The Aga Khan is a smiling man, genial, with twinkling eyes and never less than a faint trace of goodwill turning up the corners of his mouth. He smiled all the way through a speech last month at the opening of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, especially while alluding to the happiness embodied in the branch of Shi’a Islam of which he is the spiritual leader, Ismailism. “We are a community that welcomes the smile,” he said.
The museum, designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, is a physical extension of that smile and part of a larger campus devoted not just to worship, but cultural outreach, concerts, lectures, “enrichment, dialogue and warm human rapport”, in the words of its benefactor. The museum will display selections from a collection of about 1 000 objects, many of them exceptionally fine, and the curators are ambitious to make it both a popular and academic centre for the study of Islamic art. Presenting a positive understanding of Islamic civilisation is an explicit goal.
By Philip Kennicott | posted October 16 2014 at 12:13pm
Toronto – Museums exist to do many things. Increasingly, it seems the traditional function of the museum – to preserve, study and disseminate culture – is one among many in the world of museum multitasking. Museums exist as cultural centres, ideological think tanks, economic development engines, nationalist rallying grounds and nodal points for ethnic, religious and other subcultural forms of solidarity. Of course, museums always were ideological, especially the great art and science museums that arose in the 19th century to preach citizenship, enlightenment and good manners to hoi polloi; now a multiplicity of PR agendas are embraced.
The Aga Khan’s purpose isn’t just to showcase the diversity of Islamic cultural production. It is to express an Islamic identity that is non-threatening and capable of assimilation without dissolution into secular, democratic society with an emphasis on youth, prosperity, education and success in both spiritual and worldly matters. When the Ismaili campus was being planned, in 1996, the younger generation of Canadian Ismailis was asked for input. At the opening festivities last month, their successors, a chic young cohort born not long before the planning began, were charismatically present as volunteers. The museum also includes classroom space and plans for a robust educational agenda.
During the opening festivities, the unspeakable remained unspoken – thousands of miles away, radical Sunni groups were decapitating hostages and filming the barbarity for distribution.
But between what the Aga Khan advocates and what Islamic State does is a nearly infinite spectrum of human potential and degradation.
His position as a spiritual leader, however, has led him to develop a global commitment to philanthropy, with historic preservation and architecture among his central interests. Anyone who has travelled in Central Asia, the Middle East or Africa will recognise the name and admirable works of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
As a supporter of architecture, the Aga Khan has sponsored a design award that honours efforts to thread a complicated aesthetic and architectural needle: how to integrate regional and vernacular styles from Islamic societies with a modernist, more internationally aware agenda? In practice, this comes down to a problem that haunts architects today no matter where they are working: how to balance traditional and contemporary thinking without ending in parody, pastiche or generic functionalism with a little decoration on top?
The museum building, by the 86-year-old Maki, strives for the monumental solidity of ancient forms, with a nod to the precise lines and counterintuitive bravado of contemporary ones. Clad in white Brazilian granite, the walls are canted slightly inward at the base and outward at the top, as if the bottom is a giant plinth on which a gently overhanging cap has been set. This creates a dialogue between the massivity one might find in pre-Columbian architecture and the engineering and sculptural virtuosity one finds anywhere there is more money than sense, including the super-wealthy boom towns of the Persian Gulf.
The larger form is horizontal, a museum set close to the ground, connected to its gardens and making no effort to compete vertically with the entirely undistinguished office-park buildings nearby. Light is brought into the interior through a small courtyard and six hexagonal “lenses” cut into the roof line.
And so, like the collection itself, the presentation is meant to be jewel-like: a carefully curated sampling of impressive objects, with no effort to be comprehensive. The building itself feels like a space-age container for these gems, a sleek, flattering presentation box, without much emphasis on transparency.
Visitors to the main-floor galleries encounter two video introductions to the visual culture they are about to experience. The first is a kind of fantasia on patterning, helping the eye break down and build up some of the basic patterns and geometries so fundamental to many Islamic artistic traditions; the second shows the multiplicity of Islamic cultures over time that must be considered in any larger historic account of history.
The diffusion of the permanent lower galleries was emphasised by an exhibition of prints and drawings on the second floor, “In Search of the Artist,” featuring artists known to history from Iran, India and other Central Asian countries. It was small and rich. And that probably points to the best path forward: to forget about the project everyone knows is impossible – representing Islamic culture with any kind of overview, and devote the museum to particulars. But that will mean having the confidence to let go of the impulse to put a generalised smile on Islamic culture and substitute the scholar’s furrowed brow.
The galleries are white, the floors wooden, and every object has a lot of room to breathe. You feel a bit as if you are island-hopping through a giant sea of Islamic culture. But the objects themselves are breathtaking: pottery from the Ottoman court, a stunning rug that would dwarf most modern rooms, pages from some of the finest Shah-Nameh collections ever assembled.
- Independent Online Travel: A look at Islamic arts
- The Washington Post – Museums: Toronto’s new Islamic art museum aims to express a non-threatening Islamic identity
About Philip Kennicott
Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post.
He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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