The Imam’s vast collection will be housed in a new Toronto museum opening Sept. 18.
The Aga Khan said his goal for the museum is to chart the far-flung journeys these objects take through time and various cultures and faiths. One of his favorite pieces, now being installed in one of the cases on the main floor, is a Spanish star-mapping instrument called an astrolabe. Its brass surface contains inscriptions in Latin, Arabic and Hebrew—a reminder of the instrument’s pluralistic usefulness among 14th-century merchant traders. “I like art that contains symbols,” he said, “but this object is a symbol. It says it all.”
Plenty of museums around the world collect Islamic art—from ornate Persian carpets to Mughal miniature paintings—but there’s never been a museum in North America focused solely on exhibiting these pieces, until now.
On Sept. 18, Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum will open in a 31,500 square-foot space designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki, giving visitors a permanent spot to see one of the top private collections of Islamic art anywhere.
The Aga Khan, in a telephone interview from his home in Chantilly, north of Paris, joined by his younger brother Prince Amyn, said the genesis of the family’s collection starts with their grandfather and uncle, both of whom were voracious collectors. Growing up in Kenya and, later, Switzerland, the Aga Khan and his brother said they were surrounded by art at home. Not all of it was Islamic: Their father, Prince Aly Khan, also loved the French Impressionists. But the Aga Khan said Harvard art historian Stuart Cary Welch encouraged the family to focus on Islamic art during the 1950s and 1960s. Their uncle eventually filled his Geneva château, called Belle Rive, with Islamic ceramics. (The museum has imported some of Prince Sadruddin’s red display cabinets and plans to recreate one of his Belle Rive rooms.)
All of this explains why the Aga Khan said he was “shocked” when he started college at Harvard in the mid-1950s and found out that his classmates didn’t know much about Islamic art or culture. His peers could rattle off the names of a few European Old Masters and pinpoint ancient styles from China—but none of them recognized a single artist from the Muslim world, he said.
“The inspiration for art isn’t all that different, frankly, across civilizations and time … The goal should be to understand the art and those civilizations better, not to criticize or ignore them.”
– His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan
He began slowly, buying a few artworks after his grandfather died in 1957 and named him the next spiritual leader, or imam, of his sect at the age of 20. His personal collection was eclectic and included Islamic ceramics as well as European sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Auguste Rodin. “Believe it or not, I collected Bruegel,” he said, referring to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Dutch Old Master. “I liked his sense of humor.”
But by the 1990s, he had narrowed his collecting focus to Islamic art, particularly Indian miniature paintings that highlighted the architecture and gardens of the Mughal era.
Plans took another turn in 2003 when his uncle died, and the Aga Khan and his relatives had to figure out what to do with his uncle’s estate. They decided to pool the Aga Khan’s Mughal collection with his uncle’s broader holdings and create a museum “in a great Western city with no major Islamic collections,” he said.
Those parameters ruled out Paris and London, which have encyclopedic museums containing prized Islamic collections. But why choose Toronto? Turns out, Canada played a key role in accepting thousands of Nizari Ismailis who were living in Uganda but applied for asylum in 1972 when President Idi Amin notoriously expelled Asian people. Today, the Aga Khan said Canada is home to 100,000 Ismailis, and his museum is meant to be an extension of his support for them. (He’s also commissioned a community center and prayer hall for them next to the museum, bringing the total bill for the project to $300 million.)
Museum director Henry Kim, a Greek coin expert who formerly oversaw the reinstallation of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, said curators are also arranging displays and planning shows to appeal to broader audiences as well. During its debut, around 300 objects will go on view, with nearly three times as many additional artworks waiting in storage.
“So much of the artistic output of Islamic art is wild fantasy, not religion. That’s one of the misconceptions I’d love for the museum to explore.”
– Henry Kim, CEO and Director – Aga Khan Museum
A few weeks ago, he and the staff were still wearing hard hats. A mosaic Egyptian fountain was being assembled in the main gallery, but the row of nearby display cases remained empty. The action was happening downstairs in storage, where curators and registrars were busy unpacking some of the 85 crates that had recently arrived, each one brimming with art.
Nearby, sitting in a custom Styrofoam case, sat an elephant tusk whose entire surfaces had been carved with intricate floral patterns in the 12th century. Five hundred years after that, a silversmith added silver detailing and a resting stand in the form of a pheasant’s foot so the horn could be given as a wedding present to an English nobleman’s daughter.
Images courtesy of The Aga Khan Museum via The Wall Street Journal: The Aga Khan’s New Islamic Treasure Trove (Click the link to view 13 additional pictures in the image gallery)