Soon after Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast and flooded La Guardia Airport, New Yorkers Anne-Imelda Radice and Iris Love jumped into a car to drive 12 hours to Indianapolis.
Their destination: The Indianapolis Museum of Art exhibition "Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture."
Radice, executive director of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, had seen "Beauty and Belief" before a few times — it opened earlier this year at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, Utah.
"Each time you visit the exhibition, you feel the power of the works and the messages they carry," she said.
Sabiha Al Khemir, one of the world's foremost experts in Islamic art, curated "Beauty and Belief"; it opened Nov. 2 in Indianapolis and will remain there through Jan. 13 before traveling to museums in Newark, N.J., and Portland, Ore.
A Tunisian, Al Khemir makes concerted efforts in general and in "Beauty and Belief" to build bridges between cultures, said Radice, a former director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
With "Beauty and Belief," Al Khemir also gives Americans who think of terrorism, the Taliban, al-Qaida and Islam in one breath a different perspective of the religion and culture, said Love, a distinguished archaeologist.
In "Beauty and Belief," Al Khemir allows the pieces to speak for themselves, Radice said. She selected 250 objects from 40 private and public collections, dating from the seventh century to present day, among them jars, vases, paintings, rugs, tiles, finials, door panels, jewelry, bowls and figurines, with perhaps the best known of those being the Pisa griffin.
Many of the objects have not been shown before in the United States, and no comparable exhibition of Islamic art exists anywhere in the country, said Al Khemir, who also lives in New York.
Some of the objects are valuable while others are simple and humble, said Al Khemir, who was educated in London and founded the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, and is the first senior adviser on Islamic art to the Dallas Museum of Art.
Al Khemir emphasized that "Beauty and Belief" is not about religion but instead culture. Many of the objects were made in devotion to God and bear inscriptions to Him but were not used in mosques or to serve religious purposes, she said.
"'Islamic art' is not a liturgy," she wrote for the exhibition catalog. "Yet, the link between beauty and belief is integral. The coherent essence that connects the objects in this exhibition, in spite of their differences in place and time, is what makes them Islamic — they belong to the same spiritual universe. 'Islamic art' is often a tool for asking forgiveness. Beauty is an act of devotion."
The exhibition opens with a map and timeline of key events in the Islamic world, plus an unusually large calligraphic scroll in ink, watercolor and gold on paper, made in Syria or India in the 14th to 15th century.
"Its content and form suggest that it might have been used as a talisman, endowed with protective prayers, as well as an official document of some kind," Al Khemir wrote.
The nicely laid out exhibition — the objects have breathing space around them — also includes pages from other calligraphic manuscripts as well as pages of illustrations, among them one of the Virgin Mary with infant Jesus.
Among the more unexpected objects are intricate silver inlaid iron horseshoes from 18th-century Turkey; an unglazed earthenware jug filter from Egypt, dating to the 10th to 12th century; and a beehive cover made of fritware, dated 1884-85, from Iran.
There also are door panels, including a pair in silver that possibly might be from a shrine in Iran, dated 16th century or later.
And there are figurines. The most striking is the cast bronze "Griffin," a combination feline and bird, probably made in Spain during the 11th to 12th century.
It's one of the most famous Islamic bronze figures partly because of its size and partly because of its mysterious journey, Al Khemir wrote.
It rested on top of the cathedral of Pisa, Italy, for centuries. In the 19th century, the Pisa griffin was determined to be of Islamic origin after its Arabic inscription, in foliated Kufic script, was deciphered:
"Perfect benediction, complete well-being, perfect joy, eternal peace and perfect health, and happiness and good fortune for the owner."
If you go
What: "Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture," an exhibition of more than 250 objects spanning three continents and dating from the seventh century to now, curated by Sabiha Al Khemir
When: Through Jan. 13, 2013
Where: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road, Indianapolis.
Tickets: $12 for adults; $6 for children ages 7-17; free for children 6 and younger (General admission to the museum is free; parking is $5)
Museum hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays (closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day)
Information: 317-923-1331; http://www.imamuseum.org