Syria and Iran at the Aga Kahn Museum in Toronto


What’s on at The Aga Khan Museum? Or How I Lost My Syrian Blues

On a miserable windy and cold day I rather reluctantly hopped in the car and drove to the Aga Kahn Museum. My journalistic mission was to check out the latest exhibits and give their restaurant a try.


Let’s say given the weather and the name of the exhibit, “Syria A Living History” did not put me in a very jolly mood. So much death, misery and destruction of life and beautiful historical structures I just really couldn’t take any more negativity.

Strangely I was both saddened and buoyed by the exhibit and walked away knowing more about Syria than simply a litany of bad news.

What created modern day Syria may also be leading to its destruction. Syria has been part of different empires and their religions. The Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman and Arabic cultures have made Syria what it is today. “Syria A Living History” includes artifacts, pictures and paintings spanning some 5,000 years.

For the first time in North America there is a virtual experience where through the use of a tablet one can view a Christian merchant’s house in Aleppo in the 17th century. There are also 48 works in the Exhibition as well as two digital reproductions.

The oldest work is a carved eye idol from around 3200 B.C. Many museums have lent their material for the exhibit including the Met in New York, the ROM in Toronto and the Louvre in Paris. There are six contemporary works by Syrian artists.

Museum Director and CEO Henry Kim says, “The sheer variety of these artifacts and their cultural breadth reveal Syria’s long and rich history of multiculturalism and how essential that diversity was to the development of many of the world’s greatest civilizations.”

The exhibition is divided by several themes namely Divinity, Humans and Beasts, Religion and State, Home, Affinities and the Vagaries of Time. In terms of conflict affecting the current Syrian population pay particular attention to the paintings.

If I have any criticism there is no explanation or interpretation of what is currently happening Syria so aside from the interpretation to be drawn from some of the recent paintings the exhibit is apolitical. Could the answer lie in the diverse forces that created Syria are somehow contributing to it being ripped apart? Can Syria once again arise from the ashes?

“Syria A Living History” has been extended until March 26th.

The second exhibit “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet Contemporary Persians ” runs until June 4th and is highly political not so much in how the works are described but rather in the messages of disgust, frustration and sarcasm they exude.

The exhibit consists of 27 works by 23 contemporary artists. Gender, politics, repression, defiance and terrorism amongst other themes are shown. It is true that often a picture conveys a thousand words and in this case art speaks against repression as after all this art is post Iranian revolution and to speak up may land you in jail or worse.

I will mention a few of these works. My favourite is a digital portrait of an Iranian teen with a bandage on her nose after an obvious nose job, bleached blonde hair in a jean jacket blowing a big bubble gum bubble. Quite frankly she’s almost a punkish rebel. The portrait by Tehran based artist Shirin Aliabadi is called “Miss Hybrid” as she is exhibiting both Iranian and Euro-American fashion.

Along a similar vein is an untitled set of portraits by Shadi Gharirzon the first showing two women dressed in chadors from Iran’s Qajar Era (1781-1825) while the companion portrait shows two teens in much more exposed garb including a girl on a bicycle with a helmet.

Then there is a portrait “Friday” that shows a hand stick out from cloth but from a distance can be easily mistaken (most likely intentionally) as a vagina. Parastou Forouhar has really stuck his neck out on this one!.

The last portrait, “We Will Join Hands in Love and Rebuild our Country” is that of a man riding backwards on some fantastic beast with many humans trapped inside the beast. Perched on a red balloon like a circus performer it is being photographed by a Western man. The nation building effort has become a spectacle.

This is an exhibit that virtually shouts out without saying a word. Many of the works convey their message without you having to read the text describing them. The more you know about current Iranian society and its repression the louder the pictures shout.

The Aga Khan Museum is located at 77 Wynford Drive in Toronto and the architectural firm responsible for designing this light, airy and intimate museum is Maki and Associates (Japan). The museum has been established and developed by the Aga Kahn Trust for Culture and its mission is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage.

Next is eating at the Aga Khan.

Robert K. Stephen (CSW)

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Robert K Stephen


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