It is much more--just in terms of the arts of the book this period marks the introduction of landscape, a new concept of space, the institutionalization of politically motivated patronage, documentation for the establishment of ateliers, evidence of drawings on paper, and so on. This is not to say that great art was not produced in Iran before the Mongol invasions but that something quite different is produced after BY Iranian artists FOR Mongol patrons and invigorated by the influx of new ideas and techniques from throughout Asia and beyond.

I cannot help but think that the views expressed in Mr. Jabbari's commentary were not informed by a thoughtful visit to the exhibition or even a careful reading of a broad range of recent historical and art historical publications on the Ilkhanid period, but rather a knee-jerk reaction to the name Genghis Khan. I wonder if Mr. Jabbari had similar objections to the title of the exhibition held at LACMA in 1990 on late 14th and 15th-century Iranian art--Timur and the Princely Vision. Surely he is aware that historical accounts credit Timur's invasion of the Iranian world (and that of his sons and grandsons) as being equal in all respects to that of the Mongols.

Yours truly, Linda Komaroff, PhD Curator of Islamic Art and Department Head, Ancient and Islamic Art Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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