Inside N America’s first Islamic art museum

Toronto’s newly opened Aga Khan Museum aims to showcase Islamic civilisation’s contributions to world heritage.

The museum houses the Aga Khan family's heirlooms, spanning centuries of Islamic art [Sonya Fatah/Al Jazeera]

Toronto, Canada – When he heard that a landscaped Persian garden was under development in Toronto, David Chalmers Alesworth laughed.

Last week, however, as the artist, educator, and sculptor made his way across a cross-section of suburban highway sprawl in Toronto’s northeastern Don Mills neighbourhood, and entered the gardens surrounding the newly opened Aga Khan Museum, he was genuinely amazed.

“I had sort of scoffed at the idea of a Persian garden in Toronto, but when I walked through it, it really is an amazing space,” said Alesworth, whose work was exhibited as part of the opening temporary exhibit titled “The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan.” “It’s a real bringing together of the worldly and the spiritual.”

Rows of serviceberry trees lead visitors into a garden quartered by water channels, five reflecting pools, long walkways and pebbled paths – the work of Lebanese-Serbian landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic. The centrepiece of the garden, a white granite battlement, is broken up by crenels throwing patterned light and shadows into the museum. Inside, there is a veritable trove of Islamic delights. The building houses the Aga Khan family’s heirlooms, which span 10 centuries of Islamic art, including the earliest known copy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. 

Filling a ‘knowledge gap’

The Aga Khan Museum is the first museum in North America dedicated to showcasing Islamic art. The museum is the vision of Aga Khan, the leader of the Ismaili community, the second-largest Shia group in the Muslim world.

“It’s an extraordinary phenomenon that this enormous knowledge gap [of Islamic art and culture] exists, and I think it’s the duty of everybody, myself included, to try to fill in that knowledge gap,” the Aga Khan told Al Jazeera TV.

The museum opened its doors on September 18 to reveal its permanent collection of more than 1,000 artifacts from the Iberian peninsula to China, alongside two temporary exhibits, “In Search of the Artist” and “The Garden of Ideas” – which the museum’s director, Henry Kim, called the “lifeblood” of the museum.

“They open people’s eyes and they change people’s perceptions,” Kim said while addressing museum-goers at a special exhibit preview, discussing the need to engage audiences with contemporary art from the Muslim world.

Among those who meandered through the museum during the special exhibit was Farhee Chundrigar, a Pakistani-Canadian artist who knew many of the artists whose works were exhibited. “What an exquisite gift to the city of Toronto,” she told Al Jazeera. “As an artist and a Muslim immigrant to this country I feel like the museum is going to phenomenally help to bridge the gap between our roots and the stereotypes we suffer as Muslims in today’s world.”

The mission

The museum’s mission is to highlight the “contribution that Islamic civilisations have made to world heritage”, and its staff readily discusses this need. “We in Canada, and in the US in particular, I think, learn what we learn through the news and come to all kinds of conclusions about different parts of the world, through what editors of newspapers decide what news should be,” Linda Milrod, the director of exhibitions, told Al Jazeera. “And we have an opportunity to widen that window considerably.”

As an artist and a Muslim immigrant to this country I feel like the museum is going to phenomenally help to bridge the gap between our roots and the stereotypes we suffer as Muslims

by - Farhee Chundrigar, artist

The collection from Pakistan was an effort to engage Torontonians with contemporary art from a country with a challenging political present and a burgeoning art scene. The exhibit, curated by Sharmini Perera, demonstrates that diversity with its six artists presenting a range of styles and ideas.

Alesworth, who is from the UK but moved to Pakistan 20 years ago – and is now a Pakistani citizen – is also a landscape designer. He started working with old Kashan carpets almost a decade ago.

One of the most interesting pieces in the Pakistan exhibit is Alesworth’s embroidered map of Lahore’s Lawrence Gardens on a Kashan carpet, which he accurately describes as “boiling with detail”. (The gardens are now named Bagh-e-Jinnah.) Alesworth’s focus on the country’s colonial era sets him apart in the Pakistani art scene, but it also shows the range and diversity of work the Aga Khan Museum is interested in showing.

Milrod, who spent 17 years with the Art Gallery of Ontario, and has been working on the Aga Khan Museum project for three and a half years, is very excited about the range and diversity that the museum will explore. “I’m learning about Islamic art and performing arts from different cultures every day, and I’m being introduced to what most of Toronto will be introduced to for the first time, and I’m feeling quite privileged.”

A warm reception

Indeed, Torontonians have given a warm reception to the museum. It has been lauded not only for its contribution to the city’s diversity of museum fare but also for its architecture.

But unlike the city’s other contemporary museum spaces, the Aga Khan Museum shares its space with the Ismaili Centre of Toronto, a religious, cultural, and educational centre for the Ismaili community, which opened September 12 and was designed by the father of contemporary Indian architecture, Charles Correa.

“The Aga Khan Museum is very interesting because it talks in a way to the city of Toronto – but it is also geared towards the Ismaili community,” said Irina Mihalache, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Museum Studies programme. “From the perceptive of a museum studies scholar, I think it is interesting to see how the museum addresses these two different communities.”

Source: Al Jazeera