At a time when anything associated with Muslims or Islam may produce responses ranging from unease to outright hostility, the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto counters those sentiments with a thoughtfully-designed, tranquil place that honors centuries of Islamic art in a space welcoming to all.
The Aga Khan Museum, which opened in September, is the result of nearly 20 years of planning and construction. It’s the creation of the museum’s chairman of the board, the Aga Khan, an honorific title inherited by Shah Karim al-Hussaini, a 1959 Harvard University graduate and British citizen who’s founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network and said to be one of the richest royals in the world. I visited the museum just before it opened to the public while I was in the city for the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a world-class attraction and, along with the nearby Ontario Science Center, is well worth a dedicated visit to Toronto.
With Muslim populations around that world, there’s a reason the Aga Khan Museum is in Toronto. Museum director Henry S. Kim says Toronto was selected for “both its pluralistic society and its geography.” The fourth-largest city in North America, with about 2.8 million people, Toronto is a cosmopolitan city of diverse cultures, a large population of immigrants, and there are about 45,000 Muslims in Ontario. It’s a short plane ride from many US cities and, if you haven’t been there yet, put it on your travel calendar.
Set on 17 acres, the $300 million complex (all privately funded) is off the Don Valley Parkway, a central highway outside Toronto’s center, and offers above and underground parking. It’s a spectacularly crafted site designed by an international team of renowned architects. Japan’s Fumihiko Maki is responsible for the contemporary white granite museum that boasts sleek Eastern-influenced lines, airy rooms and light, light, light. The crowning jewel is a crystalline frosted glass dome roof high above a courtyard that serves as a performance space. The nearby Ismaili Community Centre, designed by India’s acclaimed architect Charles Correa, features an all-glass pyramidal roof that rises 65 feet high. Both buildings share space in the new park that features five reflecting pools and formal gardens, designed by landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic. It’s the perfect setting to observe and reflect.
The spacious and gorgeous grounds, and its raison d’être notwithstanding, the Aga Khan is first and foremost an art museum. Other world-class museums, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, have sensitive collections of Islamic art and artifacts but the Aga Khan is the only museum in North America dedicated solely to Islamic art — painted illustrations, ceramics, textiles, calligraphy, scientific instruments, paintings, clothing, and various editions of the Koran — that represent more than 10 centuries of human history and a geographic area that extends well beyond the Middle East: from Spain to China. Much of the art comes from the personal collection amassed by the Aga Khan and his family. The permanent collection, formerly housed in Paris, London, and Geneva, numbers more than 1,000 artifacts, of which about 250 will be displayed at any one time in Toronto on a regular rotating basis. The museum will continue to make acquisitions and fill in the gaps of the collection by adding more contemporary art, according to Luis Monreal, general manager of the Geneva-based Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
The museum is also a place for scholarship and discussion. Under the leadership of Kim, a graduate of Harvard and the University of Oxford where he taught, curated collections, and managed capital projects at the Ashmolean Museum from 1994 to 2012, the museum draws world-class art authorities. A recent lecture included renowned art historians Sheila Canby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gülru Necipoglu of Harvard, Martin Kemp of Oxford, and Amy Landau of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, who discussed Western and Islamic art.
As to what constitutes Islamic art, Monreal says it’s an “artificial concept” that simply means works created from an Islamic environment. The Aga Khan Museum, he says, “aims to educate through the language of objects; by connecting humans through emotion and beauty. . . . Our Western society doesn’t know much about the worlds of Muslim and Islam. It’s almost ignored in the schools. We want to impact education not through academic methods but through the language of objects and enhance the dialogue between cultures.”
Bearing this out was the exhibition just closed titled “The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art From Pakistan” that heralds the museum as not just a look into the past but an institution that gives voice to modern artists and provides a forum for creativity. Sri Lankan curator Sharmini Pereira featured six internationally acclaimed Pakistani artists whose creations spin on themes of the garden. On the day I visited, Lahore-based painter Imran Qureshi was completing an eye-popping work on the sprawling outdoor cement courtyard: acrylic and latex detailed images of plants in shades of green and called “The Garden Within.”
But there’s also plenty of fascinating history. Up until March 15 is the exhibit “The Lost Dhow: A Discovery From the Maritime Silk Route” that highlights the 1998 discovery at the bottom of the Java Sea off Belitung Island, Indonesia, of an Arab ship carrying goods from China. Dating from the 9th century (China’s Tang dynasty), the Belitung shipwreck is the earliest Arab vessel of this period to be found with a complete cargo, including silver ingots, bronze mirrors, spice-filled jars, intricately worked vessels of silver and gold, and thousands of ceramic bowls, ewers, and other vessels.
AGA KHAN MUSEUM 77 Wynford Drive, Toronto. Daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Wed till 8 p.m., closed Mondays. Adults $20,
seniors, students with ID, ages 15-25 $15, ages 3-14 $15, under 3 free. 416-646-4677. www.agakhanmuseum.orgLoren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.