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Aga Khan in Toronto showcases Canadian and Islamic art

In 1971 Syracuse’s Everson Museum mounted a Yoko Ono exhibition entitled “This Is Not Here,” complete with an opening attended by ex-Beatle husband John Lennon and a host of musician friends to mark the occasion and concurrently celebrate her husband's 31st birthday.

In “Here,” an exhibit at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, the questions raised in “This Is Not Here” continue to seek answers, as “Here,” is subtitled “Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists.”  While “Here’s” 21 participating artists are Canadian citizens, most live and create globally, as “What does it mean to be a Canadian artist?” is a prominent question, perhaps lending allure to “This Is Not Here’s” tenets, and fueling contemplation for Curator Swapnaa Tamhane’s “What is being here?” investigation.

For the uninitiated like myself, the questions never end. “Here” is intended to commemorate an occasion for which the CBC’s Christa Coutre asks “Canada is Celebrating 150 Years of … What, Exactly?” It is as a confederation actually.  Four provinces, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick united on July 1, 1867. The remaining provinces and territories joined the confederation since then.

“Here” examines not only what it is to be a Canadian artist, but the significance of being Canadian. Additionally the curious will want to know who and what is the Aga Khan? And why is this museum here?

The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of 12 to 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, ascending to the title of Iman in 1957. He and his brother Prince Amyn Aga Khan, established the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a development organization serving countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

One of the permanent exhibits on display at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Janet Kimber)

Tamhane, an artist who lives and works in Canada, India, Germany, and the United Kingdom, says “Here is not fixed, and we are not static.” It was in that light, and an awareness for Canada’s open, tolerant, and pluralistic society that the Aga Khan and his brother Prince Amyn chose Toronto to be Aga Khan Museum’s home.

“Here,” running through Jan. 1, is the Aga Khan’s first presentation examining current Canadian art. The show was inspired by an artifact from the permanent collection, a 20-inch marble piece with acanthus leaves on one side and Kufic script on another. It was used as a funerary stele, which is an architectural decoration, and later to denote a merchant’s grave.

“Here” begins just off the museum’s lobby, in display cases alongside the courtyard, of crumpled, common tissue depicted in ceramic form. It was Sameer Farooq’s fascination with objects used to maintain the museum’s permanent assemblage that led him to work with ceramics for the first time.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., Babak Golkar grew up in Tehran. Using a fox preserved through taxidermy after being killed on a highway, Golkar’s “The Fox, The Nut and The Banker’s Hand,” presents a fox with outstretched paws holding a silver platter. Its aim is to represent economic conditions since 2008’s financial crisis. Inside the fox’s remains lies another artwork, part of Golkar’s “Time Capsules” series.  It’s not to be opened until 2116, for breaking and entering, synonymous with acts perpetrated by wily, clever foxes, also known as 2008’s greedy bankers, Golkar declares, would reduce to the piece’s value to zero.

Underscoring that our relationship to here is ever shifting is the life of Dawit Petros. Born in Eritrea, from 1982 to 2004 he lived in Saskatoon, Vancouver, and Montreal.  Currently he lives in Brooklyn. His “Strategic Withdrawal” is a six-piece silkscreen print installation that highlights Eritrea’s complex history as an Italian colony, annexation by Ethiopia, and its fight for independence.

Brette Gabel is one of several  in the “Here” contingent to be born and work in Canada. Her “Blanket” brings the quilt-making art to the show. Taught by her grandmother, the huge patchwork piece hovers over the museum’s atrium café. It’s made from found and recycled cloth, and natural dyes, which are not fixed and will transform in the light-filled space. Gabel’s grandmother was raised in the “Dirty Thirties,” and “Blanket” addresses survival, protection, frugality, and recycling.

There are artifacts from all over the world. A bowl from China’s Ming Dynasty contains both Chinese writing and Arabic instructions promoting purity, i.e. cleanliness. A 14th century Spanish astrolabe, an astrological instrument to determine time and to find direction in which to face Mecca for prayer is displayed, along with 12th century candlestick holders from Iran, Egypt, and Syria. A Spanish bronze oil lamp stand from the 9th-10th century again evokes the essence of light.

The various implements used in water’s handling emphasize its importance to a region characterized by desert.  There is a 12th century Syrian water tank. A 12th century Egyptian water stand, known as a kilga made of unglazed earthenware would hold water jars used for filtration, for the Nile River, Cairo’s main water source was silt ridden. A bronze basin estimated to be from 13th century Iran is also on view.

The Bellerive Room takes its name from the Chateau Bellerive in Geneva, Switzerland, the home of His Highness the Aga Khan’s late uncle, Prince Sadruddin. The room’s contents are from the Prince’s collection, and its cases contain 8th to 17th century articles from Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Prominent here is a 10th century plate which features an interlace pattern of interweaving strapwork culminating in an eight-pointed star, which inspired the museum’s logo.  It symbolizes society’s interconnectedness and humanity’s continuous chain.  An Arabic proverb etched around the plate affirms that “Generosity is the disposition of dwellers in paradise.”

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