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Exhibition Review: The Lost Dhow & Permanent Collection at the Aga Khan Museum

Today, I visited the Aga Khan Museum (77 Wynford Drive, Toronto, Ontario), a large and impressive monolith of a building, clearly visible from the Don Valley Parkway. Inside and outside, the museum is all clean white planes, occasionally punctuated by geometric-patterned screens. The entire atmosphere is quite tranquil as the building is partially surrounded by a wide park with reflecting pools, and holds a sunny interior courtyard. The Aga Khan Museum focuses on Islamic cultures around the world.

Currently, an exhibition of the Chinese treasures recovered in the late 1990s from a sunken dhow, or Indian vessel, runs until April of this year. The Lost Dhow, as the show is called, reveals a trove of trade goods that travelled the Maritime Silk Road of the 9th century, circulating out of the Tang dynasty of China. This massive collection is on loan from Singapore and on display for the first time in North America.

Of the hundreds of thousands of items recovered from the shipwreck, most of them are ceramic bowls from Changsha decorated with simple motifs such as birds or clouds. Although they certainly point to the high level of mass production in China, even in the 800s BCE, upon closer inspection, these bowls prove to be full of artistic individuality as well. Compare, in this photo, the two bowls in the lower corners. One is a perfectly fine painting of a bird (right) while the other is a lesser attempt to copy the same design (left), to hilarious results. I think it’s pretty clear which is my favourite out of all the bowls in the exhibition.

Aside from the mountains of glazed bowls, there are a few luxury items. Some are rare white or mottled green pottery and some are items of gold and silver. I like the emerald-splashed ceramics the best, just for the pops of colour.

After going through The Lost Dhow, I also peeked into the permanent collection of the Aga Khan Museum. A large selection of objects, spanning several countries and eras, are on display as well. There are many illuminated manuscripts or single pages of manuscripts, usually of the Qur’an but also other books. All of them are incredibly beautiful, decorated with gold leaf and tiny geometric designs. Even spaces between words and characters are filled with delicate golden curlicues. Some books are illustrated with busy scenes rendered in fine brushwork. In short, there are plenty of objects at which the artist and amateur calligrapher/bookbinder in me could stare for hours, awestruck. I can’t help but to think of the European medieval manuscripts and books of hours when gazing at these objects in the Aga Khan collection. It’s amazing the level of care, detail, and beauty instilled in these handmade devotional works.

Apart from the books, there are also other decorated functional objects for religious or everyday purposes. Bowls, ewers, ceramic tiles, rugs, boxes are also on display. There’s even a whole marble fountain! A pair of simple bowls stood out to me for their similarity to ancient Greek ceramics. Decorated with an Arabic proverb around the edges, one (white with black text) translates to, “Generosity is part of the morals of those in Paradise.” The other (black with white text) roughly means, “Don’t hang out with fools.” I like the latter more.

Before I left, one final object caught my eye. An incredibly delicate leaf skeleton printed with a verse from the Qur’an in gold script. I would recommend that everyone to check out this museum and certainly The Lost Dhow exhibition if they’d like to learn more about art and culture from the Middle East and Asia.

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