Unique: An Islamic Museum Opens in this Hemisphere

The new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada is exclusively dedicated to the arts of Muslim civilizations. It is the only one of its kind in the Americas.

The new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada is exclusively dedicated to the arts of Muslim civilizations. It is the only one of its kind in the Americas.

The Aga Khan Museum is named after the fourth Aga Khan, Prince Karim Al Husseini. He is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Nizari Islamic group, a subdivision within the Shia Sect of the faith.

Shadows and the sun that generate them make up a large part of the beauty of the first Islamic museum in North and South America. The central open courtyard of the main hall is filled with light. As the sun rotates, the inevitable cut-out patterns that result from shaded areas penetrated by light follow.

One room, in particular, exhibits the grace and lighthearted play that this interchange of light and dark can project, the Bellerive Room. Though it consists of early Islamic pottery, it was the resulting shadow formation of the pierced partitions on an interior wall that captured my attention.

The play of light creates engaging patterns on the signage for the Bellerive Room.

Ralph Khalife, our guide, is standing left, in the Bellerive Room. One of the cabinets in the room displaying Islamic pottery is on the right.

An early Islamic frit ware dish includes an animal in its decoration. This and other pieces like it dismiss the myth that animals were not included in Islamic art. The exclusion was only for religious items.

The 47,000-square-foot museum consists of 2 floors, the first for the permanent collection and the second for temporary exhibitions. It was designed by Fumihiko Maki, an award winning architect. The white rather stark building sits on 17 acres, part of which displays a garden designed by Vladimir Djurovic. In time, an Islamic center will be constructed that will be separated from the museum by the garden.

Ralph Khalife, our guide, against the play of light and shadow that is typical of the museum.

Ralph Khalife was our guide. Though quiet, he knew his information cold. He is a recent transplant from Lebanon. Only 3 months ago, he moved to Toronto to continue his studies. He has a master’s degree in architecture from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik in Lebanon and is studying for a master’s degree in art history at the University of Toronto. Though Mr. Khalife knows Arabic, he is Christian. This adds to the ecumenical sensitivity of the museum meant for and open to all. It is a refreshing and distinctive alternative to other museums not only in Toronto but elsewhere in the Northern hemisphere.

Though totally unrelated to the museum, Mr. Khalife had interesting insight into current conditions in Lebanon, really too good not to be shared. He wrote this in an E-mail:

“Now, refugees from Syria, Iraq and Palestine number nearly as many as the native population, which is about 4 million. This is affecting the daily lives of the Lebanese: demographically, economically, socially and politically. The whole country is being redefined and the Lebanese government is becoming overloaded and having serious troubles controlling these transformations!

For instance, road side stands have popped up staffed with refugees. These are competing with local Lebanese merchants and selling at a lower price, knowing that these Lebanese merchants have more overhead, tax to pay, etc.

As a result, many former Lebanese businesses and shops are gone...

Sadly, the city is becoming a shadow of its former self.”

Perhaps the Aga Khan Museum will play a part in healing some of the misunderstandings not only within the Arab world, (which have resulted in the scenario related by Ralph Khalife) but also between the cultures of the East and West.

All photos by the author

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