Oct 12, 2002
Paul Gessell
Edition: Final Section: News Page: A6

Art coup gives Canadians a different view of Islam: Aga Khan's decision to locate museum in Toronto an eye-opener

Photo: The Court of Gayumars, a 16th-century watercolour, gold and ink painting depicting Shah Gayumars of Persia being revered by his subjects, has often been described as a Persian version of Eden.; Photo: The Toronto museum will also house this famous 16th-century Ottoman Turkish portrait of Sultan Selim II (Selim the Sot).; Photo: Ladies on a Terrace with Sparklers is part of the collection being donated by the Aga Khan's uncle, Prince Sadruddin.

There's the liquor-loving sultan nicknamed Selim the Sot, the incredibly sexy gals called Ladies on a Terrace with Sparklers, and the "painting of all paintings," the artwork reputed to make men weep and fall on their knees in adoration, The Court of Gayumars. They're all stars of the ancient Islamic art world and some, if not all of them, could be housed in the museum of Islamic art to be built in Toronto during the next few years.

The decision this week of the Aga Khan Development Network to establish the museum in Toronto, instead of London, England, as originally plan! ned, is one of the biggest art coups in Canadian history. It will also be an opportunity for Canadians to learn about Islam and to discover it is not the drab, colourless religion so frequently depicted in the news media. The museum, itself, is expected to be an eye-popping artwork, marrying Islamic traditional designs with futuristic architecture and Canadian materials, says Nazeer Aziz Ladhani, chief executive officer of the Ottawa-based Aga Khan Foundation Canada. The architect and design have not been picked, but expect the Indian-born architect, Charles Correa, one of the world's most-decorated, to have a big influence. Mr. Correa had earlier been selected to design an Ismaili religious centre next door to the more recently acquired museum site in Toronto's Don Mills area. A third building, the Institute for the Study of Human Pluralism, is also planned for the new site. Ottawa almost landed that institute, which may be partially funded by the federal gover! nment. The museum and Ismaili centre are to be largely funded by vario us outfits controlled by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims. Canada has about 50,000 of them, mainly in Toronto and Vancouver.

Mr. Ladhani said the three Toronto buildings could end up being blended into two, or even one, structure. Many details remain to be decided, including size, budget and construction dates. However, Mr. Ladhani was certain the museum "will be a very elegant structure."

The Aga Khan is one of the world's most prominent promoters of daring architecture, and always with an Islamic twist. In Canada, palatial, futuristic-looking Ismaili centres in Burnaby, B.C., and Edmonton testify to that.

The Toronto museum will house the biggest collection of Islamic art in the English-speaking world, offering thousands of manuscripts, paintings, metalwork and ceramics dating back 1,000 years or more right up to the present. Many of the artifacts will come from the private collection of the Aga Khan. That col! lection is best known for its manuscripts of a medical, scientific, historical and religious nature.

Most interesting, however, for the average museum-goer will be the splendid collection of paintings and other artworks to be donated by the Aga Khan's uncle, the Swiss-based Prince Sadruddin, a prominent philanthropist, a former United Nations high commissioner for refugees and an animal rights advocate known for campaigning to keep fur on animals and off people. The prince's art collection is reputed to be among the largest and richest in private hands. It is most famous for its Mughal, Persian and Turkish miniature paintings.

The prince's collection has traditionally been made available only to scholars, although 140 works were lent to the British Museum in London in 1998 for an exhibition entitled Princes, Poets and Paladins. The exhibition travelled to Zurich, Geneva and Harvard University near Boston. "Ravishing" and "a revelation," declared the Boston! Globe.

Prince Sadruddin owns the famous 16th-century Ottoman Tu rkish portrait of Sultan Selim II (Selim the Sot), Ladies on a Terrace with Sparklers and his personal favourite -- and the favourite of some top art critics -- The Court of Gayumars, a 16th century watercolour, gold and ink painting depicting Shah Gayumars of Persia being revered by his subjects.

The painting has often been described as a Persian version of Eden. Prince Sadruddin calls it "Paradise before the Fall." In ancient days, the minutely detailed painting (a magnifying glass is required to appreciate it fully and to find a smiling blue camel) literally caused Persians to fall on their knees in adoration.

These three aforementioned works were part of the travelling British Museum exhibition and wowed audiences everywhere they went. Canada could be their next stop. Most of the prince's collection is expected to be shipped to Toronto in coming years. The prince keeps some of his rare works in the 17th-century Chateau de Bellerive, where he lives! on the bank of Lake Geneva. A visit to the chateau is always a surprise because the prince is constantly changing the art works displayed on the walls. Every month or so, he visits bank vaults, returns some paintings from his house for safekeeping and selects new ones to entertain the guests at his frequent, intimate dinner parties. The prince, as host, often wears a traditional flowing, Arabic-style jellaba. Most Canadians have not had much exposure to Islamic art. Indeed, many non-Muslim Canadians may think the term Islamic art is an oxymoron. The predominate image of Islam in the news media today tends to be one of art-free drabness. That may be the case for the more fundamental adherents to the religion, the same adherents who tend to make the news. But they are not the only followers of Islam.

"There is no one form of Islam," says Mr. Ladhani. The new Toronto museum will, thus, introduce Canada to Islam in its many varieties over the centuries. The emphasi! s will be on "Islamic culture" rather than the Islamic religion, Mr. L adhani said. Most artifacts in the museum will, in fact, have no religious significance, but will be of a secular nature. There is, for instance, considerable ancient Islamic art of an erotic nature that would be considered far too daring by conservative Muslims like those of Afghanistan's defeated Taliban regime, and perhaps an insult to many conservative Christians. Prince Sadruddin owns such a 17th-century Mughal painting entitled Dara Shikuh and a Young Woman on a Terrace. The painting "features foreplay explicit enough to make you feel like a voyeur," Christine Temin wrote in the Boston Globe. The prince, who started collecting back in the 1950s, also owns a 17th-century Iranian painting called An Amorous Couple showing a woman intentionally burning a man's forearm. Inflicting the pain was meant to be seen as a sign of love. We have names for people like that today.

Still to be decided are which works of art the prince will send to Toronto. The p! rince hates being parted from his collection, which is why he constantly alternates the ones exhibited in his home. "I feel very frustrated at not being able to have them around me," he told The Times of London.

The prince, however, like the Aga Khan, wants the world to appreciate the fullness of Islamic culture, especially from the Middle East.

"There is this prejudice that everything about that part of the world is essentially violent and confrontational," he told The Times in 1998 in advance of the British Museum exhibition.

"The general public doesn't understand its importance in terms of art, architecture, literature and science. Perhaps it is a good thing to remind the West that all these wonderful things come from the same part of the world which today is getting such a negative press."