Dubai opens window to priceless Islamic legacy

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Offers preview of Aga Khan Museum, the first Islamic art showcase in N. America.

Michelangelo. Leonardo da Vinci. Velazquez. Cezanne. Van Gogh. Sir Joshua Reynolds. Jackson Pollock.

Name the artists famed worldwide and you won’t find a single Islamic artist among them, that is, not one known to the man on the street.

“Most people can’t name a single Muslim artist. I find this terrible,” says Henry Kim, curator and historian.

Though Islamic art has been flourishing for over 1,400 years spread over a vast canvas stretching through Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, its amazing beauty and diversity is yet to gain the recognition it deserves. But come autumn and the lacuna will be addressed as the Aga Khan Museum, the first museum in North America devoted solely to Islamic art, opens in Toronto.

The sprawling museum, designed by Japanese Fumihiko Maki, will display over 1,000 artefacts from the personal collection of the Aga Khan and his family.

“It will be a proud destination for Muslim and non-Muslim visitors, showcasing the art, science, music and philosophy of Islamic culture,” adds Arif Lalani, Canadian ambassador to the UAE and Canada’s Special Envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

With Dubai being a cultural hub, the museum chose the emirate to offer a preview on Tuesday.

“I wish that we were gathering today to open the Aga Khan Museum in the United Arab Emirates,” said a wistful Shaikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the UAE’s Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, in his keynote address at the event.

Islamic art, with its astonishing plurality, is an important part of the heritage of mankind. “The museum preserves important artefacts of our Islamic heritage,” Shaikh Nahyan said. “They communicate our history, culture, and art. Those artefacts convey a clear sense of Muslim diversity, a diversity that deserves global prominence.”

“Culture and art are important for peace, understanding and harmony in the world,” Shaikh Nahyan added. A deeper appreciation of art and culture leads to goodwill and friendship, building bridges between diverse religions, cultures and backgrounds for a peaceful and prosperous world.

Shaikh Nahyan also referred to the 88th Ogden memorial lecture delivered last month by the Aga Khan at the US Ivy League Brown University to emphasise why the world needs to retain its diversity: When people stop learning and understanding each other’s cultures, it leads to misunderstanding and hostility. Today’s world, being inter-connected, requires a thoughtful, renewed commitment to pluralism.

“We understand the wisdom of that response,” Shaikh Nahyan said. “We are a cosmopolitan society bound by mutual respect and understanding… Art allows us to celebrate the principles and values that unite us across national and cultural boundaries and highlights our common values and pursuits.”

He also quoted the UAE President, His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan: “The United Arab Emirates has relied, and will continue to rely, on the rich and diverse contributions of its true wealth, its people, to guarantee its prosperity.”

Several factors contributed to make Dubai ideal for the preview.

The host of the event, the Ismaili Centre Dubai, has been organising a series of cultural programmes since its inception in 2008 to share knowledge with other communities. Also, the preview comes during Art Dubai, the annual event drawing VIPs and art connoisseurs to select sites where art displays are held.

Finally, as the Canadian ambassador said, Canada admires the UAE’s diversity and the Dubai preview would introduce the Aga Khan Museum to the Middle East. While Toronto would have the Islamic art museum, Abu Dhabi would have the Louvre Abu Dhabi and both countries would be home to world-class museums.

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