SHAFAQNA – For seven years, exhibitions in Asia and Europe have showcased treasures owned by the Aga Khan, the spiritual head of an estimated 10 million to 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims world-wide. The collection of some 1,000 objects has now alighted in its permanent home, the recently opened Aga Khan Museum, the first institution in North America devoted primarily to what it terms the “artistic, intellectual, and scientific heritage of Islamic civilizations.” The 300 or so items on display date from the eighth through the 19th centuries and come from as far west as Morocco and Spain and as far east as India, Indonesia and China, with Egypt, Turkey, Iran and other lands in between.
The museum’s setting in northeast Toronto is an urban idyll. It sits in a 17-acre park designed by landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic with reflecting pools and plantings that carry forward the spirit of Persian gardens. Facing the museum’s entrance is the Ismaili Center (by Charles Correa) with a glassed-in prayer hall that rises like a crystalline pyramid. For its part, the museum is a Fumihiko Maki building that uses light and shadow as much as it does granite and sandstone to create an environment at once spacious and human-scale. It is to this new home that one of the most prized private art collections of its kind has come to roost—and work.
Its stated mission is to impress upon visitors the variety and high quality of what is often referred to as “Islamic art.” And it does. It groups works by place and time of origin with only the occasional thematic display. We are thus treated to, among other things, different styles of lusterware and tile work, intricate metalwork and wood carvings; an array of miniature paintings; calligraphy in wildly different styles, some so embellished it is a matter of scholarly debate whether they are actually letters at all; and Iznik ceramics from 16th- and 17th-century Turkey, as vibrant in color as they are in design. In addition, two upstairs galleries host temporary shows—some drawing from the museum’s holdings, others coming in on loan.
Although the Aga Khan has purchased pieces specifically for the museum, the majority are works he and his family have inherited or collected. Primary among them is the highly regarded trove of paintings, manuscripts and ceramics amassed by Aga Khan’s uncle, the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. We get a taste of how he and his wife lived with their collection thanks to a small gallery that emulates a salon of Château de Bellerive, their home on Lake Geneva. A plush circular couch fills the center of the room while, in cabinets that evoke the style of the Alhambra, bowls, plates and vessels beckon us to come close and marvel.
Here, as in the main exhibition, the works reflect a connoisseur’s taste and desire for quality without an art historian’s hunger for completeness. The museum does not offer the kind of encyclopedic presentations associated with, say, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art or the Islamic art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. Instead, as senior collections adviser Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani writes in the catalog, the museum’s works constitute “an anthology, not a comprehensive survey.” There are therefore gaps—most noticeably the absence of lamps or vessels in enameled blown glass.
But the collection makes up for this in rarities—whether pages with exquisite miniatures from a copy of the “Shahnameh” commissioned in 1540 by Iran’s Shah Tahmasp, a 14th-century astrolabe from Spain with Latin, Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions, or an 17th- or 18th-century palm-sized shell from India in which incised verses from the Quran form a mesmerizing concentric design. There is also an unusual oliphant, an elephant tusk hollowed out to serve as a ceremonial hunting horn. Found in southern Italy, it is covered with carvings of animals and the occasional human all hunting one another. But rather than employing the more usual scheme of medallions or horizontal bands that appear on similar oliphants from the same period, this artist depicted real and mythical animals chasing each other up the length of the tusk with, in places, more humor than menace. One beast, for example, does no more than nip the toe of a soldier who stands, sword raised, while, elsewhere, what looks like a dog turns away from potential prey to attack its own tail.
In form, this oliphant is a product of medieval Europe, but its carving is stylistically in tune with the arts of the Fatimids, the Muslim dynasty that ruled parts of northern Africa, Egypt and Syria from 909 to 1171. Whether it was made in southern Italy or in Cairo for export (scholars disagree on this), the hunting horn attests to a lively cultural conversation among Christian and Muslim civilizations. In this respect it embodies the kind of mutual curiosity and appreciation the museum hopes to foster among people of different faiths and cultures. It is also one of many objects that raise the question of what “Islamic art” means and whether such a thing even exists.
The museum’s position is clear. The ingenious map that fills the back wall, for example, bucks the convention of shading all the areas under Muslim rule. Instead, areas delineating different empires and kingdoms take turns lighting up, thereby subtly underlining their political and cultural separateness. Much in the catalog and presentation, too, strongly suggests the museum hopes visitors will join those who question the very existence of an “Islamic art,” which implies a connection between religious belief and art.
Cases displaying copies of the Quran act as touchstones, reminding us that the cultures represented share a belief in these scriptures. Yet the juxtapositions simultaneously drive home how varied these cultures are. An 1804 book from Indonesia bears no resemblance to an 1847 Quran scroll from Iran, just as the illuminations in 14th-century copies from Egypt and India are strikingly different in style. Only if you stand so far back that you cannot pick out differences in calligraphy styles or register variations in illumination and design do many Qurans look similar—which is pretty much what early art historians in the Christian West were doing when they looked east and south and saw “Islamic art.” Everything in the museum seems committed to dislodging all legacy of this perspective, using beauty to lure us in close enough to appreciate the distinctiveness among Muslim civilizations.
Ms. Lawrence writes about Asian and Islamic art for the Journal.