A DERVISH IN THE COURTYARD: Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum

Calligraphy on blue ground.And that’s what I saw – a dervish spinning in the courtyard at the Aga Khan Museum and Islamic Centre, which opened to the public in September 2014, a beautiful addition to the architecture and cultural life of the Greater Toronto Area. The Aga Khan, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, bestowed this gift on Toronto because, among other reasons, there are approximately 30 to 40 million people within a one-hour flight from the city. In addition, Toronto has a well-deserved reputation for prizing cultural diversity, and no fewer than 30,000 of Canada’s 100,000 Ismailis live here.

The Aga Khan has been a tireless promoter of eliminating poverty in Africa and Asia and of providing education for the young, both male and female. He has also established a number of museums and Islamic centres in major cities around the world with the goal of educating the public about the high artistic achievements of Islamic civilization and eliminating many negative stereotypes that portray Moslems as dangerous fanatics and their culture as backward and inferior to Western civilization.

The museum’s holdings of about 1000 items, of which about one-third are displayed every three months or so, originally comprised an exhibition that traveled among the great museums of Europe. In fact, I first saw this exhibition in 2008 at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. I was astonished at the time to see a model of the then-future Toronto museum and Islamic centre, scheduled to open, according to the sign, in 2011. Now in 2014 it is a reality that must surpass the vision of its creators.

Inside the museum

Click on any image to enlarge

In the Shia branch of Islam an imam is a temporal leader as well as a spiritual leader, as can be seen most prominently in Iran. The Aga Khan is, for some Ismailis, Allah’s physical manifestation on Earth, analogous to the two natures of Jesus. For others, he is considered infallible in matters of doctrine, like the Catholic pope. These aspects of the Aga Khan were de-emphasized in the twentieth century.

The present Aga Khan’s connection to Canada dates back to 1972 with the expulsion of Ismailis and others of South Asian descent from Idi Amin’s notorious regime in Uganda. The Aga Khan prevailed upon his friend Pierre Trudeau to allow thousands of Ismaili refugees to settle in Canada. Wherever Ismailis have found themselves in their very wide diaspora, they have generally prospered, since one of their traditional values is education. The Aga Khan, himself, has been a generous philanthropist and tireless campaigner for religious tolerance and secular pluralism, including equality for women.

The Aga Khan Museum is the only museum in North America devoted to Islamic art, a fact that may well surprise many since there have been for a long time museums specializing in, for example, East Asian art, such as the one in San Francisco, established in 1966. Nevertheless, though not exclusively devoted to Islamic art, many museums in North America have large, broad Islamic art collections, especially the newly renovated, enormous galleries at the Metropolitan Museum in New York , and the large collection of decorative arts at the Royal Ontario Museum, some of whose rare textiles are presently on loan to the Aga Khan Museum (the ROM will have its own textile exhibit in 2015.)

At the advance opening of the Museum for the benefit of the media, Henry Kim, the Director of the Museum, and other scholars questioned the validity of the term “Islamic art”, since from the Iberian Peninsula to India and the borders of China, each region responded to Arab culture and religion in an individual manner, leading to a wide variety of styles. This is true, but the term is still very useful because the artistic traditions of all these regions share common core values and are recognizably closely related. The convenience of the term, I believe outweighs the emphasis on the differences, just as Oriental art is a useful term to describe the responses of Korea, Japan and Vietnam to Chinese art and civilization: their obvious commonalities unite them and make them distinct from the art of other civilizations, such as those of India and the West.

The Museum highlights these influences in its collection. A tenth-century carved marble capital from Andalusia, Spain (below left), clearly shows the influence Greek architecture via Rome. The carving is very fine and delicate, reminiscent of the intricate carving on ancient Greek Corinthian capitals(below right), yet lace-like and geometrically abstract, in contrast to the Greek carving which is recognizably floral.
Click on any image to enlargeTwo columns.

An early 16th century porcelain ablution basin from Jingdezhen, China is an excellent example of Chinese influence. Jingdezhen, in the southeast province of Jiangxi, has been for centuries a renowned centre for production of the highest quality porcelain. Even your humble blue-and-white ware rice bowl from the Chinese supermarket may well have been produced there. Jingdezhen porcelain had already reached Europe in the 14th century.

Further Chinese influence can be detected in new styles of painting. Illustrations to the great Persian verse epic, The Shahnameh (Book of Kings) are oriented vertically, as in books, not scrolls, and the figures in the painting are shown to give the impression of foreground and background. But perhaps the most strikinCourt of Keyomars.g new characteristics are the very bright colors and the depiction of mountainous, rocky landscapes of Chinese paintings with their gnarled trees and small patch of blue sky.

In the Aga Khan Museum collection some of these characteristics are exemplified by another illustration from The Shahnameh, entitled The Court of the Keyomars, ca. 1522 (left), from Tabriz, Iran. Here again are the vibrant colors, including gold, the mountains and trees, but also with a typical Chinese feature: the decoration of the painting with calligraphy. It has been typical of Chinese paintings to be valued as much for their calligraphy as for the images depicted on the paper. In the painting of Guo Xi (eleventh century) there are the same, almost fantastical mountains, and at the top of the painting a poem in beautiful calligraphy.

Calligraphy is the most highly valued art in Islamic civilization and serves not only as art in its own right, but also decorates every other art form – architecture, tiles, ceramics, paintings and textiles and even common objects in everyday use. It shares this value with Chinese calligraphy, although Arabic was one of the last major languages to be reduced to writing (7th century A.D.), and Chinese one of the first (about 1200 B.C.)

Arabic calligraphy owes its value to the Islamic religion in at least two ways: first, the centrality of the Koran and its accurate representation in writing shaped the Arabic writing system; and second, Islam, adopting a principle of Judaism, discouraged figures of humans, animals and even landscapes. We all remember Charlton Heston (played by Moses) descending the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments only to find Edward G. Robinson (played by Aaron, his older brother but without any family resemblance), engaged in leading the people in the worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-5). This was especially galling because the third commandment decreed:

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4-5).

In both Islam and Christianity, which also adopted this fear of idolatry from Judaism, this prohibition varied greatly with time and place. For example in the early Church and in the Byzantine period (8th century), and finally in the Protestant Reformation (16th century), images were sometimes valued (icons, for example), other times iconoclasm led to the destruction of statues and paintings. Even in the Bible, King Hezekiah (II Kings 18 – 20) destroyed images, but his successor Manasseh restored them (II Kings 21:3). God even instructed Moses to portray the cherubim on some of Israel’s most sacred objects (as statues on the Ark of the Covenant and as embroidery on the tent walls of the Tabernacle) (Exodus 25: 18 – 22; 26:1, 26:31), and to make the bronze serpent on a pole, the Nehushtan, as a talisman against snakebites (Numbers 21:4 – 9).

No better illustration of the inconsistency in the compliance with the Third Commandment can be found than the stark contrast between a typical Baroque church (left) and a Calvinist church (right):

The Kufic style of Arabic calligraphy is an early script characterized by its angularity and thick lines. It is named after a town in Iraq. In fact, it appears in the centre of the modern Iraqi flag, and around the borders of the Iranian flag.

In both cases the Kufic inscriptions read Allahu akbar, God is great.

This folio page from a Koran (8th-9th century, Sura 48; not in the Aga Kham Museum collection) shows the squarish shape of the letters and their thickness:Sura 48, Koran

This is a remarkable Kufic rendering of the name Mohammad within a square, the letters drawn as pure geometric abstractions:Kufic rendering of Mohammad name

By the tenth century the cursive style had matured and become the basis for modern printed Arabic and was called the Naskh style:Naskh calligraphy style

The basmalla, from Arabic bismillah “In the name of God”, recited at the beginning of almost every sura, or chapter, of the Koran, became a favorite phrase for calligraphers to try out their inventiveness on, for example, as a pear, as a dove, and in this magnificent example in the Thuluth style (one of the six classical scripts in Arabic calligraphy, along with the Naskh style):

During those times and in those regions where figurative painting was allowed, such as at the Persian court and among the Mughals of northern India (16th to 19th centuries), illustrated books were made for the sovereign, often depicting life at court and hunts. Several of these wonderful paintings are exhibited in the Museum, but under rather dim light, to preserve them from further fading:
Rostam Pursues the Onager Div (16th century) illustrates an episode in the Shahnameh in which the hero attempts to capture a wild ass (onager) that has been disturbing the countryside. When, as in this picture, he is about to slip his lariat over the onager it vanishes in a puff of smoke, for it is in reality the demon (div) Akvan.
The Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27), and his father before him, encouraged portraiture. Here is portrayed an Ottoman official who was visiting the court in India (circa 1610).
Resting Lion (18th century) is a Persian painting with a confident and graceful sense of line.

In regard to the building that houses all this magnificent art, a balance has to be struck between the architecture of the museum and its collection in such a way that the building does not overwhelm or conflict with the exhibitions. One has only to think of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a fantastical and stunning building whose exterior, in my opinion, dwarfs the paintings inside. All that exciting and daring flow of silver wings fairytale shapes leaves the viewer speechless. There is simply nothing else like it; no matter from what angle one views it. Its placement on the waterfront adds to its spectacular impression.Bilbao Guggenheim museum. I think it would take a collection as strong as that of the Prado to compete with the architecture.

The Aga Khan Museum, again a unique building for Toronto, finds a balance. It does not overwhelm the exhibition, yet it must be said that the beauty and grace of the building come close to competing with the collection, which, despite being a connoisseur’s collection, is relatively small in comparison to the building. One imbalance is probably unavoidable: the brilliant white of the exterior contrasts with the dim lighting inside that is necessary to protect the paintings. Otherwise, the building has clean modern lines and something of traditional Islamic architecture or its spirit. Aga Kahn museum exterior.The Arabs have always been desert dwellers, and the two inescapable facts of their life experience are an overpowering sun in a blue sky, and the preciousness, and therefore, an appreciation of water. The whiteness of the building is dazzling on a sunny day, and reminds me of how bright the desert sands must be. And alongside the Museum is a reflecting pool that on the sunny day I visited was like blue glass, making me feel that I could walk across it to the entrance. This is the same love of water that I saw this last summer at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The sound of water flowing and trickling, the nourishment it brought to gardens were exactly what you would expect of people living in an arid land.

Interior courtyard.There is a courtyard inside the building, so that the glass on all four sides rises up to the second storey. The glass, starting from about eight feet from the floor, is etched with a subtle geometric design that casts its pattern on other parts of building as the sun moves across the sky.

Toronto should be grateful for this Museum and Islamic Centre whose buildings and grounds relieve the functional, unimaginative dullness of its neighborhood of low and medium-rise office buildings and minimal landscaping.

In the same Don Mills neighborhood, practically just across the street to the north is what was originally the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre, built in 1963 by Raymond Murayama, but since 2003 has been the Noor Cultural Centre, another institution devoted to Islamic learning and culture. The building, constructed according to traditional Japanese culture, was almost hidden, like a Japanese temple. This is in sharp contrast to the Aga Khan Museum and Islamic Centre, which are on high ground and a prominent sight to the many thousands who commute daily on the Don Valley Parkway.

– Robert Fisher
Photos and images courtesy Aga Kahn museum, Schuster Gindin and Wikicommons

This article can be found in GOING OUT in the section What We’re Seeing.


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