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  • Prince Amyn Aga Khan speaking at the opening of “Seeing Through Babel” exhibition in London.
    AKDN / Shyrose Bhanji
Aga Khan Museum opens “Seeing Through Babel” exhibition in London

Thank you very much, and it is with great pleasure that I open this exhibition.  

Your Worships,
My Lords,
Ladies, and Gentlemen,

I had to ask how to read this particular speech because I was not sure one could pluralise Worships and Councillors.

When the Ismaili Centre opened in 1985, it was designed with a purpose built space, called the Zamana Gallery. With its independent entrance on Cromwell Road, directly across from the V&A, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, it was designed to be part of this rich cultural corridor. Complementing the haute couture, Renaissance sculpture, dinosaurs, bees, cogs and computers of its neighbours, the intention was that Zamana would foster dialogue among communities about the art, society and culture of the Muslim world and that it would reflect the dialogue between cultures that has always existed as a result of man’s urge and need to travel, to discover, to conquer, or to sell his goods and buy others.

I had urged Sir Roy Strong, all those years ago, to use this gallery to show the V&A’s remarkable collection of works of art from the Muslim world, at the time largely kept in the Museum’s reserves and he had agreed in principle with the idea. However, nothing came of it. Later, I made the same suggestion to the then Minister of Culture. But again, nothing actually took place. So it was with some sadness that I saw this gallery go into hibernation those some twenty-five years ago. Since then, appreciation of the arts from the Muslim world has, I think, grown and flourished. Galleries have been created or re-developed at great museums such as the V&A and the British Museum.  Festivals have been created to showcase the arts from the Arab world, South Asia and the Muslim world in general. Many foundations have been created to support artistic practice. And artists have flocked to London, for its art-schools and opportunities to pursue their practices in the rich milieu of this city. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that during this time London has in many ways become a centre for both the historic and the contemporary arts of the Islamic Muslim world.

Which brings us to today, and the reopening of the Zamana Space. I am pleased that the Ismaili Centre chose to revive the space in partnership with the Aga Khan Museum, a museum based in Toronto, for which I serve as Chairman of its Board, for better or probably for worse. Although it is less than five years old, the Museum has begun to make a mark for itself as one of the leaders in the arts of the Muslim world. Its mission is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contributions that Muslim civilisations have made to world heritage, by showing their arts in their many and varied forms from across the world. Its exhibitions have begun to gain notoriety, mostly, I am happy to say, in the good sense of that word, including the current and successful exhibition on the Moon. And the Museum’s work with the artists, whether musicians, dancers or visual artists, has, I believe, begun to break new ground.  

I am very keen that the arts should speak to each other. The arts reflect our senses, and as our senses talk to each other, so the arts should talk to each other. It is in my view a mistake to show one art totally independent of all other arts. So as often as possible, I like to see a dialogue between the arts.

This gallery in the Ismaili Centre was one of the first locations where the Aga Khan Museum’s collection was displayed following the announcement of the building of the Museum in Toronto. In 2007, a dozen years ago, a selection of treasures of the Museum's collection was displayed in the Social Hall here, attracting 50,000 visitors during its run.

As you will have no doubt guessed, now that the Zamana is operating again, and we even have exhibition spaces available in the new Aga Khan Centre up in Kings Cross, it is my hope that the Aga Museum will be able to mount interesting temporary exhibitions with the V&A, and the other major British institutions having important places of works of art from, or related to, the Muslim world. Thus reinforcing, which I think is important, the message that culture unites rather than divides.

I will leave the introduction of the work you will see and the artist you will meet to the Director and CEO of the Museum, Henry Kim, and the artist Kevork Mourad. However, I will say that they have shown great imagination in how they have used the Space to create this exhibition of sound and visual art. I am also extremely pleased that the Space is not only the host to the exhibition, but also to a small retail shop from the Museum. This must be one of the few times when cultural dialogue and commercial dialogue actually get together. The shop is home to a unique collection of jewellery, fashion, ceramics, textiles and books that have been developed and sourced from traditional and contemporary artists from throughout the Muslim world, after long hours of searching and researching, that has been both fun, and in many ways inspiring.

The Shop too has its roots in cultural dialogue. So I hope that you will all enjoy the show, and I hope that inshallah we will meet again for the next show - nice and soon please Mr Kim.

Thank you.