Curator of the Benaki
Museum of Islamic Art
Can you tell us briefly about the history of the Benaki Museum?
The Benaki Museum began life as a private collection belonging to the founder, Antonis Benakis. When it was inaugurated in April 1931, it was housed in one building in the centre of Athens. However, as the years went on, the collections grew, and in the 1990s it was decided to make satellite museums for the different collections. The main museum remained dedicated to Greek civilisations from the Neolithic period until the 19th century, making it the only museum in Greece where you can see the entire narrative of Greek civilisations.
You oversee the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art. What is its background?
In 2004, the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art opened to the public, with about 80 per cent of the collection drawn from the Antonis Benakis collection. It ranks quite significantly among other collections in the world, not so much in terms of its size, but because of the uniqueness of its objects, particularly the artefacts from the Eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Syria, Fatimid, Mamluk and Ottoman pieces. Two early 20th century buildings were renovated to form the museum, allowing the collection to be shown in a more meaningful way, as previously it was cramped in two rooms in the Benaki family home. As the buildings are situated in the ancient part of the city next to the Kerameikos cemetery, we discovered part of the ancient wall of Athens, from the fourth century B.C., in the buildings’ foundations These ancient ruins co-exist with the museum’s Islamic art, which is organised in four big galleries.
Do you actively acquire new works for the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art?
Sadly, no, and this is true for the entire Benaki Museum, not only the Islamic section. This is not by choice, but because there are no funds allocated for acquisitions and, therefore, we have to rely on donations.
How do you select the temporary contemporary shows that you host and how do you create a dialogue with works that already exist at the museum?
In the early years, we wanted to show Greek artists who have an interest in the Middle East. Our exhibitions have featured among them Irini Gonou, an artist specialised in Arabic inscription and who blends it with her works, and Yazd: A Thread of Light through the Bazaar, by Greek Kuwaiti artist Nadia Al Foudery, in which she photographed the rooftops of Yazd and embellished the works with embroidery. Another was for Greek photographer Melita Vangelatou, who explored the city of Casablanca, working with the different neighbourhoods to bring out the diverse aspects of the city’s inhabitants. We also had a collaboration with Greek artist and film director Chronis Pechlivanidis, who has an interest in Sufism, and in 2016 we worked with contemporary mural artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos. She transformed the coffee space at the top of the museum into a contemporary work of art, with a very impressive palm tree mural, inspired by an urban myth that Athens was once a city full of palm trees that were chopped down, possibly to make it more European.
Some of these exhibitions were an opportunity to explore the artistic creativity of these artists, but also to familiarise the Greek public with different aspects of Islamic civilisation, whether contemporary art or objects from the past. I always found this to be important because it brings together different groups of audiences; some are interested in contemporary art, while others are interested in that aspect of a different culture.
You recently had a show with Ali Banisadr. Can you tell us more?
In addition to his own work, the artist selected pieces from our Chinese ceramics collection that relate to how this blue and white porcelain was a creation between China and Iran, either used by Muslims in China or that made its way across commercial routes to Iran and then on to Istanbul. The sad thing about the Banisadr exhibition is that due to Covid we could only offer a glimpse of it through video presentation and video guided tours.
Do you ever experience any form of censorship?
As far as Islamic art is concerned, we haven’t had any issues. On the whole, we have been able to show whatever we have selected.
Can you tell us more about your international collaborations?
Every year, we participate in international exhibitions abroad, either in Europe or in the States, and also in the Middle East. In 2016 I co-curated an exhibition featuring about 65 drawings and watercolours by the British artist Thomas Hope, who travelled to Istanbul in the late 18th century. This exhibition is part of a series that aims to re-exhibit items that are in storage so that they can be seen by the general public. The next year I was very happy to be able to send this to the Museum of Islamic Civilization in Sharjah and share it with a new audience. Recently, I organised the exhibition “Roads of Arabia” in collaboration with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. This was an important international collaboration as it unveiled the unknown ancient past of Arabia to the Greek public. It was particularly successful and highly visited by our audience.
How often do you change what’s on show?
Not as often as we would like. The discovery of ruins in the basement meant that we had to give up our temporary exhibition space. However, as our galleries are quite big, we organise temporary exhibitions within the permanent exhibitions. This has worked very well, because we are able to show something different and these exhibitions work as a dialogue.
How has the pandemic affected the museum?
We uploaded to our website a number of online exhibitions, lectures and a series of close-up videos in which our curators talk about objects from our collections. These have been very popular among readers of our newsletter, friends of the museum and the audience in general. Through the online exhibitions and lectures we have been able to engage our audience and keep them interested.
Is there any particular work that means something special to you personally?
Recently, I’ve been working with Iznik pottery, so this is what comes to mind. Additionally, one of the last close-up videos I did was for a very small, early 13th century inlaid metal work casket from Mosul signed by Ismail ibn Ward. It is an important piece as it is the earliest dated inlaid metal work object from Mosul. It is so small and modest in appearance that people not even notice it, but I have a soft spot for it.
Mina Moraitou is an art historian specialised in the study of Islamic art. She completed her studies at SOAS/ University of London where she received a Postgraduate Diploma in the History of Asian Art (1992) and a postgraduate degree (MA) in the History of Islamic Art (1996). Since 1992, she has been working at the Benaki Museum, initially in the Documentation Department, followed by the Department of Islamic Art. After working on the creation of the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, in 2012 she became the curator. In her role, she has coordinated and curated a number of exhibitions, such as: Thomas Hope: Drawings of Ottoman Istanbul (2016 in Athens and 2017 in Sharjah) Iznik- a Fascination with Ceramics’ (2017). Islamic Calligraphy: The Art of Iranian Writing (2018) Roads of Arabia (2019)
Her contributions include a number of publications, lectures and seminars on a variety of topics. In 2013 she published a catalogue on Ottoman glass: Of Coloured Glass – The Mando & Londos Oeconomides Collection, and currently she is working with John Carswell on the publication of the Benaki Museum collection of Iznik ceramics and she is researching the collecting habits of the Greeks in Egypt during the interwar period. Each year she collaborates with cultural organisations for the promotion of Islamic art and of the Benaki Museum in Greece and abroad. Among her interests is to highlight the arts of the Middle East and its relations with Greece and Europe, and to promote an understanding between cultures.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #55