(TORONTO, ON) – On a miserable, windy, and cold day I rather reluctantly hopped in the car and drove to the Aga Kahn Museum. My journalistic mission was to check out the latest exhibits and give their restaurant a try.
Let’s say, given the weather and the name of the exhibit, Syria A Living History, did not put me in a very jolly mood. So much death, misery, and destruction of life and beautiful historical structures, I just really couldn’t take any more negativity.
Strangely, I was both saddened and buoyed by the exhibit and walked away knowing more about Syria than simply a litany of bad news.
What created modern day Syria may also be leading to its destruction.
Syria has been part of different empires and their religions. The Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, and Arabic cultures have made Syria what it is today. Syria A Living History includes artifacts, pictures, and paintings spanning some 5,000 years.
For the first time in North America there is a virtual experience where, through the use of a tablet, one can view a Christian merchant’s house in Aleppo in the 17th century. There are also 48 works in the exhibition as well as two digital reproductions.
The oldest work is a carved eye idol from around 3200 BC. Many museums have lent their material for the exhibit, including the Met in New York, the ROM in Toronto, and the Louvre in Paris. There are six contemporary works by Syrian artists.
“The sheer variety of these artifacts and their cultural breadth reveal Syria’s long and rich history of multiculturalism and how essential that diversity was to the development of many of the world’s greatest civilizations,” said museum director and CEO, Henry Kim.
The exhibition is divided by several themes namely Divinity , Humans and Beasts, Religion and State, Home, Affinities, and the Vagaries of Time. In terms of conflict affecting the current Syrian population pay particular attention to the paintings.
If I have any criticism it is that there is no explanation or interpretation of what is currently happening Syria. So, aside from the interpretation to be drawn from some of the recent paintings, the exhibit is apolitical.
Could the answer lie in the diverse forces that created Syria are somehow contributing to it being ripped apart? Can Syria once again arise from the ashes?
Syria A Living History has been extended until March 26.
The second exhibit Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet Contemporary Persians runs until June 4 and is highly political. Not so much in how the works are described, but rather in the messages of disgust, frustration, and sarcasm they exude.
The exhibit consists of 27 works by 23 contemporary artists. Gender, politics, repression, defiance, and terrorism, amongst other themes, are shown. It is true that often a picture conveys a thousand words and, in this case, art speaks against repression as, after all, this art is post-Iranian revolution and to speak up may land you in jail, or worse.
I will mention a few of these works.
My favourite is a digital portrait of an Iranian teen with a bandage on her nose, after an obvious nose job. She has bleached blonde hair, wearing a jean jacket, and blowing a big bubble gum bubble. Quite frankly, she’s almost a punkish rebel.
The portrait by Tehran-based artist Shirin Aliabadi is called Miss Hybrid, as she is exhibiting both Iranian and Euro-American fashion.
Along a similar vein is an untitled set of portraits by Shadi Gharirzon. The first shows two women dressed in chadors from Iran’s Qajar Era (1781-1825). The companion portrait shows two teens in much more exposed garb including a girl on a bicycle with a helmet.
Then there is the portrait Friday. It shows a hand sticking out from some cloth but, from a distance, can be easily mistaken, most likely intentionally, as a vagina. Parastou Forouhar has really stuck his neck out on this one.
The last portrait, We Will Join Hands in Love and Rebuild our Country, is that of a man riding backwards on some fantastic beast with many humans trapped inside the beast. Perched on a red balloon, like a circus performer, it is being photographed by a Western man.
The nation building effort has become a spectacle.
This is an exhibit that virtually shouts out without saying a word. Many of the works convey their message without you having to read the text describing them. The more you know about current Iranian society and its repression the louder the pictures shout.
The Aga Khan Museum is located at 77 Wynford Drive in Toronto and the architectural firm responsible for designing this light, airy, and intimate museum is Maki and Associates, of Japan. The museum has been established and developed by the Aga Kahn Trust for Culture and its mission is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage.
Next: eating at the Aga Khan.