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  • Henry S. Kim, the Director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum, remarked about the international aspirations of the Toronto-based Museum. “We’re a Museum that is present here in London, also Dubai, also in the States, also across Canada”.
    AKDN / Shyrose Bhanji
Aga Khan Museum opens "Seeing Through Babel" exhibition in London

Good evening, and welcome all.

When the opportunity arose to bring an exhibition to London, to the Zamana Space in the Ismaili Centre, I was really intrigued by this possibility. London is after all such an important forum for contemporary art from across the Muslim world. With the work the Aga Khan Museum has undertaken in just under five years with contemporary artists, I felt it was imperative to bring something we have created, a process we have created to London to show the London audience what the Museum stands for. And that’s what exactly we have done today.

Before I introduce the artist, I would like to acknowledge a number of people who have helped to make this happen. And first of all, I’d like to acknowledge the President and Vice-President of the Ismaili Council of the United Kingdom, as well as their leads for outreach and community relations, and their project managers, all of whom are volunteers, for their leadership and support in realising this vision. Without your leadership, none of this would have happened. I would also like to thank the management and staff of the Ismaili Centre who have helped in so many ways to make this exhibition happen, from building scaffolding, to patiently listening to crazy ideas about hanging objects from their ceilings, straight through to dismantling things saying ‘we’ll put them back at some later point.’ I would like most of all to thank the many volunteers who will be part of the manning of this exhibition and the shop over the next six weeks, also for the dozen or so students from the University of the Arts London who assisted Kevork in developing his work. And of course I would like to thank our many supporters here in London. Our patrons, our director’s circle members, our donors, who have steadfastly supported the museum since opening. And I am very pleased to say that this Museum, from about three years ago, has a chapter of Patrons, based here in London, led by Faisal Lalji and our steering committee, and with this presence in London, we are able to offer programming about the arts of the Muslim world, about what happens in Toronto for people who live here in London. And for us, this is a very important point because the Aga Khan Museum, even though it is based in Toronto is a museum that has true international aspirations. We are a Museum that is present here in London, also Dubai, also in the States, also across Canada. And this is a very important point about what the Museum us all about, because we cannot simply talk about Islamic art just in one city, we need to be able to spread this message across all the cities we can. And so thank you very much for all of your help and support, because with it, we could not have created this exhibition in London right now.

Now I would like to introduce the man of the moment, the artist Kevork Mourad. Kevork is a remarkable artist who is Syrian, Armenian and American. And I think it is very interesting that Kevork views himself in a sense as a double refugee, as his family had to flee to Syria from Armenia back in the easier part of the 20th century. There has of course been Syrian refugees in the last seven or so years, and creating identity for oneself as you move from one country to another is very very important. How much of your past do you take with you? How much of your present do you now incorporate into your lives? And I think if an artist is the sum of all of his moments and all of his pasts, Kevork is a very good example of an artist who does look forwards as well as backwards. And so when you look at his work, not only look at the creativity that a contemporary artist brings to bear, but also look at this historic ideas that are in his mind that he transfers onto the medium in which he works.

Kevork has been involved with the Aga Khan Museum, with projects over the last three years, and this installation is his fourth project with us. In 2016 he performed with the clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, also a Syrian artist, to create a sound and visual performance in which the music of Kinan was combined with Kevork’s graphic art in a way that is very similar to what you are going to see in just a few moments. Based on that, we invited them back in 2017 to create the centrepiece of our exhibition called the Syrian Symphony, which broke new ground on how contemporary artists from Syria are responding to and expressing the thoughts of a nation and people gripped by years of civil war. This last February, Kevork returned as artist-in-residence in the Museum, creating a three dimensional work which was installed in February, and which I am pleased to say we re-installed just about 3 weeks ago.

His work is, I think, truly extraordinary. And I think you will agree with us when you see not only the process by which he creates, but also the work itself.

What I have found most pleasing about the interaction between Kevork and the Museum, is that we have seen real progression in his artistic practice over the course of the three years we have known each other. As a Museum, we are not simply keen to display the works of contemporary artists, instead we want to work collaboratively with them on the intellectual ideas of a work or display. Our chosen angles as a Museum are to explore the connections between cultures or the links between artistic practices of the past and the present. We have artists study objects in our collections, or work with local area students, or watch the performances that take place in our auditorium.  The more that we can integrate the various art forms together, whether music, visual arts, dance, poetry, the written word, the better. Because as we all know, the arts are not monolithic, they are truly diverse, and the more that we can find the links between the arts, the more creative I think the process will be.

With Kevork, we found an artist who has been intellectually curious, to explore themes of migration and displacement, or the links between the past and the present. His expression of these ideas were accompanied by changes in his creative process, as his graphic art began to move away from the two-dimensional into what you see today which is better described as a graphic sculpture, rather than simply a print or a drawing.

And so it is with great pleasure that I introduce Kevork Mourad, who will provide us with some idea of the way he creates the art that he does, because music is essential to his process. And as you’ve heard from those who spoke before, what is important about his work is that with Seeing Through Babel he explains the beginnings of diversity, and that is through the multiple languages that were created through the Tower of Babel, and this I think is an important theme in today’s day and age. So without further ado, Kevork Mourad.