Exterior of the Fumihiko Maki-designed Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Photo by and copyright Gary Otte Photography. Courtesy Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. 

Nov 11 2014

Report: Aga Khan Museum

by Nadia al-Issa

Housed within the 6.8-hectare Aga Khan Park—designed by Serbian-Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic—are two new additions to Toronto’s cultural scene. One is the Ismaili Centre Toronto, designed by renowned Indian modernist architect Charles Correa. The other is the Aga Khan Museum, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. Under development for almost a decade, the much-awaited cultural complex, situated in Toronto’s Don Mills neighborhood, opened to the public this September.

The complex is an initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Founded by His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, AKDN is a group of non-denominational development organizations that work in sectors as diverse as the environment, education, health, rural development, culture and architecture in the Muslim world. The Ismailis are the second largest Shia Muslim community, with 15 million followers in 25 countries within Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia. The community’s history spans 12 centuries and at its height included the reign of the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171), a formidable Islamic state that was seated in Cairo.

The Ismaili Centre in Toronto is the sixth of its kind inaugurated worldwide since the 1985 opening of the first Ismaili Centre in London. The venue in Toronto, which hosts a prayer hall (Jamatkhana), social space, library, classrooms and administrative offices, serves as a community center for the city’s 40,000 Ismailis. It further serves as a bridge between Ismailis and other faith communities, the government and civil society in Canada and beyond, holding public programming aimed at fostering awareness, understanding and tolerance. Correa’s design of the Centre combines vernacular Islamic aesthetics with cutting-edge modernism. The circular limestone-clad building, topped by a deconstructed glass pyramid, boasts expansive interiors decorated with minimalistic metal and wood mashrabiyas (lattice screens), geometric patterned stone floors, and a contemporary rendition of a muqarnas (a ceiling with protruding ornamental brackets).

Connecting the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum is the centerpiece of the Aga Khan Park: inspired by the gardens at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain, Djurovic’s design is a contemporary take on the Islamic “Garden of Paradise.” The Aga Khan Park’s centerpiece harkens back to the Charbagh, a traditional Persian garden divided into four parts by walkways or water channels that intersect at a central fountain or pool. In Djurovic’s rendition, concrete paths separate four granite-lined reflecting pools and converge onto a massive central pool flanked by flowering serviceberry trees.

Adjacent to the reflecting pools is a site-specific floor painting by contemporary Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi. Part of the museum’s inaugural show, “The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan,” the installation renders a landscape of violently splattered foliage and delicately executed flowers, which speaks to the complex process of domesticating nature and nature’s inherent unruliness.  

Charles Correa has revisited and reinterpreted the traditional notions of a dome. By playing with light, color and symmetry, he has given the Ismaili Centre a unique, glass crystalline dome. Photo by and copyright Gary Otte Photography. Courtesy Ismaili Centre, Toronto. 

The gem of the complex is the Aga Khan Museum, the first museum in North America dedicated to Islamic art. The Aga Khan Museum aims to highlight the artistic, intellectual, scientific and religious heritage of Muslim civilizations through exhibitions, performing-arts events and educational and scholarly programs. The museum’s building includes 1,800 square meters of gallery space, a reference library, state-of-the-art auditorium and classrooms. The gallery space hosts a rotating permanent display from the museum’s collection, as well as temporary exhibitions featuring historic and contemporary art.

The Museum’s impressive collection of 1,000 artifacts, accrued over decades by the Aga Khan’s family, dates from the 8th to the 19th century and spans the Iberian Peninsula, Arab Near East, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, Pakistan and China. The collection encompasses manuscripts, Qur’ans, ceramics, textiles, musical and scientific instruments, architectural elements, paintings and metalwork. Highlights include one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of Avicenna’s Qanun (“Canon”), the most significant medical encyclopedia during medieval times, and Safavid-era paintings (1501–1736) of the Iranian epic the Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”) once owned by Shah Tahmasp I (1514–76). Though arranged chronologically and geographically, the organization of the collection’s display is at times difficult to follow in the open, unclearly marked space of the gallery. However, the exhibition audio guide, the museum’s real prize, more than makes up for this shortcoming, providing extensive information and context on particular pieces along with timelines, maps, and glossaries.

BANI ABIDI, The Garden of Love, 2014, film still, displayed as part of “The Garden of Ideas,” at Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Courtesy the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata. 

DAVID CHALMERS ALESWORTHHeterotopiary V: Personage Standars, Conocarpus lancifolius Engl., Bhulla Chawk, Nr. Township, Lahore, 2014, 2014, watercolor on wasli paper, displayed as part of “The Garden of Ideas,” at Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Courtesy the artist. 

Two temporary exhibitions, “In Search of the Artist: Signed Drawings and Paintings from the Aga Khan Museum Collection” and “The Garden of Ideas,” were launched at the museum’s opening. “In Search of the Artist” presents signed drawings and paintings by artists from 15th- and 17th-century Iran, India and Central Asia, including Kamaleddin Behzad, Reza e-‘Abbasi, and Ustad Mansur. The works are from “the golden age of the art of the book” and mark the beginning of the recognition of individual artists in the Muslim world, evinced by the nascent practice of signing works. The exhibition is an interesting attempt at establishing a non-Western cannon of art history, whilst securing for that cannon a complexity achieved through the mapping of connections and influences. 

“The Garden of Ideas,” guest curated by Sharmini Pereira, presents works by six established contemporary Pakistani artists who poetically and politically engage with gardens, both as literal sites and as metaphors. The works explore the garden as a paradisiacal and anti-paradisiacal place: a setting for love, life and renewal, but also separation, death and decay; a private escape and a public destination; an exhilarating liberation from urbanity and an isolating prison within home walls; a source of earthly realities and surreal dreams; a space loaded with unexpected surprises and threats; the legacy of venerable histories and thorny colonial experiences; and most of all an indication of humanity’s ludicrous and largely futile compulsion to claim, tame and organize nature.

Overall, the Aga Khan Park, Ismaili Centre Toronto and the Aga Khan Museum provide for a serene, intimate and highly educational encounter with the heritage of the Muslim world—both past and present—and the rich diversity of its artistic expressions.

IMRAN QURESHI, Rise and Fall, 2014, gouache on wasli paper, 57.6 × 49.3 cm, displayed as part of “The Garden of Ideas,” at Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Courtesy the artist.