How an Iranian exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum hopes to bridge east and west

Mohammed Afkhami is loaning works from his private collection to the Aga Khan Museum that explore the diversity of post-revolutionary Iran.

'Now the message is imperative,' with Trump as U.S. president, Iranian art collector says

'Becoming' by artist Morteza Ahmadvand sends a message of unity in a time of deep divisiveness. (Petar Valkov/CBC)

Mohammed Afkhami sees art as a way to bridge the divide between people from all walks of life, and he says it's even more imperative now that Donald Trump is U.S. president.

"We're living in a continually integrated global society and to try to create a 'them and 'us' atmosphere is not only illogical but also not in the spirit of humanity," Afkhami told CBC Toronto in an interview.

The British-Iranian art collector is loaning works from his private collection to Toronto's Aga Khan Museum that explore the diversity of post-revolutionary Iran.

Mohammed Afkhami has lent the Aga Khan museum part of his personal collection of Iranian inspired art (Petar Valkov/CBC)

The exhibit, named Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians, features work from 23 artists who share the desire of cultural integration in a deeply divided global political landscape.

"We're living together on this planet; we're all the same; we like to have different faiths but at the core we all share certain fundamental tenets and this art is one way to see that coming out," said Afkhami.

'At the end of the day, we're all the same'

One of the installations from Tehran artist Morteza Ahmadvand shows just that.  

His piece Becoming shows three flat screens, each with an animation of religious symbols from Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

An animation of the Star of David represents Judaism in Morteza Ahmadvand's 'Becoming.' (Petar Valkov/CBC)

Each symbol morphs into single perfect spheres that resemble the large sphere in the centre of the space.

"What we're trying to say is at the end of the day, we're all the same," said Afkhami when speaking about the exhibit.

Another piece, Shirin Aliabadi's Miss Hybird 3, tells a similar story in a more defiant way.

'Miss Hybrid 3' is part of Tehran artist Shirin Aliabadi's series entitled 'cultural rebellion meets Christina Aguilera.' (Marivel Taruc/CBC)

Her work featuring an Iranian woman with her hair dyed peroxide blond, an apparent nose job and blue contact lenses tells the story of how many women in the country's capital Tehran have a fascination with the western world.

According to a description of the work, the image shows the "carnivalesque over-reaction to the sanctioned codes of public appearance" in Iran.

The image is part of a larger series called "cultural rebellion meets Christina Aguilera."

Bridging cultures from east to west 

Afkhami says it's important for institutions like the Aga Khan Museum to bring work from the Middle East to galleries in North America.

"They've really created a global platform for these artists," said Afkhami.

Afkhami and 'Our Toronto' host Marivel Taruc looking at one of pieces of the exhibit (Petar Valkov/CBC)

"Had it not been for their vision of creating an institution that was going to be helping to promote and bridge ... these cultures from the east with the west, this would never be a possibility."

Being an immigrant himself from Iran to Britain, work like this helps Afkhami stay connected to his homeland.  

"There was always a sense of having a link with Iran, sort of a sense of nostalgia and art became that way to have that connection with Iran but on my own terms," said Afkhami.

'Now the message is imperative'

With Trump's order temporarily restricting entry to people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Afkhami says this exhibit takes on an entirely new meaning.

He wants to bring it to the United States now more than ever.

"Now the message is imperative," Afkhami said.

The Aga Khan Museum describes the artists in the exhibit as 'men and women separated by generations but united in their desire to explore complex issues against a backdrop of political and social unrest.' (Petar Valkov/CBC)

"Now it must get out there so that people would see just how much more in common they have through art and not be political about it, because it's easy to get hysterical whether you're on one side of this discussion or the other", Afkhami said.

"Instead of that, one should focus on narrowing that divide and art is one way to do it"

'Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians' opens February 4th and runs until June 4th.

For more on the exhibit, tune in to Our Toronto Saturday at noon and Sunday and Monday at 11 a.m. on CBC television.


Tania Mehta is an Associate Producer in the CBC Toronto newsroom. She writes, edits and chases stories for radio, TV and online. Tania has lived in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and now calls Toronto home. You'll often find her in search of the city's coolest street art to photograph.

With files from Marivel Taruc