Dr Abbas Akbari
Visiting Research Fellow
This project will bring new perspectives and research techniques to Cambridge, which will further highlight under-researched collections that sit at the interface between Western Asian and Western traditions. Bringing together embodied forms of knowledge generated through my practice as a pottery artist, with my academic scholarship, will enable me to bring new perspectives to Cambridge, to be shared via a graduate seminar, public and academic workshops, and a short film.
Lustreware from Islamic lands is being put on display in museums worldwide not only because of its artistic value, but also of the crucial role it plays in the development of ceramic technology. The production of lustreware involves the application of a thin metallic layer over ceramic vessels, a technique that requires knowledge outside the ordinary skill sets used to make ceramic; making it an exceptional innovation of its time. In spite of its significance, there are still disagreements over the origins of lustreware technology, a debate that has been going on for several decades. Lusterware found in Iran enjoys a special status, with the city of Gorgan, in particular, standing out among various locations where samples were sporadically discovered. Four decades ago, Oliver Watson published his Persian Lustre-Painted Pottery, hypothesising that the items found in Gorgan were not produced locally but traded from Kashan. However, my research, informed by my own artistic practice in pottery, challenges this view, which develops a new non Eurocentric theoretical framework by exploring the technicalities of lustreware production. My key findings are summarised below, which serve to provide the foundation for the work I propose to carry out within the duration of this visiting fellowship.
Over the years, Dr Akbari has interrogated Watson’s hypothesis more critically by reconsidering significant texts, such as those written by Mehdi Bahrami and Mohammad Yusif Kiani. A particularly important text he has analysed is Muhammad Ibn Abi al-Barakat Johari Neishabouri’s Javahernameh, as this text was written almost a hundred years earlier than the texts that documented the lustreware production in Kashan such as Abul Ghasem Abdullah Kashani’s Arayes al-Jawaher va Nafayes al Atayeb, while the Javahernameh was written in Nishapur, a town closer to Gorgan. Parallel to text analysis is a survey of objects available in Iranian museums, especially broken lusterware pieces which are normally not included in previous studies. These two lines of evidence strongly point to the existence of lustreware production activities in Gorgan. This finding adds to the previous studies by scholars such as Zaki Mohammad Hasan, strengthening the argument that lustreware production occurred in multiple places rather than in a single place based in Kashan.
Technicalities of lustreware production
Drawing from his own experience as a pottery artist, Dr Akbari is able to identify different artistic expressions and technical practices, allowing him to differentiate the artistic signatures of different potters involved in making lustreware in Gorgan based on the broken lustreware fragments housed in Iranian museums. He has also compared the artistic signatures of the lusterware fragments and vessels found in Gorgan with those from other areas in Iran, Kashan in particular, thereby tracing variation in the colour and quality between the lustreware from Gorgan and other areas in Iran. Such variation is grounded in the practical experience in producing lustreware and an understanding of the different natural raw materials that are available in these regions.
The CVC Visiting Research Fellowship
Building on these promising results, Dr Akbari will bring his experience to Cambridge, which will help support colleagues engaged in related research, and introduce new perspectives to students through a graduate seminar. Dr Akbari will share his modern experiments with painting in this technique, and how these can inform our understanding of historical production.
During his residency, Dr Akbari will study the lustreware vessels from the Ades Collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which represent one of the largest Gorgan lustreware collections outside Iran. These lustreware vessels are purported to have belonged to the ‘Gorgan Finds’, purchased by the Ades Family in the 1940s. The work Dr Akbari will carry out within this visiting fellowship has two main goals:
1. To explore whether the lustreware vessels of the Ades Collection were made in Gorgan, working closely with Flavia Ravaioli and Carmen Ting who have been conducting scientific analyses to characterise the ‘recipes’ used to produce these lustreware vessels. Dr Akbari’s research will focus on studying the figurative motifs of lustreware vessels, as their visual features vary the most (even in a subtle way) from other non-Gorgan examples based on my experience.
2. To link the lustreware of the Ades collection back to the broader Iranian context and beyond, drawing from the vast inventories of artistic signatures of Gorgan and Iranian potters Dr Akbari has collected over the past years. This second goal is of particular importance, as it helps (re)contextualise the lustreware vessels that are currently housed in Western museums.
Research and Impact
1. Participating in a workshop with leading scholars in the field to present the findings of this theoretical and practical research.
2. Self-producing a short film (about five minutes long) to bring into view those luster ceramics attributed to Gorgan kept in Iranian museums and at the Fitzwilliam Museum as well as some scenes of the city of Gorgan and the production phases of lusterware objects. The film will also be available to the public through a link on YouTube at the end of the project after its sneak preview (subject to relevant permissions).
3. This fellowship will provide impetus to explore displays and /or digital resources around these collections.
4. Graduate seminar focused on recognising the unseen visual differences between the lustreware found in Gorgan and those in Kashan, with an emphasis on the works of the Fitzwilliam Museum aimed at reaching a broader audience with an interest in the history of art, archaeology and material culture studies, with the aim of creating a platform to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to the study of objects.
5. The possibility of holding a practical workshop on artistic techniques is being explored.
This project will be firmly embedded in the existing research networks, forming important collaboration with ongoing projects, including the ‘Global Connections: Arts from the Islamic World and the Fitz’ (Fitzwilliam Museum, Department of Archaeology, Department of History of Art), ‘Making of Islamic Glazes: from the Silk Road to Al-Andalus’ (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research).