Seeking Sanctuary at the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art
By Rachel Ozerkevich
September 1, 2020
At the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art in Toronto, timely, charged, and poignant exhibitions are nothing new. The museum’s current Sanctuary show is particularly moving now, as feelings of safety and comfort both psychological and physical are a necessary antidote to ongoing global uncertainty. The exhibition features a wide variety of materials and display strategies, but at its core, it presents woven carpet designs by thirty-six international artists in an installation made of recycled materials. Sanctuary asks viewers to consider themes as diverse yet interconnected as sustainability, migration, belonging, and cultural identity, all of which seem precarious in 2020. Yet the arresting, innovative installation coupled with the poignant pieces on display anchor the exhibition in hope.
Each of the thirty-six contemporary artists who contributed their works address the foundational question of what a sanctuary is in 2020. In much of the world, carpets are personal furnishings used for prayer, comfort, warmth, and as anchoring devices. The theme of connectedness despite religious, ethnic, political, and physical separation runs through the entire exhibition—from the rugs on display, to the installation supports, to the ambiance and international contributors. Artists submitted designs for their rugs to be translated to wool by weavers in Lahore, Pakistan. The resulting pieces are as varied as one might expect works in any other medium from artists as diverse as Mona Hatoum, Ai Weiwei, and Hank Willis Thomas to be. But the fact that all pieces are presented in a consistent carpet medium suggests connection.
The carpets are arranged in warmly-lit alcoves around the exhibition space. Some rest on the floor and others hang vertically, but all require viewers to approach them closely and from multiple angles. Viewers are invited to engage with the exhibition in a multisensory way, almost as if moving through a quiet private home filled with personal, well-used artifacts arranged in enclosed rooms. The exhibition’s layout manages to be at once rich in content and materials, yet intimate and introspective.
In one section of the exhibition, Nicholas Galanin’s White Noise American Prayer Rug is arranged vertically, confronting the viewer like a television screen full of static. On the floor immediately below Galanin’s piece is Marcos Ramirez’ ERRE, Untitled. This latter rug is deep blue with TRUTH printed in the center in yellow. Galanin’s and Ramirez’s pieces together seem a startling command to question dominant media narratives, but both invite more nuanced contemplation about identities, social labels, and political discourse.
The curators have also arranged certain pieces in more isolated arrangements. Ai Weiwei’s Untitled hangs vertically in a corner—a display that forces viewers to face and challenge any preconceived notions of what a rug should be and how to view it. Weiwei’s composition depicts a flying grenade amongst surveillance machinery and handcuffs, all of which are bisected by heavy, hanging chains. This imagery is rendered in thick black lines over a uniform cream background. The clean lines and precise detailing in Weiwei’s carpet seem to reinforce the idea of how routine surveillance and suppression are in much of the world.
The installation supports throughout the entire exhibition space are especially unique. The frames holding up the hanging rugs and dividing the space into enclosed alcoves are made of steel supports filled in with netting made of over 6,000 t-shirts donated to the exhibition designers. The torn t-shirts suggest that they have been worn and manipulated by hand. But like the carpets that they anchor, the t-shirt supports are deeply textured. The curators have credited the t-shirt donors on the exhibit’s walls—a feature that adds to another theme running through the exhibition: that of creating a mosaic-like whole out of otherwise disparate elements.