A day so bitterly cold that no one dares to stand outside for long. It’s January in Canada. The radio has warned us of a freezing spell and reported deaths by hypothermia. Yet I am standing outside the new Aga Khan museum of Islamic art, located in the suburbs of Toronto, and I’m looking down at a snow-spattered, site-specific outdoor painting by Imran Qureshi. The painting, called “The Garden Within,” shows a set of curling and articulate green plants whose brightness and greenness contrasts with the grey setting—the museum’s actual garden seems to be shuttered for the winter. The trees in the central part of the garden are bare and spindly, and the trees along the periphery are swaddled in brown cloth and tied with rope. [FIGURE 1 and FIGURE 2]
Qureshi’s painting is part of a fascinating exhibit at the new Aga Khan museum, which, together with the neighbouring Ismaili Centre, opened last fall to much fanfare. The opening of the two buildings drew a joint visit from Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper and the Aga Khan himself, and generated a lot of buzz about multiculturalism and interfaith dialogue, although the museum’s distance from downtown (about an hour by public transit) makes it feel more like a site visit for a dedicated specialist than a general education for the average daytripper. One of the museum’s inaugural exhibitions focuses exclusively on contemporary Pakistani artists, featuring multiple works by Qureshi, Bani Abidi, Nurjahan Akhlaq, David Chalmers Alesworth, Aisha Khalid and Atif Khan. The exhibit, called “The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan,” contains work derived from various styles and traditions, loosely organized around the theme of a garden as a site of reflection and contemplation (or, according to the exhibition press release, a place where one can “organize, contain, and collect the natural world.”)
Qureshi’s painting is not the only piece set outside in the museum’s garden—there is also a large Atif Khan sculpture, in the shape of a rubber stamp, which is covered in brass insets of flowers and insects. [FIGURE 2 and FIGURE 3]
The outdoor pieces engage with the garden premise literally, while the indoor pieces are meant to relate to the metaphorical implications of a garden as a place of cultivation and reflection as well as representation of paradise. Once inside, I make a run for the café because I want coffee to warm up. I sit in the lobby, which is mostly undecorated, and admire the inner atrium of the museum, which makes the most of the waning winter light. The museum, designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, has received largely positive notice from architecture critics, who have praised it as an enigmatic and sophisticated addition to the formless Toronto suburbs.
Though the lobby is mostly unadorned, one large textile hangs over the café. As I’m slowly drinking my coffee, a tour group passes by me. The tour guide stops them.
The guide points up at the hanging textile, which is brilliantly orange and red on one side and dark blue interwoven with gold on the other, and I overhear bits of the guide’s speech—“This is made of silk and wool and one-point-two million pins…commissioned for the museum…done by hand by a lady called Aisha Khalid, who has more work upstairs…” The guide continued by explaining the name of the piece—“Your Way Begins on the Other Side” as reference to the Sufi poet Rumi, to whom the piece is dedicated. What appears to be a woven piece is actually constructed out of gold needles, so that the backside is both beautiful and also looks like something from Hellraiser. [FIGURE 4]
So—thus far I’ve described the outdoor pieces and the hanging textile in the lobby. I’ve started backwards: telling you about the things in the lobby and the gardens—which is the way that the average viewer might experience the show.
But the principal part of the exhibition is contained indoors, in a traditional space—a white-walled mezzanine gallery above the museum’s permanent collection. On first entering the gallery, I sat and watched a 21-minute video by the artist Nurjahan Akhlaq. The video seems at first almost like a collage of family photos, images of artworks, video of empty interiors, and then videos of cluttered streets and public sites in Lahore. The narration is barely audible. The images are somehow slightly frightening or ominous. [FIGURE 5]
For all the talk about multicultural education that greeted the museum’s arrival, the curation of “The Garden of Ideas” is surprisingly unobtrusive, and provides less hand-holding for the viewer than I’ve noticed seems to be the norm in exhibits at either the Art Gallery of Ontario or the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto’s two main downtown art and natural history institutions.
Guest curator Sharmini Pereira—in addition to gathering an impressive group of works around a challenging, cohesive theme—leaves viewers to explore the artworks at their own pace. Little is explained through the tags on the walls, but the audio guide provides detail about the artists’ work as well as some trends or issues in contemporary art-making in Pakistan—describing, for example, the introduction of a miniature painting department at NCA in the 1980s, and Alesworth’s role in generating new forms of public arts in the 90s.
The audio guide for Akhlaq’s video explains that a home intruder shot the artist’s father
The audio guide for Akhlaq’s video explains that a home intruder shot the artist’s father, the well-known painter Zahoor ul Akhlaq, and her sister in 1999, and that the video is an exploration of questions and crimes, that Akhlaq cannot resolve.
To the right of Akhlaq’s video hangs a set of ten Alesworth watercolors that depict roadside toparies.
The images are small and simple but evocative, neatly framed with scripts underneath indicating addresses. They gave me the sense of being both real and imaginary places, which seems to fit the show’s theme of spectral and natural landscapes. Never having been to Pakistan myself, I wondered if these toparies were a common sight along the roads, so, after the show, I emailed an image of one of the topiary paintings to a friend in Lahore. He said that they weren’t especially common, but he was nonetheless impressed by the painting. “This sums up everything about being here,” he said. “I can’t really explain to you why.”
There are also three carpets by Alesworth, including one interwoven with a map of England and another interwoven with a map of a public park in Lahore. [FIGURE 6]
Next I turn to a small wall on which appears a diptych by Qureshi. Entitled “A Garden Within a Garden,” two images show a painter, barefoot, approaching a painting that resembles the one I saw outside in the museum’s actual garden. In one of the images the painter is kneeling and working with a detailed brush. In the other half of the diptych, he appears to be tossing a coat of paint out of a bowl onto the painting below. The diptych, also dated to 2014, gives the impression that Qureshi charted his own progress on the painting he made in the museum’s garden.
The gallery is spacious, and along the center of its longest wall hang over 50 works by Aisha Khalid. I found these works, which date from 1993 to the present, both mysterious and revealing, although I know those two things sound like a contradiction. Small images of women adjoin small images of interiors? the veiled women resemble covered tables and other household objects. Flowers appear over the women’s faces, so that when you see a single, large image of a flower, its thin stem exposed, and its naked bulb showing several loose roots, the effect is jarring and revealing, even though the meaning of the image is essentially still opaque.
The flower is an obvious symbol of femininity, and if you listen to the audio guide you can hear a snippet of Khalid talking about her arrival in Amsterdam and how the tulips and their bulbs came to figure in her mind as the body of the Western woman.
As a result of their central placement, and the focus and attention they require of the viewer, Khalid’s paintings seem to dominate the show. Beside her paintings hang four large scrolls, ultrachrome ink on paper, by Atif Khan. These scrolls, like a set of wallpaper and collage by Akhlaq, are perhaps the most difficult to decipher, and they are not clearly explained in any of the guides or materials.
It is a line of fourteen flipbooks, each showing a different person enunciating the words “I love you”
Next to Khan’s scrolls stands a long, low white shelf that displays the work of Bani Abidi—a line of fourteen flipbooks, each showing a different person enunciating the words “I love you.”
The different flipbooks—all the same phrase, all stated differently, with an odd moment of calm after the enunciation, come across as multiple soundless shouts.
Abidi also contributes a dual-screen 10-minute video of parks, gardens, and other public spaces in Pakistan. The two screens of the video, which was scripted by author Mohammed Hanif, are not easy to watch simultaneously, even though the images nearly coincide at certain moments. [FIGURE 7(a) and 7(b)]
Particularly fascinating is a loop of images of turtles in what appears to be a zoo, set against a narration of a reptile zookeeper who regrets that his charges are less glamorous than mammals or monkeys or tigers.
Finally, on the last wall, I stop to look at nine modified miniatures by Qureshi, some depicting rootless trees. [FIGURE 8]
It’s rare to see a show like this, with not only so many good artists but an unusual and challenging concept. By structuring the show around the idea of landscapes and gardens, the artists are forced to do more than simply show their preconceived works—they have to interact with a different climate, a different space, a different concept of cultivation. Even for someone like myself, being neither Pakistani nor Canadian, the concept was intriguing. The show is inventive and exciting, promising that there are certain places, certain thoughts, in which barriers can fall.