The Ismaili Center and Aga Khan Museum in Toronto celebrated its grand openeing Friday. And a group of students, faculty, and guests gathered at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology to watch a live telecast of the event. Guests were able to view speeches live in Canada from the Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper and the Aga Khan Prince Karim Al Husseini that honored the occasion. For many Ismailis in the SMU audience, it was an exciting and emotional moment to see years of hard work culminate in an institution dedicated to the education of Islamic artwork.
The new museum’s permanent collection includes over a thousand objects — portraits, textiles, miniatures, manuscripts, ceramics, tiles, medical texts, books and medical instruments — that showcase the artistic work and accomplishments of Muslim civilizations and cover a range of more than ten centuries of history as well as a vast geographic area. The Guardian‘s Oliver Wainwright says the collection may not compare in size to ones in the Louvre or or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the Aga Khan Museum’s director Henry Kim says, “There may not be many pieces, but they are some of the best.” Together with the neighboring Ismaili Center, the museum building cost $300 million and its design incorporates natural light in illustrating the contemporary features and historical elements throughout. Though the building and collection lie in a different country, the Ismaili community hopes the museum will take the first step in engaging the rest of North America. Last year, the Aga Khan council organized an Enlightened Encounters program during construction of the Toronto museum that visited three cities in the United States — Chicago, Houston, and Dallas. Bringing artwork and representatives from the community, the tour provided a preview of the Aga Khan Museum experience.
SMU senior Sana Hamirami says there are about 10,000 members of the Ismaili community in North Texas, across the different suburbs.The Ismaili faith is part of the Shia branch of Islam, headed by the Aga Khan, who they believe to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. Hamirami and her friends Afshal Akhani, a sophomore at SMU, and Shama Sadruddin, a senior at the University of Texas at Arlington, are Ismailis. They heard about the event from the organizers and volunteered to help to spread the word around North Texas colleges. “I think it’s huge — that it’s such a good opportunity for others to learn more about Islam, especially because we’re a minority of a minority,” says Akhani, who finds that the museum will let others and members of the Ismaili community learn more about the faith. “I feel museums are the best way to learn about any culture,” adds Sadruddin. “As a Muslim in America, you don’t get really get access to the beautiful religious art you might see in other parts of the world.”
Dr. Robert Hunt is the Director of Global Theological Education at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. Of his involvement with the Ismaili community, he says, “They have been a very significant community for all of us in fostering inter-religious dialogue. Even though they are a small minority in Muslims, they play a very big role in bringing [different religions] together.”
And SMU’s involvement, as well as Dallas’ connection with the Ismaili community will continue. The museum’s telecast is just one example of the relationship formed between the university and the Aga Khan Council, the social governance body of the Ismaili Muslim community. Dr. Hunt says,“We’re very happy that we can host an event and see the opening of this museum that not only the Ismaili community has looked forward to for many years, but truly all of us have looked forward to in solidifying Islamic scholarship in North America.” Dr. Paula Patton, Department Chair of Art History at the Meadows School of the Arts, looks forward to potential collaborations between the two institutions, especially with the Meadows Museum. She’s spoken as a part of the Islamic Art Revival Series in Dallas, a cross-cultural institution that hosts events and promotes education in Islamic art. In 2012, the Dallas Museum of Art appointed Sabiha al Khemir as its first Senior Advisor for Islamic Art, and this year, announced that it would receive a long term loan of the Keir Collection, one of the most significant private collections of Islamic art.
Enlightenment and connecting communities were the themes that rang throughout the opening. David Weiner, Senior Trade Commissioner for the Consulate General of Canada, was invited as a distinguished guest to view the telecast. He says, “The bonds between the [Ismaili community and Dallas] and are quite strong. This museum fits in quite well with Canada because this is something that embodies the same values that Canadians have of tolerance and pluralism, of peace and good relations with communities. It’s the perfect mix.” The museum itself extends across cultures — designed by a Japanese artist for the Muslim community located in Canada.
It may take a plane ticket to get to the museum, but Dallas Ismailis are already planning trips. And it’s one more sign that North Texas may have a lot to look forward to in terms of Islamic art.
Upcoming partnerships in the North Texas area with the Aga Khan Council include the Crow Collection of Asian Art’s display of two books published by the Aga Khan Museum on November 1. As a part of the Crow Museum’s “Adventure Asia” program, choir and theatrical productions, book readings, and artwork will accompany the showcase.