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First Muslim art museum in North America opens
Aims to create better understanding of Islam
Aga Khan 3
Exterior of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. The museum opened in September and is the first in North America dedicated to showcasing Muslim art. - photo by Gary Otte

One of the world’s most unique art collections, curated by Muslim royalty, opened recently not in Dubai, Tehran, London or even Paris -- but just over the border in Toronto.

The Canadian city famous for its troubled former mayor and frigid winters is now known among cognoscenti for one of the top Muslim art and culture collections anywhere, curated in a glass and granite space specifically designed to showcase the diversity of Muslim cultures in the West.

The Aga Khan Museum is being hailed as the first museum in North America dedicated to Muslim art and culture -- and its location makes a statement that goes beyond the impressive exhibits. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader, or imam, of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, a major branch of Shia Muslims distinct from Sunnis in their belief in a hereditary line of leaders descending from the prophet Muhammad. He has long argued that the perception of Islam in North America has global repercussions and that art can help the fill the void that drives what he calls conflicts of ignorance.

“Art and culture can have a profound impact in healing misunderstanding and in fostering trust, even across great divides,” his brother, Prince Amyn, said at the museum’s inauguration in September.

North Americans are awash in media portrayals of the black flag of the “Islamic State” hoisted behind masked men and, most recently, the murders of two Canadian soldiers days apart in Quebec and Ottawa’s Parliament Hill by what are believed to be recent Muslim converts.

Just hours away in another major Canadian city, the museum offers a very different picture of Islam. Standing beside the Aga Khan at its opening ceremony, the country’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a devout Christian evangelical, said, “This is a vision of Islam of which all Canadians can be proud, especially when a contrary and violent distortion of that vision so regularly dominates the news.”

‘America’s other’

A Pew Research Center poll study released in July reveals that Americans view Muslims least favorably among major religious groups in the United States, with 41 percent of those polled stating they felt more coldly toward Muslims than even atheists. That’s despite 40 percent of the country’s Muslims being born in the United States.
“Many here imagine Muslims to be ‘America’s Other,’“ said Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard University.

In 30 years of teaching, Asani said he’s experienced first-hand how art can act as a window into Islam’s creative and emotional dimensions, and prompt conversations around religious literacy in the classroom. “You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the aesthetics of a tradition but doing that lets you see a side of Islam that isn’t defined along political or ideological lines,” he said.

By interacting with poetry, calligraphy, and paintings produced by Muslims themselves, Asani said students see a human face of Islam and learn that how people define their faith depends largely on the cultural and historical circumstances in which they live.

For Asani, what sets the museum apart isn’t just its rare holdings or masterful architectural design. It’s the vision behind it. “The museum can be more than art for art’s sake,” he said.

The museum’s Head of Education Ruba Kana’an agrees. With a roster of lectures, workshops, and performances by international musicians and contemporary artists, she says the museum’s work is just beginning.

“We have a magnificent collection, but it’s what we do with it now that matters most,” she said.

Diverse project, exhibits

Canada has a unique relationship with the Ismailis, where the group is widely seen as one of the country’s most successful immigrant communities. The first Ismailis in Canada arrived in the 1970s, fleeing race-based persecution in Idi Amin’s Uganda. They came with winter coats, an entrepreneurial spirit, and supported by their imam’s mandate to improve their quality of life. Forty years later, they see the museum as a sign of permanence and inclusion.

For his part, the Aga Khan is something of a cosmopolite. Born in Geneva, raised in Nairobi, and himself a Harvard graduate, his museum, park and Ismaili Centre are no less diverse. Together, their tripartite architectural pedigree includes Indian modernist Charles Correa, Lebanon’s Vladimir Djurovic, and Japanese designer Fumihiko Maki, also the principle architect of the World Trade Center’s newest tower.

Boasting 1,000 rare artifacts from across Muslim civilizations reaching from Spain to China, each piece in the museum’s collection is a treasure in its own right. Perhaps its most remarkable item is the 16th century Iranian masterpiece, “The Court of Keyomars,” a work so important, museum director Henry Kim says it’s the Mona Lisa of Islamic art.

Among the paintings, metalwork, and delicately-crafted ceramics -- one inscribed with the words, “Generosity is the disposition of Paradise’s dwellers” -- visitors will also find gems like the washing basin of a member of Chinese Emperor Zhengde’s inner circle and Indian portrayals of creatures one might expect to find in a Harry Potter novel.

Kana’an says the collection shines a light not necessarily on Islam as a religion itself but rather on a people for whom Islam is both a faith and a culture. “That will be its element of surprise,” she said.

Another surprise is that people won’t find the museum in Toronto’s buzzing downtown core alongside Frank Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario or Daniel Libeskind’s Royal Ontario Museum. Instead, it’s located in a suburban industrial park off one of Toronto’s most congested highways.

In fact, the museum wasn’t expected to end up in Toronto or North America at all. Earlier plans to build a site opposite the British Parliament failed in 2002 when the UK’s National Health Services successfully lobbied King’s College London for the space instead.

When land unexpectedly became available next to the already-planned Ismaili Centre in 2007, Shamez Mohamed, executive officer of the museum’s developer, Imara Limited, said they seized on the opportunity. According to Mohamed, Toronto’s eclectic cultural scene and diverse ethnic population make it the ideal place for the museum.

Besides, he said, “You also want to be in a place that welcomes you.”

(Shanifa Nasser is a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School, University of Toronto. Email: s.nasser.sunderji@utoronto.ca; Twitter: @shanifanasser)