Kelly Crow has a nice story in the Wall Street Journal on how the Aga Khan came to gather his family’s collection of Islamic art into one museum and why that institution is in Toronto. (Hint, the Canadian city welcomed Ismailis when they fled Africa in the mid-20th Century.) Here Crow tells the story of the extended clan’s interest in art which was once more eclectic. But since the Aga Khan is spiritual leader of the
The Aga Khan, in a telephone interview from his home in Chantilly, north of Paris, joined by his younger brother Prince Amyn, said the genesis of the family’s collection starts with their grandfather and uncle, both of whom were voracious collectors. Growing up in Kenya and, later, Switzerland, the Aga Khan and his brother said they were surrounded by art at home. Not all of it was Islamic: Their father, Prince Aly Khan, also loved the French Impressionists. But the Aga Khan said Harvard art historian Stuart Cary Welch encouraged the family to focus on Islamic art during the 1950s and 1960s. Their uncle eventually filled his Geneva château, called Belle Rive, with Islamic ceramics. (The museum has imported some of Prince Sadruddin’s red display cabinets and plans to recreate one of his Belle Rive rooms.)
All of this explains why the Aga Khan said he was “shocked” when he started college at Harvard in the mid-1950s and found out that his classmates didn’t know much about Islamic art or culture. His peers could rattle off the names of a few European Old Masters and pinpoint ancient styles from China—but none of them recognized a single artist from the Muslim world, he said.
“The inspiration for art isn’t all that different, frankly, across civilizations and time,” he said. “The goal should be to understand the art and those civilizations better, not to criticize or ignore them.”
He began slowly, buying a few artworks after his grandfather died in 1957 and named him the next spiritual leader, or imam, of his sect at the age of 20. His personal collection was eclectic and included Islamic ceramics as well as European sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Auguste Rodin. “Believe it or not, I collected Bruegel,” he said, referring to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Dutch Old Master. “I liked his sense of humor.”
But by the 1990s, he had narrowed his collecting focus to Islamic art, particularly Indian miniature paintings that highlighted the architecture and gardens of the Mughal era.