It has been hailed by the critics as a “kind of miracle” and a demonstration of the continuity and intellectual power of Islamic art.
The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World is the latest gem at the heart of the venerable British Museum but its power to amaze would not have been possible without the vision of the Malaysian philanthropist Syed Mokhtar Albukhary.
A trail-blazing businessman, Mr Albukhary’s commercial interests include car manufacturing, engineering, property and ports. The son of a cattle dealer who was forced to leave school when his father’s business went bust, he overcame his early setbacks to establish one of Malaysia’s biggest private fortunes.
Mr Albukhary’s charitable foundation not only helps Afghan refugees and victims of natural disasters but also the needy around the world, such as Ugandan AIDs sufferers. A second distinctive characteristic of the foundation is its cultural profile and the serious role it plays in recasting the image of Islamic art to audiences around the world
As Malaysian who has benefited from the economic transformation of Asia, Mr Albukhary hailed the opening of the gallery at the British Museum on Thursday as a contribution to mutual understanding.
“In the context of globalisation, I sincerely hope that this new gallery will attract a multicultural audience, and contribute in understanding the history, arts and cultures of the Islamic World,” he said.
The gallery has been curated not just to show Islamic-themed art but to exhibit works from Muslim-populated lands that encompasses all eras. Many religions Christians, Jews and Hindus are reflected throughout.
The foundation built the much-praised Islamic Art Museum in his native Malaysia and signed the agreement with the former British Museum director Neil MacGregor in 2015 in the aftermath of the ISIS rampage across Syria and Iraq.
At the time Mr Albukhary talked about the urgency of providing a counter to the destruction of ancient sites by the group. “What is happening in the world, demolishing all the Islamic heritage, non-Islamic antiquities, is a bad image,” he said. “The British Museum has been building this collection, without them we would not have any history.”
Syed Mohamad Albukhary, his brother and director of Malaysia's Islamic Art Museum, told The National that the collaboration with Mr MacGregor was the product of a long-term relationship between the two sides. Located in Kuala Lumpur's Lake Gardens, the museum now boasts 12 galleries.
“We only opened our museum in 1998 and that time we did not have a lot of works for our collection but Neil stepped in and said he would lend some of his interesting collection,” he said. “Four years ago we realised the British Museum’s Islamic Gallery, after 30 years, needs refurbishment so we decided to sponsor it for the 21st century viewing for the public.
“It is a stunning work of art.”
Over four years, work on the new project has involved hundreds of people.
“Everybody from the curation, conservation, education to marketing has had a dream and have now made it come to fruition,” he added. “It is remarkable.”
The family traces its routes to central Asia but it is in Malaysia’s melting pot of cultures that Mr Albukhary found his inspiration. As a beneficiary of the country’s growth, the 67-year old is also an outspoken critic of those who have exploited the system corruptly.
Best known as the founder of the Proton car brand, Mr Albukhary appears determined to build up his philanthropy as rapidly as he established his commercial businesses. He draws inspiration from the life lessons imparted by his mother who raised her family without the benefit of running water in their rural home.
“My mother taught us nothing is yours until you have given it away with all your heart in the hope it will make someone's life easier,” he once told a Malaysian newspaper.
Visitors to the central London institution can now witness the significant contributions to social, economic and cultural life from the Islamic world. In its new setting, the collection includes archaeology, decorative arts, shadow puppets, textiles and contemporary art.
Mr MacGregor’s successor as British Museum director, Hartwig Fisher said the generosity of Mr Albukhary’s donations would heal divisions.
“The galleries and permanent displays of the British Museum’s collection show us the interconnectedness of our shared cultures,” he said.