Thursday, 4 June 2009

Honorary cartoonist: Muhammad Siyah Qalam

In 2005 the Royal Academy in London held an exhibition called ‘Turks – a journey of a thousand years 600-1600.’ Among the many wondrous artifacts was a collection of paintings by (or attributed to) Muhammad Siyah Qalam from the Topkapi palace museum in Istanbul.
The name means ‘Muhammad of the Black Pen’ and no-one is really sure who he was or even if he was one man or just a style of painting. The pictures are of nomads, dervishes and demons, and they’re said to be unlike anything else that was being done at the time (circa 14th Century) in the Muslim world.
The catalogue says all sorts of scholarly things about the speculation surrounding these paintings, including the likelihood that they were carried around by storytellers in Central Asia to illustrate their tales, but fails to mention that they’re actually quite funny. This one is my favourite as you can almost hear the story being told.
Here’s the description given in the catalogue:
‘The picture is a realistic scene from family life, showing a father feeding his donkey, which is evidently a valued possession, watched by his three children and their mother. The donkey is simultaneously defecating and attacking the feed in its nosebag. One of the children has his hands on his knees as he watches the donkey with curiosity. The other two children are stretching out their arms to their mother and pulling at her clothes as they demand something from her, probably food. The woman, in a red robe and headscarf, watches with a frozen expression of astonishment, as if food needed for her children were being fed to the donkey – their means of livelihood. All the figures are dressed in voluminous ground-length clothes. The father wears a headdress reminiscent of dervish caps. Although the mother and father are wearing shoes, the children are barefoot. This is the only portrayal of children in the Mohammad Siyah Qalam paintings. In the top left corner is written ‘Work of Master Mohammad’.

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