"The exhibit has become symbolic," said Sheika Hussah. "These things are in exile as we all are. And they are a product of Islamic civilization as we are."
Sheika Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, co-owner with her husband of the al-Sabah collection from which selections are now on view at the Walters Art Gallery, is a member of Kuwait's ruling family who has been living in exile since the Iraqi invasion in August. In mid-October, she came to the United States to announce that the American tour of the exhibit would proceed as scheduled, and while in Baltimore spoke of the collection and the exhibit.
Sitting in the parlor of the Walters house on Mount Vernon Place, a soft-spoken, quietly dressed figure, she spoke sadly of reports that Iraqis may well have removed the rest of the collection of some 7,000 objects from the Kuwait National Museum.
If the collection was taken, Sheika Hussah said, it was "for a political reason. They want to confiscate it and use it as a hostage."
She spoke of her husband, Sheik Nasir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, as the real collector of the couple. "He has a good eye and a photographic memory. He will fly to one place and another in pursuit of an object." She, on the other hand, oversees the care and preservation of the collection, which the al-Sabahs gave to Kuwait in 1983 and which was housed in a special museum within the Kuwait National Museum.
The couple's collecting interests began with "Renaissance furniture and objets d'art," the sheika said, but their "whole concept of collecting changed" as they realized "the important obligation to civilization to bring under one roof whatever we could get in the world of dispersed [Islamic] art."
The collection is strong in terms of chronology, history and techniques, the sheika said, and the selection shown here will be "an introduction to Islamic civilization," which, among other things, "inherited techniques [from the ancients] and transmitted them to European art."
If indeed the collection in Kuwait is lost, she said, it would be impossible to rebuild it as it was. "It is very hard to find any good objects now. Most of the good pieces are already in museums."