The Lost Dhow Exhibit Opens at the Aga Khan Museum
Transport yourself to the intersection of Eglinton and Don Mills in Toronto and you will be transported to a time and place beyond borders
The Aga Khan Museum, the first museum in North America devoted to the cultural and artistic heritage of Muslim civilizations, is itself a wonder.
It’s a gorgeous piece of architecture with a serene, light-filled interior — a canvas for the intricate, repetitive geometric symmetry of Islamic art that is both calming and joyful.
Step into the Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan and the dark, cold December of a Canadian winter melts into a cultivation of nature and art.
But the greatest adventure is the exclusive North American premiere of The Lost Dhow: A Discovery From the Maritime Silk Route, opening Saturday and continuing through April 26.
The exhibit showcases cargo recovered from a 1200 year-old Arab dhow — a masted wooden ship — discovered in 1998 in shallow waters off Belitung Island in the Java sea.
It’s on loan from the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore where a permanent home is being built for the 60,000 objects, including 57,500 Chinese ceramic artifacts, recovered from the wreck.
The ship was plying the maritime trade route that made possible the exchange of goods, ideas and culture in the 9th Century between the Tang Dynasty and the third Arab caliphate, the Abbasid Empire. The area covered included East, Central and South Asia, and parts of Africa and the Middle East.
“Globalization is not just a modern concept,” noted Henry Kim, director and CEO of the Museum.
In fact, news headlines in recent weeks reported breaking ground on a new, four-lane highway, the Hazara Motorway, that would link
Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, with China.
And just as goods made in China today are fashioned for the Western marketplace, many of the more than 150 objects displayed at the Aga
Khan were made in China with designs to appeal to consumers in the Middle East and Indonesia.
These include a stunning gold cup which is something of a mystery to scholars.
“Most cups were demitasse size,” explained exhibit curator John Vollmer. “This one is venti latte size. Why is it there, with all the ceramics? We don’t know.”
There are many mysteries, he said. Where was the ship going? Who risked shipping this cargo? How were the finances arranged?
Even the complete disappearance of the Malaysian plane last year “gives us perspective on this lost dhow,” he said.
Some things, he suggested, we simply can’t know.
Along with the precious metal objects, large ceramic packing jars and ceramics are two small pieces that are especially evocative. One is a small bone die the crew likely used for gambling. The other is a wood rolling pin.
The Lost Dhow in an inspired installation. A diagonal tape on the floor not only provides a path into the exhibit, past billowing ocean blue panels, but also outlines the length and width of the dhow. It leads to a precise model of the ship at the back wall.
“It’s all in one large room, one of the most glorious spaces in this city,” said Vollmer, “so you can’t get lost in this exhibition.”
About that, the internationally recognized scholar and curator is dead wrong.