Amina Awad ’18

Aga Khan Museum, Canada

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, is the first museum in North America that is dedicated to presenting the artistic, intellectual, and scientific heritage of Muslim civilizations. Through education, research, and artistic collaboration, the Museum aims to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contributions made by Muslim civilizations to world heritage and to promote tolerance and mutual understanding among people.

Standing next to a clam shell engraved with seven different types of Quranic calligraphy at the Aga Khan Permanent Collection Gallery.
Standing next to a clam shell engraved with seven different types of Quranic calligraphy at the Aga Khan Permanent Collection Gallery.

My internship at the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art, was an amazing experience that provided me with hands-on knowledge and experience through giving me training in: Curation, Collection Care, Exhibition Development, Performing Arts and Education. I loved working in the curation department, where I got to see how they put together their newest exhibit of Mughal Jewels. The Exhibition development part of curation really gave hands on museum experience of formulating a real exhibit. While working with collections care I learned about object handling, documenting works of art, and preventative conservation; which enhanced my understanding of the legal requirements for the loan and donation of objects. While working I got to gain a larger understanding of what it would be like to design my own exhibition; as well as evaluate the performance of running exhibitions. Furthermore, I was exposed to more dynamic forms of art, through working with the performing arts showcases that was working on a show about calligraffiti with two artist: Javid Jah and El Seed. This internship really exposed me to the management of high-profile artists over the course of multiple weeks; and introduced me to all the background work that goes into staging performances and concerts. I also interacted with the educational aspect of the museum’s mission through training in the methodology of museum-based teaching for schools; and gained practical experience through assisting in teaching sessions with local schools.

As an Art History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Major with a particular interest in Islamic art, this internship at the Aga Khan Museum was the perfect way for me to further explore the realm of Islamic art in the museum context. I came to Williams with a deep passion for Art History, which was animated by the complex dynamics of art historical interpretation. I had begun to intentionally organize my academic life at college towards better understanding Middle Eastern and North African art at the intersection of politics, religion, and gender. My work with the Aga Khan Museum allowed me to further cultivate my personal research around the topic of the evolution of calligraphy from early Islamic periods until today. It has really helped fulfill my long-term goal in researching, preserving Art History from an intersectional lens, cultivating new forms of interpretation based on my plethora of sources and people I had access to during my time at the Museum. Working hands-on with the objects from the 8th Century was such an important and awe inspiring moment for me. To be able to have objects from the Umayyad Dynasty in your hands is not something I would be able to experience elsewhere!

Here is a short synopsis of the research I produced about Early Islamic calligraphy:

Umayyad Quranic calligraphy’s formal and stylistic elements evolved from the 6th to the 8th Century. Quranic manuscripts witnessed changes depending on what the Umayyads valued in terms of calligraphic styles, legibility and standardization of scripture. The earliest Umayyad mushaf’s dating to around the 6th century, used hijazi script, which heavily borrowed features from Late Antiquity. As calligraphy continued to evolve, the kufic script, that was influenced by the hijazi and Late Antique style, was developed. The manuscripts of the early Umayyads in the 6th century were not as standardized or legible as their successors, however, they were more individualized. The 7th and 8th centuries witnessed a gradual transition from the “original scriptio defectiva to an orthography closer to that of the modern ‘standard text.’”These changes and standardization of script occurred during the reign of the caliph Abd al-Malik, who ruled from 685 to 705. The Umayyad rulers of that time took it upon themselves to rethink Quranic scripture, with the goal of achieving greater uniformity, and enhancing “the prestige of their familial dynasty.” These desires to revolutionize the presentation of the Quran had repercussions on the visual culture of Mushaf creation. This emergence of particular Qurʾanic scripts led to the differentiation between the calligraphy used for Quranic scripts and the calligraphy used for common script. The evolution of Umayyad Quranic scripts meant that by the the middle of the eighth century Qur’ans had moved away from being “austere looking codexes” to more luxurious scripts produced under official patronage. The Umayyad rulers had begun to take a bigger interest in the production of Qurans and their script, creating a visual culture that was heavily influenced by individual rulers. The transition from century to century came with the development of new calligraphic writing such as the Kufic script, that differentiated itself from the hijazi scripts which depended on the earlier traditions such as that of the the Greeks and the Syriacs.

I also researched contemporary graffiti, particularly the inception of calligraffiti in the work of graffiti artist El Seed. El Seed’s style of calligraffiti art uniquely combines elements from global graffiti pop culture and more traditional forms of Arabic calligraphy, the two most important historic and cultural aspects of his identity. El Seed breaks the dichotomies that relegate Arabic calligraphy to premodern times and define graffiti as a Western art form, while simultaneously provoking the larger Egyptian community to challenge their biases and preconceived notions of the Zaraeeb neighborhood as dirty, abject, and segregated. His calligraffiti is emblematic of his transnational, cross cultural, and multifaceted identity, which exists in a postcolonial world grappling with the traditional and the contemporary. El Seed’s art serves as a personal reclamation and decolonization of his heritage and language within the context of the North African French diaspora.

I am immensely grateful to the Williams ’68 Center for Career Exploration, particularly Dawn Dellea for being so helpful and patient with me on my journey to completing this internship. I am very thankful to Dr. Jimmy Shern and Ms. Florence Lee for giving me this amazing opportunity to explore the world of Islamic art further. I know it was such an essential part of my journey as an art historian.