Celebrating Five Thousand Years of Multi-Culturalism

Celebrating Five Thousand Years of Multi-Culturalism


An exhibition of art and artefacts at the Aga Khan Museum looks past Syria’s troubled present to its rich and diverse history


With events in Syria rarely out of the news, it’s become difficult to think back past the conflict that rages on across the country and its devastating impact.


However, an exhibition currently taking place at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, is helping visitors to do just that.


Titled ‘Syria: A Living History’, the show provides visitors with an insight into the mix of cultures that have given the country its identity over the past 5000 years, highlighting its rich and diverse roots through a collection of art, artefacts and culture.


From ancient pots and an eye idol figurine to a 19th-century games table, the items on display constitute an exhibition that Professor Nasser Rabbat, one of its co-curators, describes as “not your typical show”.


Elements from the tombs of Palmyra are juxtaposed with the Al-Mulk section of a Quran dating back to the Mamluk period, reaffirming the rich mix of cultures, religions, regional influences and ethnicities that make the country what it is today.


The historian and architect, who is also the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explains that while he focused on how best to present the works, Filiz Çakır Phillip, from the Aga Khan Museum, brought them together, collating exhibits from private collections and other institutions. The exhibition itself, he adds, was the brainchild of the museum’s director and CEO, Henry Kim.


Rabbat, whose fields of expertise include the history and historiography of Islamic architecture, art and cultures, explains that one of the aims was to give Syria’s far-reaching cultural identity a platform. “I proposed dividing the objects into themes, with each section a component of what we expect culture to be,” he says. The themes explored include: state and religion; our relationships with nature; and the importance of home, as a means of giving us a sense of belonging. A topical and timely section, titled ‘Vagaries of the Time’, features objects that were looted and rescued, but damaged by war, illustrating what happens when destruction occurs. Finally, visitors reach a section titled ‘Hope’, which showcases works by modern Syrian artists, such as the late Mahmoud Hammad and Tammam Azzam.


Reaction to the show has been highly positive, in part, Rabbat believes, because of what the show offers. “We are giving a straightforward narrative, featuring objects that tell their own story,” he says. “It’s up to the visitor to make their own interpretation of what they are viewing. You construct your own history from it.”


Working with Phillip, he notes, helped the team to achieve this objective. “She doesn’t impose her opinion,” he says. “She is also extremely flexible, creative and accommodating.” He adds that given the favourable response, the team hopes to take the exhibition on the road once it closes in February.


With Syria’s people fleeing the country in droves, the choice of venue for the exhibition is, in many ways, highly appropriate; the Aga Khan enjoys a longstanding relationship with Canada after the country extended its hospitality to a mass exodus of Ismailis from Tanzania and Kenya some 50 years ago.


The Aga Khan Museum, together with the Ismaili Cultural Centre, forms part of the Global Center of Pluralism, a joint partnership between Canada’s government and the Aga Khan. Taking Canada’s commitment to championing diversity and inclusivity as its starting point, the centre works to advance global understanding of pluralism and advocates positive responses to the challenge of living peacefully and productively together.


Reflecting on the centre’s aims in a cultural context, Rabbat acknowledges that there remains “residual cultural snobbery and racism towards the Islamic world”. He cites the example of Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha, one-time Egyptian prime minister and art collector, who bequeathed several paintings that are now showcased in a museum in Cairo named after him and built specifically to house them. His collection included the only Vincent Van Gogh painting in Africa - Poppy Flowers (1887) - alongside works by Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, among others.


“European critics were convinced that it must have been his French wife, Emiline Lock, rather than Pasha, who had a discerning taste for such fine art,” he notes. “We have endured an entire history during which collectors from the Islamic world were regarded as less discerning than their European counterparts.”


Exhibitions like the one currently taking place at the museum will hopefully help to right that wrong.


‘Syria: A Living History’ runs at the Aga Khan Museum until February 26th 2017.

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