Franci Neely, MFAH Board, See Successful Debut of New Islamic Gallery
By Exec Edge Editorial Staff
On March 5, crowds poured into the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for the public debut of its Art of the Islamic Worlds gallery. It was a long-held dream finally realized for board members, including Franci Neely, who is a co-chair of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Art of the Islamic Worlds subcommittee.
“In the 16 years I’ve been involved with this initiative, I have made deep and lasting friendships with people from Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait,” Neely says. “We have traveled together to expand our horizons and knowledge of parts of the world steeped in the history, culture, and art of Islam and other religions. We have watched the Houston collection grow from almost nothing to thousands of objects in all different mediums, representing the rich tapestry of the Islamic world.”
While MFAH allotted permanent gallery space to Islamic art in 2012, the expanded Hossein Afshar Collection nearly doubles the previous display space for Islamic art. Now spanning 6,000 square feet of space, the gallery offers more than 170 pieces on display, more than 1,000 on loan from Afshar, and another 300 acquired 10 years ago through a loan from the al-Sabah Collection from Kuwait.
Islamic art is now being featured in multiple galleries. Gallery 1 showcases visual motifs found in Islamic art while Galleries 2 and 3 offer paintings, ceramics, and silk carpets. Gallery 4 features Quran manuscripts and calligrapher’s tools and Gallery 5 explores the adventure of Persian ceramics transported through trade routes to East Asia and China. Gallery 6 is a textile and carpet treasure trove.
The momentous occasion coincided with the highly anticipated annual event, The Spring Festival: New Beginnings, which attracted a bevy of curious cultural connoisseurs from throughout the Houston area and beyond.
A cappella group Basmati Beats performed at the festival and gave a shout-out to MFAH on Instagram stating, “Make sure to check out the Art of the Islamic World Exhibit @mfahouston.”
Other entertainment included Muhammad Khaerisman and Hayan Charara reading poetry and the Riyaaz Qawwali Ensemble and Jones Family Singers Gospel Band delivering performances that had the crowd on their feet.
Spring Festival patrons could also immerse themselves in Islamic art by participating in Arabic calligraphy, ceramic painting, and ebru paper-marbling activities with the Islamic Arts Society and get temporary body art from Tasnim Henna Art.
And no festival is complete without appropriate eats. The Spring Festival offered a slew of culinary temptations such as Middle Eastern cuisine from Afghan Village, Persian food from Miri’s Kitchen, fresh baklava from Nuka Baklava, savory Indian bites from Filli Cafe, and other traditional ethnic delicacies.
MFAH Springs Into More Expansive Space for Islamic Art
Already, the gallery has received rave reviews. Entrepreneur and blogger Moon Mehmood deemed the new gallery space “stunning” in an IG story and Houston wardrobe stylist and digital creator Michelle Naik expressed her love on IG for the expanded gallery space. “What a great event curated by @mfahouston,” @michellenaik posted. “Keep the good times going. Did you know the New Galleries for Art of the Islamic Worlds are included with your general admission?”
Los Angeles-based artist Erika Lizée complimented the museum on its grayish-blue color choice to pop as a backdrop for the ancient pieces. “I appreciate the color choice for the walls/shelves, contrasts nicely against these exquisite masterworks!” @erikalizee wrote on Instagram.
Entrepreneur Saloumeh Ebrahimzadeh shared a post on Instagram encouraging people to see the arches — which were created by her friend Afsaneh Aayani — temporarily on display at the museum.
“I was fortunate enough to be invited to design some arches for The Spring Festival @mfahouston,” @afsaneh_aayani posted on Instagram. “This was a challenging yet rewarding process and I am extremely thankful for the team of talented and amazing people who worked by my side to bring these designs to life.”
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston also shared a behind-the-scenes Instagram post while a team unveiled a Safavid silk carpet.
And no one is more ecstatic about the celebrations and installations than Franci Neely. With a deep appreciation for Islamic culture and art, Neely says it’s been a rewarding journey to see this collection grow over the years.
Franci Neely’s Devotion to Art and Travel Continues To Drive Her Cultural Initiatives
Neely, who is in the process of completing her mission of making it to every country in the world, has roamed extensively throughout the Middle East and says some of her best travel experiences have taken place in Iran and Saudi Arabia. She says she’s in awe of how much pride and knowledge the Iranian people have for their country, art, culture, and history. “The Persian culture is rich,” Neely observes.
Persian art is getting a significant spotlight at MFAH now, thanks to Franci Neely and other museum donors who remain dedicated to making MFAH a dynamically diverse arts and culture hub in the Houston area.
In January, Neely was part of the Art of the Islamic Worlds gala that raised more than $616,000 to bring museum-goers hundreds of breathtaking pieces from Morocco, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Some coveted pieces of the collection include the “Layla and Majnun” 17th-century tile panel made with stone-paste and polychrome glaze within black wax-resist outlines. The Iranian gem is a beloved homage to the bittersweet reality of star-crossed lovers. A 12th-century bronze incense burner is another Iranian treasure on display alongside a Quran manuscript from Morocco on parchment paper. Featuring opaque watercolor and gold, it’s a striking piece made possible by Hushang Ansary.
Museum visitors can also learn about the significance of calligraphy in Islamic culture featured on everything from elaborate paintings to bowls and traditional jewelry.
Another prized piece, the painting “Dancing Girl” by Muhammad Baquir, was funded by Franci Neely and Sabiha and Omar Rehmatulla at the 2015 Art of the Islamic Worlds gala. The oil-on-canvas masterpiece hails from Iran A.H. 1192 (A.D. 1778–79).
MFAH Art of the Islamic Worlds curator Aimée Froom told the Houston Chronicle the collection is “one of the things that drew me to Houston,” and is “diverse culturally, regionally, geographically all under the umbrella of Islamic art.”
She says she also sees the new galleries as a cultural bridge between history, the Houston community, and the museum.
“Encompassing diverse cultures, ethnicities, languages, and regional traditions, this new presentation will convey the extraordinarily vibrant contributions and legacies of Islamic civilizations,” Froom concluded.