The Wall Street Journal | Rethinking ‘Islamic Art’

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum features diverse, high-quality works to dispel the idea of a homogenous aesthetic.

[…] 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.

– Lee Lawrence, The Wall Street Journal, Asian and Islamic art writer

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, building designed by Fumihiko Maki. (Image: The Wall Street Journal / Janet Kimber)
Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, building designed by Fumihiko Maki. (Image: The Wall Street Journal / Janet Kimber)

Rethinking ‘Islamic Art’
By Lee Lawrence. Jan. 13, 2015 6:19 p.m. ET Photography by Janet Kimber

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.

Perspective on Quality of Artifacts

… 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.”

Perspective on Humour in Art

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.

Discover & Explore more perspectives by Lee Lawrence, who writes about Asian and Islamic art for the Journal.

Learn more by reading the complete story at The Wall Street Journal | Art Review | Rethinking ‘Islamic Art’


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