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Collaboration & Connection: Exhibiting Islam, Ladan Akbarnia

Ladan Akbarnia is Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA), where she oversees the permanent collection of holdings from South and Southeast Asia, Iran and Central Asia, and the Islamic world. Specializing in medieval Iran and Central Asia, her expertise and publications address cross-cultural transmissions; Sufism; Persianate drawings; contemporary Middle Eastern art; and methodologies of museum display.

Before joining SDMA, she was Curator of Islamic Collections at The British Museum from 2010–19, where she was a lead curator for the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World and co-author of its accompanying publications. From 2007–10, she served as Hagop Kevorkian Associate Curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where she organized a reinstallation of the Islamic collection and the exhibition, Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam, with its accompanying catalogue (2009). She also served as Executive Director of the Iran Heritage Foundation (2009–10) and as Consulting Curator for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture Museum Support Unit (2008–09). She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of Islamic Art and Architecture.

We talk to Ladan about her journey to specializing in Islamic art, curating the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum, where she finds inspiration for exhibitions and the benefits of working with communities.

When did you develop an interest in Islamic art and how did you become an expert in this area? Did you always want to be a curator?

I did not always want to be a curator, because I initially didn’t even know about the profession! Not until university, when I began to work with museum collections and volunteer at other museums during the summer, did I become interested in pursuing a curatorial career, especially when I saw how museums could play in a role in cultural preservation. In high school, I was passionate about human rights, and everyone (including me) thought I was going to go into foreign diplomacy. I had enjoyed studying art and foreign languages and cultures in high school, but the coursework for international relations was heavy on political science and economics, and I was terrible at the latter. Inspired by a friend studying art history at Vassar College in New York, I decided to switch gears and try the discipline for myself at the same school. I found art history to be an ideal discipline because it is inherently interdisciplinary: historians of visual culture must study languages, history, and literature as well as art, architecture, and archaeology in order to understand the contexts and relationships tied to material culture. Vassar has an exemplary art history curriculum, and I was fortunate to have not one but several mentors in the department. But the program was heavily Eurocentric and, at the time, did not offer a single course on Islamic art history.

So how did I develop an interest in Islamic art? It started with a course on Native American (yes, Native American) art, in which I had the chance to research an object in Vassar’s museum collection. This led to a summer internship in New York at the American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation and, ultimately, an undergraduate thesis on Hopi kachina dolls based on fieldwork at the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. These experiences would help shape my future career as an Islamic art curator, introducing me to hands-on collections research, object handling, fieldwork, and an awareness of the cultural sensitivities that play such a significant role not only in museums but in our intertwined global community. I now wanted to study a field more closely connected to my Iranian background, which felt distant to me as someone who spent most of her life outside of Iran. I did a master’s degree in contemporary Middle Eastern art at UCLA, writing my thesis on Shirin Neshat’s Women of Allah series.

During that time, I also interned for Dr Linda Komaroff in the Islamic art department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then spent a few years as research assistant to Dr Stefano Carboni at the Islamic Art Department at the Met. I learned a great deal about curating from both, but Stefano’s mentorship was instrumental in shaping my own curatorial approach. After working with him on two major exhibitions (Glass of the Sultans and The Legacy of Genghis Khan), he encouraged me to return to school, and I ended up finishing my graduate studies in the History of Islamic Art & Architecture at Harvard University. I realize my path was a combination of privilege and chance, and I don’t take either lightly, remaining grateful to my mentors and especially to my parents, who supported me unconditionally in spite of my pursuing a career so different from their own as physicians, a path perhaps less understood (at least at the time) in my culture.

Finally, about my interest in Islamic art as a field, I will say that I initially pursued it as a way to study Iran in the Islamic period, but I appreciate how it has enabled me to learn about an incredibly diverse range of material culture spanning from Spain to North Africa and South and East Asia, as well as the contemporary diaspora. There’s no way to be bored — only overwhelmed!

You spearheaded the 2009 reinstallation of the Islamic gallery and curated the exhibition “Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam” at the Brooklyn Museum, where you were associate curator of Islamic art. How did this experience impact your career?

2009 feels so long ago now! But it was early in my career, and that exhibition was my first proper one. It was conceived as a city-wide celebration of Islamic culture originally entitled “Illuminating Islam,” so I thought an exhibition anchored on Sufism, with its relationship to light and mysticism, would be a nice way for the Brooklyn Museum to participate and to introduce Islamic art to a wider public. It was also a perfect excuse to convince the Museum to allow for a low-cost reinstallation of the Islamic gallery, which had not changed in several years. I think the combined experience of preparing the exhibition and reinstallation had a tremendous impact on my career in terms of my growth as a curator. When our museum was first approached to contribute a program to the city-wide festival, I had hoped to do a joint exhibition with Stefano Carboni at the Met, but he had just accepted a director’s post in Australia. Thankfully, my other colleagues in that department agreed to a small loan of works from the Islamic collection and, with nine months’ lead time, I prepared an ensemble of some 25 works, including objects from the permanent collection, the Met pieces, a private loan, and a contemporary art commission by Pouran Jinchi. There was one other contemporary work in the exhibition, and the significance of these contemporary pieces was that they were integrated into thematically-driven sections rather than organized (as in previous exhibitions combining Islamic and contemporary art) as the chronological end to a narrative.

Small in size, Light of the Sufis offered visitors a certain intimacy, and was complemented by the adjacent newly reinstalled Arts of the Islamic World. The reinstallation, in turn, gave me the opportunity to revisit object attributions and the narrative framework of the gallery, including top-level texts about the collection’s history, the name choice for the gallery, and information about Islam as a faith, political entity, and culture.

So yes, this experience probably set the stage for future projects and pathways: I reconceived the current display and planned a reinstallation within limited parameters; organized a special exhibition with loans and a special commission; and received my first big review in the New York Times, which might have helped bring the show more attention. Ultimately, Light of the Sufis was picked up by The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where it was expanded into double its original size and for which we produced an accompanying catalogue building upon the narrative framework and texts of the Brooklyn show.

You previously were assistant keeper of Islamic art and curator of the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum. How did you help shape and impact the museums practice around the interpretation and display of Islamic art?

This is a tough question to address, as I think I am continuing to process my experience as a curator at the British Museum (and especially of the Albukhary Foundation Gallery) even 3 years after the fact. During my time there, my duties beyond looking after and displaying the Islamic collections from Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia and all pre-modern Islamic book arts included handling countless public enquiries, export license requests, consulting for regional museums and projects, and cultivating relationships with people and organisations from the countries represented by our collections. I doubt I will have a similar spectrum of responsibilities anywhere else, unless I should end up at a national public institution again one day. These responsibilities and relationships had a tremendous impact on my outlook on the museum as a public institution, and that outlook informed much of my (and I suspect my colleagues’) approach to the interpretation and display of Islamic material culture.

You will see more on the Albukhary project in writing hopefully soon, but I will at least say now that any shaping and impact related to the reinstallation was the result of much collaboration involving several minds and approaches.

The Albukhary Gallery expanded the geographical parameters of the previous display in the John Addis Islamic Gallery (which had opened in 1989) and dedicated significant real estate to the Museum’s previously underrepresented parts of the collection, in particular pre-modern arts of the book, the ethnographic collections, and contemporary Middle Eastern art — most of which are light sensitive and require frequent rotation. The new gallery also presented the Museum’s significant archaeological holdings from Samarra (Iraq) and Siraf (Iran), and integrated modern material culture from the modern Middle East and Central Asia (ethnographic collections inherited from the Museum of Mankind following its 1997 closure) in a breath-taking display that added a much-needed “human element” to the visitor experience.

Taking advantage of a small exhibition space in the previous Islamic gallery in the years leading up to the reinstallation, my colleagues and I had organized several exhibitions on special themes that ultimately helped inform thematic approaches in the new space. In the reinstallation, I was responsible for the area devoted to the pre-modern arts of the book and oral traditions, and designed a thematic framework to allow for ongoing rotations of calligraphies, drawings, single-page works, literary works, and albums. I also included a display of writing tools made in Iran, India, Ottoman Turkey, and China (the latter important to me since here, China was not singled out as an add-on region, but integrated equally into a story about Islamic workshop practices).

These are just a few of the things we did that I believe helped shape a more comprehensive and nuanced approach to Islamic visual culture in and beyond the Albukhary Gallery. It included addressing contemporary global issues, whether through contemporary art with direct messages or by representing material culture from regions where the lives and heritage of people were/are in peril. Object histories, one of the last and most difficult cases we arranged, gave us the chance to address the history of the collection, including its colonial roots, in an introductory text of no more than 120 words and labels of 60–80 words — a challenge, to say the least. But as little as we were allowed to write, I am proud of the way we were able to tell a story that began with colonialism and collecting by a group of privileged, European white men and ended with a female-dominated curatorial team composed of a diverse mix of curators (including ones whose cultures are represented in the gallery) and acquisitions involving the support of Middle Eastern patrons or pursued in collaboration with countries represented by the collections, such as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan.

Which exhibitions did you work on at The British Museum?

Some of the ones that stand out in my memory include Courting to contract: love and marriage in Iran (2016), The Prince and the pir: dervishes and mysticism in Iran and India (2015, with Peyvand Firouzeh), Line and spirituality: modern calligraphy by Mishkin Qalam and Muhammad ‘Ali (2013), and ‘No equal in all the world’: artistic legacies of Herat, Afghanistan (2011). I also curated a long-term installation across two galleries, which act as a sort of threshold between the museum’s permanent displays and the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery (SEG), which houses special temporary exhibitions. The most substantial project I worked on at The British Museum, however, was the complete reinstallation of the Islamic World gallery, which opened as the Albukhary Gallery of the Islamic World in 2018.

Iran has such a rich cultural heritage, you were the director at the Iran Heritage Foundation in London. What interested you in the role and what was the most memorable part?

This opportunity came about rather serendipitously. When I started my first curatorial job at the Brooklyn Museum, I thought holiday greetings would be a nice way to reach out to new contacts and organisations, as these relationships can always lead to future collaborations or partnerships. One such organisation was the Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF), a non-profit, non-political, UK-registered charity and cultural foundation, dedicated to creating and supporting projects and programs with the mission of preserving and promoting the history, languages, and cultures of Iran and the Persianate world. I sent the acting CEO a holiday card and figured that was that, but then I received an email from him asking me to send him a CV, which made me think, ‘oh, they would like to know more about me and what I am doing as another Iranian in this field.’ What it actually led to was a series of discussions with the CEO, Chairma, and other Trustees, a visit to London, and an offer to become the Foundation’s new director.

As a new curator, I was not seeking an administrative role, but I accepted the offer on a one-year trial, taking a leave of absence from the Brooklyn Museum. I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore administration and management while learning about the workings of a respected cultural foundation with a mission I admired, and it was. I enjoyed the strategic planning and managing relationships with museum directors as well as university chancellors and faculty, but I missed being immersed in the creative aspects of curating and felt I still had projects I wanted to pursue as a curator before moving on to a more administrative role.

The most memorable part of this experience was the strategic planning I was able to do with the Foundation, particularly in terms of relationships with academic and cultural institutions. One of the programmes I am most proud of having helped develop, for example, was the Institutional Partnership Programme, a source of seed funding for teaching and curatorial posts at acclaimed British and American universities and museums. Its development required a lot of relationship cultivation, which ultimately appealed to me on a larger scale as a form of cultural diplomacy. The role also introduced me to Dr John Curtis, OBE, then Keeper of Middle East Department at the British Museum, who later encouraged me to apply to my curatorial post at that museum, so I am grateful to IHF for the opportunities it gave me to expand my knowledge, administrative and management skills, and my professional network.

What are your thoughts on the representation and inclusion of Iranian art and heritage in British Museums and galleries?

I think Iran is richly represented in British museum collections from ancient material through the present day, and galleries are especially active in showing the work of both established and rising contemporary artists. There is abundant talent and artistic production that is easily accessible, especially in London. This access to Iranian art and heritage and the closer proximity to Iran itself are some of the many things I deeply miss about London, and the reason why I will continue to return to the city.

You are currently the curator of South Asian and Islamic art at the San Diego Museum of Art. Do you hope to challenge and change current modes of representation of Islamic art at the museum?

I suppose I do, perhaps because we do not currently have a space dedicated to the arts of the Islamic World at SDMA. The Islamic collection is represented primarily by Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia, and the galleries for these regions are arranged geographically. An Islamic gallery would allow me to display works across geographical boundaries and to emphasise the fascinating cross-cultural transmissions across time, space, and media, which drew me to the field in the first place. On the other hand, with every installation and exhibition I organise, I enjoy exploring new ways of communicating information and ideas about objects and cultures, and implementing ethical practices from concept to completion. Contemporary art offers a good way to prompt conversations across galleries as well, and I am really happy to have recently acquired Mohammad Barrangi’s Migration (2018), which was on display in the Arts of Iran Gallery, and to have arranged a long term loan of Ala Ebtekar’s Zenith VIII (2021) for the Museum’s galleries of the Americas, where visitors will see Ebtekar’s work presented as one of many pieces by American artists of diverse backgrounds.

I am genuinely excited about our 2024 exhibition on the intersections of Islamic art and science, Wonders of Creation: Art, Science, and Innovation in the Islamic World, because it embraces an interdisciplinary approach to the topic and integrates conservation science and cultural preservation into the narrative framework. We have received support from The Getty Foundation for the research phase and from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for two art commissions by Hayv Kahraman and Ala Ebtekar, although we will be including several other brilliant contemporary artists from different backgrounds throughout the exhibition. We have formed an academic advisory committee for input and feedback from experts in different disciplines, and we will also be conducting a front-end evaluation to test exhibition content, messaging, and overall visitor experience, especially amongst previously underserved communities, which include people whose cultures will be represented in the exhibition (ie, from the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia), many of whom identify as Muslim. This is an important way to engage local communities in a mutually beneficial relationship with the Museum.

The collection of South Asian and Islamic Art includes the Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, featuring more than 1,400 works, one of the largest and most comprehensive assemblages of South Asian art outside India. How did Edwin Binney acquire his collection?

Like many European and American collectors of his time, Binney was active in the art market and bought pieces from dealers and auction houses.

As part of your role, you manage the museum’s exhibitions and public programming; engaging South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim communities in San Diego and California. Do you think the role of Curator has changed to being much more about public engagement?

Our Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and Education actually oversees the Museum’s exhibitions and public programming, but I am responsible for exhibitions related to my area of specialization and work with our Education and Public Programming teams to help develop programmes aligned with exhibition themes or the permanent collection. I believe the degree of curatorial involvement in public engagement has always depended to some degree on the institution, on whether the curator is at an institution or working independently, and on the individual curator. However, I do think public engagement is increasingly expected to be something curators take part in actively. Personally, I feel museum curators who are responsible for collections should be interested in the public those collections are meant to serve, and engaging local and wider audiences can only help curators and museums develop more interesting and inclusive exhibitions and programmes — both in-person and virtual.

Are communities involved in exhibition making and public programming?

If they are not, I believe they ought to be on some level because they benefit both the museum and communities. At the British Museum, large-scale curatorial projects involve an extensive evaluation process involving engaging the community both before and after a major installation or exhibition to gauge interest in topics/themes, the different levels of understanding about a topic or any potential sensitivities associated with it, and views about methods of display or design intended to deliver key messages. Front-end evaluations, in particular, help curatorial and design teams reconsider and adjust aspects of a particular project, and also help shape the most appealing public programming to accompany exhibitions and permanent displays. I found the experience of working with communities extremely rewarding but also essential to the success of the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum, and I am excited to be pursuing a similar approach to engaging the public through front-end evaluation at The San Diego Museum of Art.

Sometimes, communities may also be involved more actively in exhibition development and public programming, whether to act as a jury selecting works from a collection that will then be displayed as a special exhibition (as was done at the Brooklyn Museum when I was there), or to take on a more curatorial role in selecting objects and writing text for a project. An example of the latter was a display commemorating the bicentenary celebration of Bahá’ulláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith, organised in 2017 by the Bahá’í community at the British Museum, or when our department collections managers organized a display of their favourite works in the Islamic collections, offering their unique perspective as the people who move and care for the objects at the Museum. For these projects, I acted as the supervising curator.

How do you come up with ideas for exhibitions?

A number of ways! Sometimes the topics relate to my area of specialisation or long-standing interest. Other times, they come from brainstorming ideas that respond to an overarching directive, such as Light of the Sufis (2009–10), which was conceived as the Brooklyn Museum’s contribution to a city-wide festival of Islamic culture; or Wonders of Creation (2024), which was conceived as part of the Getty Foundation’s 2024 Pacific Standard Time initiative, the theme of which focusses on the intersections of art and science. I also come up with ideas from spending time in the stores or vaults of the museums I have worked in, especially when preparing a rotation of works from the permanent collections. The rich permanent collections of both Islamic and South Asian art in my care have provided me with opportunities to showcase the visual and material cultures of regions where lives, habitats, and heritage are at risk or endangered, as well as to address current events.

At the British Museum, my exhibition No equal in all the world (2011) explored the artistic legacies of Herat, Afghanistan. During the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, my colleagues and I organized a display celebrating sport in the Islamic world.

At The San Diego Museum of Art, Elephant in the Room (2020–21) featured drawings and paintings of elephants in the Edwin Binney 3rd collection of South Asian and Islamic arts of the book, drawing attention not only to their majestic qualities but also to the threats they face today.

A Dogon Figure from Mali: Bridge to the Spirit World (2021), one-object exhibition co-curated with Denise Rogers, showcased a recent acquisition to the SDMA collection, which does not have significant African holdings, exploring Dogon culture as well as the problematic colonial history attached to Dogon art and the African art market.

Pearls in the Ocean of Contentment (2021–22) is a continuing, rotating exhibition that showcases the treasures of SDMA’s Binney Collection while simultaneously acknowledging the privilege that allowed Binney to amass the works, which ultimately reached the art market through a colonial path.

Finally, there are also opportunities to do contemporary shows such as My Lines Speak of Destinies (2023), which will feature women artists from South Asia and the South Asian diaspora; or Lisa Ross: Elegy to a Uyghur Homeland (opening September 2022), which will feature artist Lisa Ross’s compelling, poetic, and socially conscious photographic series on Uyghur shrines in the Autonomous Uygur Region of Xinjiang, China, most of which have been destroyed in the PRC’s genocide of Uyghur and other ethnic and religious minority groups in the region.

What’s your favourite object in the collection? If you could add any object to your collection, what would it be?

I can’t say that I have a favourite object in the SDMA collection yet, but I suppose I could say that the Binney collection itself is a treasure trove. At the British Museum, my office was serendipitously located just outside the works on paper store, so I had quick access to the arts of the book, which were under my purview.

In San Diego, my access is more limited since I am further away from the works, but I love spending time in the vaults when it's time to plan a new rotation or exhibition, and these days my research assistant and I have been spending more time in there selecting works for a conservation study tied to an upcoming exhibition on Islamic art and science. So I’ll share a couple of pieces we were examining last week, one of which is a folio from the celebrated Hamzanama commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century (SDMA 1990.274), which I was delighted to see as I had spent much time examining the several Hamzanama folios in the British Museum. The other is one of my favourite drawings from The Elephant in the Room (SDMA 1990.439).

As for adding any object to the SDMA collection? These days my mind is on the acquisition of contemporary art for the Arts of Iran collection, and I am always looking for works that are not light-sensitive, can be on display indefinitely, and which will really draw people in, so… perhaps a nice Heech by Parviz Tanavoli? Even a small one is out of reach, but if we had one, it would be a hit! I love the one I chose for an installation adjacent to the British Museum’s Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery, Heech in a Cage (2005). I love the play on heech, the Persian word for “nothing,” being contained in a cage, the irony of a caged nothing displayed in a building full of “somethings.” I’ll take any version for SDMA, though, I’m not picky! I wouldn’t mind some heech jewellery, either, if that could be thrown in as a bonus. Who’s buying?

What are you most proud of achieving in your career to date?

You know, I suppose I am ultimately most proud of the collective knowledge and experience I have accumulated over the past 25 years, starting from my early days as a research assistant and continuing into the last decade and a half as a curator; and for remaining grounded, staying to true to myself and my family, and protecting my integrity when faced with challenging situations or people. I am also grateful beyond measure for opportunities to travel and work around world, and for the brilliant and fascinating people I have met, learned from, collaborated with, or mentored along the way.

More concretely, I am proud of establishing summer internship and fellowship programs modelled after the one I did at the Met as a graduate student, which have given me the chance to mentor undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom have gone on to pursue successful careers in our field. I find their contributions, appreciation, enjoyment, and success to be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding aspects of my job, and the letters they have written me about their summer experiences at the museum fill my heart with joy and validation.

In terms of curatorial projects, the experience of curating the Albukhary Gallery at the British Museum was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was the biggest collaboration I have ever done, and although I could point out countless areas in need of tweaks or improvements, I am so proud of how our entire team worked together, of how much I learned about what a project of such magnitude entails, of the audiences we wished to reach, and of the personal touches inspired by our own lives and families, which contributed to humanising the displays in ways that I hope makes them more accessible to visitors.

Our team joked about the collection of ‘Albukhary babies’ who joined some of our families over the course of the project — some of these little ones inspired special features such as the seemingly random (but of course totally planned) placement of a series of objects under the main decks of certain display cases. My son was a toddler when the project first began, and he used to visit the old Islamic gallery and only ask about objects on the lowest shelf, because that was at his eye level. When the new gallery opened, he was 4, and responded immediately to these spotlighted objects still at his eye level, counting all the ones he could find.

Should museums be more transparent with regards to the provenance of artefacts and objects?

I do believe that museums should be transparent about provenance. Full stop. Different institutions have different approaches to this issue, and my view is of course my personal and individual opinion, but I think it is possible for all institutions with dark chapters in their collecting histories to take steps toward greater transparency and, in some cases, repatriation, and there can be different degrees of this. Common sense and ethics say provenance must be at the forefront of acquisition decisions today.

Why are museums important?

Museums are rich repositories of knowledge and creativity, and I think they can play an important role in the preservation of cultural heritage, but their history — particularly in Europe and America — is intricately tied to the destruction of cultural heritage through colonialism and exploitation. How museums address that history in their missions, displays, and programming will determine how effective they can be in evolving to reflect and react to continuing societal change and in preserving cultural heritage.

What does the future of Islamic art look like to you and what role can museums play in its development?

For me, the future of Islamic art and material culture is one that continues to evolve, with a growing field that enables further specialisation as well as more interdisciplinary scholarship. Museums can contribute to the growth of scholarship and public knowledge of Islamic visual culture by prioritising their Islamic collections in the same way as (or perhaps even more than) their European and contemporary collections, which have long received more attention and support. This means funding permanent, full-time curatorial posts with decent salaries as well as supporting more exhibitions and programs in this area. At the British Museum, we were tremendously fortunate to have had the Albukhary Foundation fund and support brand new galleries for the Islamic collections, designed by the award-winning architectural firm Stanton Williams. But I ultimately left my position at the BM because my living expenses far outweighed my salary. Three years later, the permanent position I held has yet to be refilled, let alone advertised. What message does that send? My post at the Brooklyn Museum was similarly left empty for several years before it was finally filled, but only as a part-time post. Many museums never refill these positions, folding their responsibilities into other curatorial roles. It seems that museum administrations and boards, especially in Europe and North America, still have some work to do if they intend for their institutions to evolve into truly global establishments and to grow in the same directions as the field.

For more information follow Dr Ladan Akarbania on Twitter:

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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