‘Parfums d’Orient’ at the Institut du Monde Arabe

ʿAsâr al-Tabrîzî , Mihr dans un hammam à Khwarazm , Mihr wa Mushtari (Mihr et Mushtari) , Shîrâz (Iran), copie datée entre 1540-1550 . Encre, gouache et feuilles d’or sur papier . Copenhague, The David Collection © The David Collection, Copenhagen

The Institut du Monde Arabe is hosting an exhibition that invites visitors to delve into the captivating world of one of the globe’s most captivating perfume cultures, spanning from ancient times to the present day.

This event transports attendees through the trade routes of Arabia, where precious substances like incense, amber, oud, and spices were transported, to age-old rituals that have endured over centuries. It offers an immersive journey of the senses, guiding participants through the essence-laden landscapes of the East. Spanning 1000 square meters, the exhibition features approximately 200 pieces of heritage and contemporary art, including manuscripts, miniature works, textiles, paintings, photographs, and video installations. These artworks provide insight into the enduring significance of fragrances in the Arab world, from the High Atlas to the Euphrates shores.

The exhibition is enriched with scented elements, engaging all the senses and introducing visitors to fragrances specially crafted by perfumer creator Christopher Sheldrake. This innovative approach creates a unique olfactory experience.

The exhibition delves into the origins of precious essences, from Arabia to distant corners of Asia and the Mediterranean Basin to the Middle East. It reveals how Arab merchants held an esteemed reputation due to their access to these rare and valuable materials. Oud wood, gray amber, and musk, among others, have always been highly cherished in perfumery.

Balsamaire (buste de Nubien), IIe siècle Bronze moulé , Lyon, musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon © Lyon MBA

The exhibition underscores the esteemed status of perfume makers, with their workshops typically situated at the heart of the souk, near the main mosque. This proximity highlights the crucial role of perfume in the purification rituals mandated by Islam, which take place in the venerable hammam, a hub for social interaction.

Perfume has a spiritual dimension in this context, allowing for reflection on its sacred usage and emphasising the continuity and discontinuity between pre-Islamic Antiquity and the Muslim world, both past and present. The history of perfumes stretches back to Ancient Egypt, where they were used as a means to communicate with the gods. They also played a role in Jewish and Christian religions as intermediaries with the divine. With the advent of Islam, these fragrances became accessible to humans and gained magical properties through incense fumigation.

As the exhibition nears its conclusion, visitors enter a private Arab-Muslim home, where they witness the intimate and secret uses of perfumes. Perfumes are integral to socialising and are a vital component of the hospitality ceremony, which involves hosts adorning guests with fragrance. Flower water diffusers and incense burners are common fixtures in every home.

Finally, visitors are granted access to the most private space: the alcove. Perfumes play a role in seduction rituals, with saffron, musk, and amber often lauded for their aphrodisiac qualities. These fragrances are strategically placed around the room to evoke desire.

In addition to the exhibition, a diverse range of cultural events, including concerts, conferences, workshops, film screenings, and literary gatherings, will be organised from October 2023 to February 2024, offering visitors a comprehensive experience of the rich world of Arab perfumes.

Location: Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Dates: September 26, 2023, to March 17, 2024

Mohamad Al Riyashi et Riad Fahami, Mascate, Oman, 2023, Vladimir Antaki. Muscat
(Oman), 2023, Photographie © Musée de l’IMA/ Vladimir Antaki



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