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Published: February 6th 2019
This was our day actually spent in Toronto.
We arrived at the Aga Khan Museum
and were met by Farzana, a friend made in Calgary shortly before she left for her new Toronto job in major-gifts fundraising. The building is striking with straight lines and angles, which are emphasized by the large reflecting pools in the forecourt. Inside, the entrance opens into a big lobby built around an outdoor courtyard, fully enclosed by etched glass walls that both pattern the sky (steely white today) and drench the interior with light. Farzana took us up to the second floor where the special exhibits are, and we became mesmerized by Syrian Symphony: New Compositions in Sight and Sound
. Music had been composed to convey the trauma of the Syrian war, and an artist had painted on an interior archway in response both to the music and the destruction he had seen. As we stood looking, the black and white painting became less and less abstract because we began to see faces and limbs from bodies stacked in death. And we could see the remains of grand buildings once part of a complex culture. The broad brushstrokes conveyed almost frenetic action, implying fleeing to save lives, even while the detailed strokes mourned
Flying Carpet 1963 by Farhad Moshiri
I saw homes (rugs) bombed from the heavens.
those who had been trapped.
In a another gallery were more paintings with similar themes from various artists, some with colour but all dominated by black figures. Some seemed to celebrate the joyful social culture before the war, now almost broken by death and catastrophic destruction. The haunting symphony invoked feelings of both joy and desolation, subconsciously deepening our emotions from the paintings.
An enthusiastic, knowledgeable volunteer led our 11:00 tour of the permanent collection. He explained that Toronto was the site of the only Aga Khan Museum, substituting for a London location – our gain. The permanent collection has brought together historic artifacts previously lent to other museums around the world. In addition to the public displays, the goal is to establish a locus of research for scholars.
Our first stop was at an excellent animated world map indicating the extent of Muslim societies at various periods in history and showing that today most Muslims live in South Asia. Although there were only two large, airy galleries, the number of items vastly exceeded what could be highlighted in an hour’s tour. We did see three cases of Korans, each from successively later periods in Islamic history.
Beautiful, often stylized calligraphy was all-important - and still is now. Our guide explained that only some Imams would have read the actual text and that all imams would have memorized it as part of the training of all boys. A simply decorated fountain had been disassembled and shipped to the museum, to show the importance of water and gardens in Arabic households to create coolness.
The tour ended with two very modern pieces. Flying Carpet
was almost terrifying: the artist, Farhad Moshiri
, had piled up 32 carpets and cut out the heart in the shape of a bomber airplane; the airplane is installed nearby, flying away from the hole. As with any artwork, the interpretations are many, and I saw it representing how war has destroyed home and family.
Hanging high in the lobby was a beautiful rug, Your Way Begins on the Other Side
, by Aisha Khalid
– at least it looked like a rug. Our guide invited us to look carefully – it was made all of coloured pins. The design showed on one side, and the pins were stuck through the fabric, as if one side was fuzzy. An uncomfortable carpet indeed, perhaps making us think of how uncomfortable life has
become for some.
Farzana met us at the end of the tour and took us to the Museum’s stylishly decorated restaurant. The unusual menu was based in part on current exhibitions. The food was amongst the most delicious I have ever eaten! We shared warmed, spiced mixed olives and spicy calamari, and I had lamb kefta (spicy meatballs) in coconut curry. All of us finished with Moroccan coffee, slightly sweet and flavoured with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, clove and black pepper. An unusual lunch, accompanied by flowing conversation - sometimes serious and sometimes full of laughter.
We were not done, for one more special exhibition called us, Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians
. The paintings, sculptures and installations were quite subversive, many satirizing the use of the veil. Finally we looked around the gift shop; my minimal souvenir collection expanded to a set of fridge magnets showing what seem to be medieval paintings.
Although quite saturated with emotion-filled art, we drove into Toronto’s centre and the Art Gallery of Ontario
to gaze in wonder at a Georgia O’Keeffe
exhibition. I learned more about her early years and marriage in New York. Small sections of the exhibition were devoted to the photos taken of her by
Shahnameh, from Persia 17c
Epic national poem of the Persian empire
her husband, Alfred Stieglitz
, as well as by Ansel Adams
. Much more exciting were her paintings, especially the arrangements showing the development of her artistic ideas as she tried different subjects and styles. Her portrayals of New York at night recalled the views of all the vertical buildings I could see from my Chicago hotel window just last week. The lush close-up paintings of flowers for which she is famous drew me into nature’s seductive joy in colour and shape. After her move to New Mexico, the same lush lines and colour smoothed into the dry desert mountain landscapes and explorations of animal skulls and wind-scrubbed pelvises. This exhibition had only a small photo from the series that excited me in Chicago, Sky Above Clouds IV
, an exploration of the cloud layer we see from airplanes.
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