Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, the first in North America to house artworks from the Islamic world, launched late last year a cultural initiative in the Gulf and South Asia emphasising the region as an emerging hotbed for global art. Announced at Alserkal Avenue’s Concrete space in Dubai, Friends of the Aga Khan Museum in the Gulf and South Asia aims to build a regional network of individuals with a shared penchant for the diverse historic and contemporary art from the Islamic world. His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, who was present at the occasion, will serve as the honorary chairman of the Aga Khan Museum Patrons Circle in the UAE.
“There’s a real nexus, a real gathering together of the arts in this region,” says Henry S Kim, CEO and Director of Aga Khan Museum for the past five years, on this pivot towards the Gulf and South Asia. “We felt there was a need to create this “friends” group because these regions are going to contribute a lot to us, not only in terms of supporters who help the museum financially but also those who believe in the big picture of this museum.”
The idea is to create a mid-sized group of “like-minded people who are really passionate about the arts and want to expand their horizons,” says Kim. Sarah Hashwani, cultural ambassador for Aga Khan Museum, is among the committee members and points of contact for the newfound initiative, and is joined by Nazneen Shafi, Shireen Attasi, Hassan Vellani and Anil Hassanaly. The programme, Hashwani explains, is in large part about visiting different countries, meeting collectors, seeing historic sites and restorations, engaging with the local folklore and cultural exploration. “We want people to join because they’re passionate about what we’re trying to achieve,” she says.
Afrasiyab Talking With His Father Pashang. Folio from the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by Firdausi (d.1020). Tabriz, Iran, ca. 1576. Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper. 45.6x30.5cm. Courtesy of the Aga Khan Musuem, Toronto
Critical to the initiative is the bringing together of collectors from across the Middle East and South Asia. “There are some amazing collectors in Pakistan who I know would love to see collections here and there are so many interested in going to Pakistan. I think it’s not just about visiting each other’s collections but also learning from them, sharing the heritage. There’s a lot of cross-cultural learning for collectors and we’ve already made a couple of introductions,” shares Hashwani. “I also want to make sure that people who are a part of this group come back to Toronto every September to commemorate the museum’s birthday,” states Kim. “We have a patrons weekend, so we’re very keen for this group to come back to Toronto as a way to touch base with the museum and also mingle with the patrons who we have from North America and Europe.”
Back in Toronto, the Aga Khan Museum has long spurred the arts from the region. Six out of its 15 exhibitions thus far have been based on cultural producers from the Gulf and South Asia, with five originating from the UAE alone. In fact, the museum’s first-ever exhibition featured Pakistani contemporary art from Lahore’s National College of Arts, and its first major show was a collection of works from Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation. “That was an incredible exhibition because for the first time, North America, particularly Canada, was exposed to Arab contemporary art,” explains Kim.
The museum has showcased original exhibitions by a cohort of noted artists from the region, including works by Iranian photographer Abbas Kiarostami that ran until last year, the artist’s last show during his lifetime. Other shows include those by Dubai’s Atassi Foundation, Pakistani miniaturist Aisha Khalid, Canadian-Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, and the collection of Iranian-born Mohammed Afkhami.
Aga Khan Museum has been active in the region since its inauguration in 2014, which Kim says is a reflection of how the arts are maturing in the region. “In some ways, I wish the museum was here so that you could tap into that. But that’s one reason why we’re always here. This is where we find people, ideas and projects.”