Among the treasures of Islamic art in the collection of Toronto’s new Aga Khan Museum is a gloriously illuminated folio salvaged from a famous, now-dispersed 16th-century manuscript of the Persian national epic the Shah-Nameh, or Book of Kings. The expressive painting in opaque watercolour, ink, gold and silver that fills the sheet depicts a scene from the deep time of mythical kings in which the 11th-century writer Abu al-Qasim Firdausi sets part of his enormous poem.
The moment portrayed is grave. Sitting above a stream that gushes from a wilderness cave, the first Persian king, Keyomars, has just learned from an angel that his son and successor will be killed by the offspring of a demon. The ruler gestures tenderly, ruefully toward his doomed child, who stands nearby. The courtiers roundabout look stunned. Even the lions and deer seem alarmed by this eruption of evil in a landscape that is otherwise gracious, flowering, paradisiacal. With exuberance, yet also with urgency and keen attention to telling detail, the artist (who may be the court painter Soltan Mohammad) opens up the moment of crisis when death enters a hitherto idyllic world.
Central tasks of the Aga Khan Museum—in this sense a fine-art showcase in the Euro-American tradition—are the preservation, study and public display of this remarkable painting and more than 1,000 other deluxe artworks in its vitrines and vaults. The inventory of beautiful things gathered over decades by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, and by members of his family, features splendid manuscripts of the Quran and other texts; paintings and drawings; textiles; fine ceramics; and objects in metal and stone produced in the very various cultures, stretching from China to Spain and West Africa, that have been touched and transfigured by Islam since the time of the Prophet until recent centuries.
The core artifacts in the museum’s keeping are the works on paper and parchment, and some ceramics, that Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, an uncle of the current Aga Khan, began to acquire in the 1950s. Since his accession to the Ismaili leadership in 1957, Prince Karim, the present Aga Khan, has added to this group. Selections from the holdings have been shown during recent years at the Louvre in Paris, St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul and in several other centres throughout Europe and Asia. The Toronto home of these artifacts (housed, until now, in Geneva, London and Paris when not on the road) will be an elegantly minimal, 10,500-square-metre structure designed by the senior Japanese Modernist Fumihiko Maki. This museum will be one part of the $300 million building and garden complex that the Aga Khan is constructing on a 6.8-hectare campus near the intersection of Eglinton Avenue East and the Don Valley Parkway. About 250 items from the permanent collection will be shown at a time, in geographical and chronological groupings, when the museum opens.
The artworks will be overseen by a heftily credentialed staff. After training in classical history and archaeology at Harvard and Oxford universities, the young, infectiously enthusiastic director and CEO, Henry S. Kim, worked as a curator at Oxford’s venerable Ashmolean Museum, where he superintended a $130-million redevelopment of the facilities. Linda Milrod, who will serve as head of exhibitions, has been travelling the executive circuit of Canadian art museums for decades. Curator and art historian Filiz Çakir Phillip, a native of Turkey, earned her doctorate in Islamic art at Berlin’s Freie Universität. These scholars and administrators will take care of what Karin Ruehrdanz, the Royal Ontario Museum’s senior curator of Islamic arts, called “a very well-constituted collection” and “a great contribution” to the cultural life of Toronto.
Why is Toronto receiving this gift, which any city in the world would probably be glad to have? “The need to bridge the growing divide of misunderstanding between East and West,” the Aga Khan wrote in a 2008 publication, “is pressing and, therefore, I have chosen to establish a museum of Islamic art, the Aga Khan Museum, in Toronto, Canada…Canada has for many years been a beacon to the rest of the world for its commitment to pluralism and its support for the multicultural richness and diversity of its peoples. It is precisely this diversity that sustains the moral and dynamic coherence in public life that Canada has so successfully constructed.”
“It’s court art, high art, the best of the best,” Kim said of the collection. But what counts most is “how you use these objects to explain the context and history. You could just have them up there as fine art, as spectacular pieces, highlights and masterpieces. Yes, they are that. But we want to use the works to explain the diversity of cultures in the Islamic world.”
The illuminated page from the Book of Kings, for example, is not only a visually resplendent artifact. It speaks to present-day observers of an incandescent moment in the story of Persian civilization, when the art of book illustration flourished under the patronage of the Safavid ruler Tahmasp I. It also recalls Tahmasp’s turbulent era, which witnessed the ceaseless conflicts of great Islamic empires—Safavid in Iran, Ottoman in Turkey, Mughal in India—for supremacy in southwestern Asia. Viewed as Kim and his colleagues want it to be, the exquisite leaf of the Book of Kings will prompt curiosity about its context in larger, immensely creative cultural and historical territories about which most Canadians, and most people in Western countries, know very little, if anything at all.
“Most importantly,” Kim said, “we are about explaining how Islamic art actually has connections to cultures all around it. When you look at Islamic art, it’s a model that shows you the diversity of Muslim culture, and also the interactions with other cultures that happen over time. That was what really attracted me to Toronto and to the museum. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to open up a museum that not only has a fantastic collection, but also has an important social role to play. It’s not going to be the biggest collection [of Islamic art] out there, but in terms of quality, and how we’re going to use it, it’s going to shine.”
Given the director’s (and the Aga Khan’s) emphasis on the educational thrust of the museum, it’s not surprising that Kim has surrounded himself with people committed to outreach. Ruba Kana’an, head of education and scholarly programs—another specialist in Islamic art history, with a doctorate in the subject from Oxford and several years of teaching it at York University—is confident that the museum’s various opportunities for learning will find receptive audiences in Toronto and far beyond. “There is a thirst, a very healthy curiosity about art from different parts of the world,” Kana’an said. “I have been pleasantly surprised to find that, when students are introduced to Islamic art, they can relate to it, and to cultures that they knew nothing about. When I heard of the museum, when I was given the opportunity to find a role in the museum, I chose the field of education, and I’ve never looked back.”
Kana’an’s extensive portfolio includes the coordination of research and the publication of books and catalogues. She will supervise the internships of students in museum studies, and has done the groundwork for the Historians of Islamic Art Biennial Symposium set to take place at the museum in October. Kana’an and other members of the staff will also foster what she calls “scholarly relationships” with other centres for the study of Islamic cultural heritage and practice, notably the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT. “We are also amassing an incredible library,” she said. “We will have a massive collection on the art of south Asia, central Asia and Iran, and a significant library on Islamic cultures from China to West Africa, open to students in various educational institutions.”
There will be workshops and classes for schoolchildren, and lectures, symposia and performances for grown-ups in the museum’s 350-seat theatre. (Heading the performing-arts program will be the widely experienced Canadian artist and animateur Amir Ali Alibhai, a former member of the board of the Canada Council.)
And, of course, there will be exhibitions designed to delight and educate museumgoers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Alongside the inaugural display of works from the permanent collection, two temporary shows will open the museum. One of them, organized by curator Çakir Phillip, will celebrate the art of Iran and Mughal India, though from an uncommon angle. Instead of including items, such as books, merely on the basis of their beauty—the easy thing to do, given the distinction of traditional Islamic book decoration—Çakir Phillip will explore the identities and practices of the artists who did the calligraphy and illumination. Names will be attached to unsigned images; individual careers and genealogies of influence will be charted. “Much of what this museum is doing is to break stereotypes,” Kim said. “One stereotype is that Islamic art is anonymous. This exhibition will put artists front and centre.”
“But it’s important,” Kim continued, “that we are not viewed as a museum that only shows historical Islamic art. We have to cover the continuum straight up to the present day.” To that end, the museum’s other temporary opening show will be a survey of contemporary Pakistani art, selected by Sri Lankan writer and guest curator Sharmini Pereira and ranging in medium from miniature painting to sculpture, collage, printmaking and film. “Quite literally, you will have objects that were created just yesterday.” Kim said, adding that, here again, the museum is engaged in myth busting. “Many people view Pakistan as a lawless state, one that has so many problems. When you look at the country, that’s actually an unfair characterization. Pakistan is vibrant, with a strong contemporary art tradition. We want to dispel people’s notions that Pakistan is a backward state.”
In this instance, as in others, the leadership of the Aga Khan Museum is embarking on an uphill struggle against deeply ingrained and, in its view, largely incorrect or incomplete ideas about the art and cultural fabric of Islamic societies, past and present. Whether or not the highly ambitious programs of the museum will manage to change hearts and minds, of course, remains to be seen.
But even at this early stage, it is surely possible to say certain things about the project’s quality of imagination, and about the museum’s chances of success.
Whatever else Canadian and international visitors get from the museum, for example, they will have opportunities to see beautiful objects of Islamic art and craft. The general shape of this gathering is personal, since each artwork in it has been acquired on the art market by reason of the pleasure it gave the Aga Khan or a member of his family. This is a connoisseur collection spanning a thousand years of artistic production, in other words, not a hoard of artifacts dug up and catalogued by an archaeological expedition, or assembled to make scientific points. But the critical study of the collection by eminent specialists has begun, I was told, and it will likely intensify after the pieces are settled in Toronto.
The culture of this city, and this country, will almost certainly be enriched by the presence of the Aga Khan Museum. It will be North America’s first and, so far, only stand-alone showcase devoted exclusively to the historical and contemporary arts of Islam—and it will be going full-tilt to convince the public about the relevance and quality of these arts. The museum promises to be the site of many adventures of the mind and spirit—cultural exchanges of the kind envisioned by the Aga Khan, surely, but also eye-openers. For example, gallerygoers who see Çakir Phillip’s show featuring book artists will learn, if nothing else, a host of names they have never heard before—those of creators who worked long ago in vanished empires, such as the 16th-century Iranian painter and art theorist Sadeqi Beg and the Mughal miniaturist Basawan. Similarly, the inaugural array of Pakistani art will introduce local audiences to a realm of complex contemporary activity that Torontonians have had few opportunities to experience first-hand.
As it happens, the director will be discovering the collection right along with the rest of us. He encountered it for the first time just two years ago, in Geneva—and was as impressed as he hopes Canadian and international visitors to his museum will be.
“When you go through the folios and see the absolute perfection of miniature details in these paintings,” Kim recalled, “you can’t help but be absolutely astonished by the creativity and by the artistic prowess of these artists in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. If you come from a Western-art background, where you are used to looking at drawings by Raphael or watercolours by Pissarro, it’s incredible to see something coming out of the Islamic world that’s perhaps technically more advanced. This is an area that many people have no idea about. Artists of renown, artists of great competence aren’t known, because the field of Islamic art is still in its infancy. That’s what our museum is here for: to give people the first chance to encounter something that will completely fascinate them.”
This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands until December 14, 2014, or visit canadianart.ca/subscribe to get each issue delivered straight to your home or office.