The Brunei Gallery – a treasure of non-Western art

There is a quirky grey plaque on the side of the Brunei Gallery building that has earned this museum the unusual reference of being the ‘sorriest building in all of London’. It reads: ‘The University of London hereby records its sincere apologies that the plans of this building were settled without due consultation with the Russell family and their trustees and therefore without their approval of this design’.

Although the Russell family of the Bedford Estate no longer own the land upon which the building is sited, they have the legal right to approve the construction of buildings fronting onto certain aspects of what was once their province. Hearsay says that apparently although the trustees of the Estate were consulted at the initial stages of planning, final cut and dry approval was never officially confirmed. This is indeed a plaque of principle.

The Brunei Gallery, owned and managed by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), is in fact a fine contribution to the list of galleries and museums in the West devoted to showcasing Asian, African and Middle Eastern art. It is conveniently located in the heart of Bloomsbury, near the British Museum and many other educational and visual arts institutions.

One of the most recent ‘temporary’ exhibitions was Maps of Persia:  1477–1925, which featured maps of urban areas and topography and sea charts relating to regions in the Persian Empire. The oldest exhibits were from early editions of Ptolemaic cartography dating from 1477, the most recent were dated at the end of the Qajar dynasty in 1925. The displays revealed how cartography, particularly the mapping of the Persian region, advanced, achieving increasing accuracy as cartographic tools and techniques developed and trade routes expanded.

Many of the maps are very attractive, some quite colourful and  embellished with sailing ships, soldiers, battlements, municipal buildings and residences, rippling waves and fertile landscapes. The maps originated from Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands; artistic emphasis, as well as national boundaries, may have been influenced by political considerations. Supporting material included pages from the Illustrated London News depicting royal entourages engaged in stately visits to Britain and to Persia.

The exhibits were drawn from a collection of over 250 maps of Persia donated to SOAS in 2013 by Dr Cyrus Ala’i’. He stresses that he assembled the collection for the sake of acquiring historical, geographical and political information, rather than financial gain.

Another recent innovative exhibition was The Tent Makers of Islamic Cairo. It featured photographs by Massimiliano Fusari,  a Senior Teaching Fellow with the Centre for Media Studies at SOAS. Fusari’s photographs are poignant, imbued with an essence of warmth and vitality. They reveal the tools and artistry of the tent makers’ craft, and aspects – dining, drinking, laughter, grooming– of the everyday lives of the tent-making families who work in old Cairo.  They produce pieces of cotton fabric decorated with colourful, hand stitched floral, geometric and calligraphic shapes and patterns. The panels are known as khayamiyya. For centuries past they were used to line the insides of tents. Now they line pavilions for festive occasions, such as weddings, or are used as wall hangings, or for cushions and bedspreads.

Another recent show, The Art of Integration, Islam in England’s Green and Pleasant Land, could not have come at a more relevant time. Peter Sanders’ photographs are a visually poetic appreciation of the many Muslims – for whom Britain is home – who enrich the intellectual and cultural life of Britain, be they mothers, doctors, sculptors, police constables or cosmeticians.

Sanders recalls an enlightening quote from Shaykh Ba, a West African scholar: ‘The river is crystal clear. Its water remains pure, sweet and unpolluted. It reflects the colour of the riverbed’. Thus it is that Islam in China is Chinese, just as in Africa it is African, and in Britain, it is British.’ Sanders staked his claim to fame during the 1960s with his photographs of rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones.

Until July 2016, the permanent rotating exhibition is The Arts of Southeast Asia, which features objects from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The chronological range is from c.1000 BC to the 21st century.  On view are manuscripts – written on bark, palm leaves, copper sheets and paper – textiles, sculptures, metalwork, ceramics and paintings, reflecting a wealth of religions, cultures and languages.

The L-shaped Gallery building is elegant and unassuming, an attractive example of modernist architecture.  It relates pleasingly to the materials, massing and restrained geometry of its neighbours: late 18th-century Georgian terraced houses. The Gallery comprises two sections, a five-storey teaching block, which is naturally lit and airy, and a three-storey gallery, which is relatively less ‘open’, indeed windowless partly because it requires artificial lighting, air conditioning and security. The entrance hall is double height, and topped with a white drum-shaped dome; it is a subtle link between the two blocks. Materials such as oak, stone and etched glass complement the use of fair-faced (high quality, aesthetically pleasing) concrete.

The brick facade facing Russell Square is quite severe, with indented brick arches and window frames being the only embellishments. The façade facing Torrington Square, where the main entrance is, overlooks a landscaped pedestrian space.  It is a relatively more creative and expressive construction. Two rows of square glazed windows sit just below the roof; glazed windows run lengthways along one indented ‘panel’. The glazed entrance features two slim concrete columns linked at the top with an overhanging concrete beam.

The building was designed by Nicholas Hare architects. In 1998 the project won a Camden Environmental Design Award, a Civic Trust Award, and was shortlisted for a RIBA award. Before the building was built in 1995 ‘there was a series of rather ugly and unsuitable-for-purpose interconnected porta cabins on the site left over from not long after the Second World War, so the development of the site and the new building were very welcome’, John Hollingworth, the Galleries and Exhibitions Manager, tells me.

The building was paid for with a donation from the Sultan of Brunei in the early 1990s. Running and exhibition costs are financed with a mixture of central core funding from SOAS and a multitude of sponsors. The Foyle Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council provided funding for the establishment in 2007 of the Foyle Special Collections Gallery.

So far the gallery has been involved in roughly 130 projects.  In the last academic year, it welcomed its highest-ever number  of visitors, over 65,000. The seven most popular exhibitions since the Gallery’s birth have received over 20,000 visitors each. These include Empire, Faith and War (2014), which commemorated the contribution of the Sikhs in the Great War. The Sikhs made up over 20% of the British Indian Army when hostilities began, although they accounted for less than 2% of the population of British India at the time. Photographs, drawings, newspaper extracts, comics, postcards, uniforms, medals and archived film footage and sound recordings of Sikh POWs captured on the Western Front were key exhibits.

An earlier exhibition, in 2011, also focused on the Sikhs, The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections on the Past. The temple is the centre of the Sikh faith and a pilgrimage site. The exhibition featured photographs, paintings, engravings, jewellery, weapons and extracts from eyewitness accounts of European spies, travellers, artists and memsahibs who had visited the shrine in the 19th century. India, Pioneering Photographers 1850–1900, presented in 2001, was the first major exhibition in London of early photographs of India, some of which had never been on public view before.

There are still too few major public establishments focusing on non-Western art. As John Donne reflects poetically, no man is an ‘Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the mainany man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’. It’s no mere platitude to suggest that if we realize how much we share we’re less likely to be angry at one another, and more likely to appreciate what we hold in common.  The Brunei Gallery deserves a ‘civic trust’ award.

The Gallery hosts a changing programme of contemporary and historic exhibitions of art, and there are permanent but ‘rotating’ displays in the Foyle Special Collections Gallery (see above for information about the present one) , which are drawn from the SOAS archives and special collections. The Japanese Roof Garden is open during Gallery hours. In addition to exhibition space, the Gallery building has generous teaching and conference facilities, and a 300-seat lecture theatre. The Gallery is a valuable asset for those with a general or scholarly interest in non-western art and a valuable learning resource for the students and staff of SOAS. Staff members help to assess applications for exhibitions and contribute ideas for displays.

It is well worth a visit.


The School of Oriental and African Studies was founded in London in 1916 to offer teaching (language training, background knowledge, etc.) for people being posted to Asia and Africa.  Once the Second World War had spread to the Far East, the School provided translation services, language teaching and information about the region. 

On campus SOAS has about 5000 students (half being undergraduates) from 133 countries. About 3,500 students abroad take the School’s distance learning programmes.  SOAS is the only higher education institution in Europe specializing in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The School of Art offers an extremely broad range of arts degree programmes focusing on the arts of non-Western cultures. The School library, designed in 1973 by Denys Lasdun, holds over a million books.

Professor Ian Brown, an historian at SOAS, is writing a history of SOAS for publication in 2016. Prof. Brown notes that the School has evolved from an institution teaching people working in the regions it covers, such as colonial service cadets and those engaged in business, to one engaged in academic scholarship. One issue of constant concern is ‘how much do we cover; how deep do we go? We cannot do everything’.

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The photograph is of eighteenth century warrior armour including a set of chiselled body armour (char-aiea, ‘four mirrors’). From ‘The Golden Temple of Amritsar’ exhibition, 2011. Image courtesy of the Brunei Gallery. 

This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the April 2015 issue.