Art can be a powerful force with the ability to unite or divide.

This was one of the main messages Aga Khan Museum Director Henry Kim brought up while discussing the importance of art in our increasingly polarized world during the final session of the Ismaili Centre Toronto’s speaker series, Who Are We, Where Are We Headed?, in October.

During his conversation with Dr. Amyn Sajoo, Kim explored the changing nature of art throughout history and the influence that art has had on our society, both positive and negative.

“Through the arts, you can generate an appreciation of the arts, which means that you don’t have to be born into a community to now belong in it,” Kim said in an interview with after his discussion with Sajoo.

“That’s where I think art can be powerful in terms of bringing outsiders in.”

Kim explained how people around the world experience the interconnectedness of different cultures through the creation of artwork and art programs that promote unity and pluralism.

He also mentioned that art’s ability to unite depends on the artist’s intent: if a piece of art is meant to be representative, it’s more likely to be exclusive and less likely to unite as it is focused on one particular group or person.

Kim and Sajoo also spoke about how art’s influence on society has changed over time. Technology has allowed for the creation and expansion of new and existing art forms. For example, the rise of Instagram and other social media platforms has turned photography into an art form practiced by millions.

Phones and computers have also provided access to more art from around the world, Kim said, allowing us to generate a greater understanding and appreciation of different cultures.

“Today, you are less likely to be influenced by one single thing. The proliferation of art forms means that people are being influenced in smaller ways, but more often,” said Kim.

Concluding the discussion, Kim spoke about the importance of creating unifying art programs, such as those at the Aga Khan Museum, that aim to educate viewers about Muslim history and Islamic culture.

Audience member and Aga Khan Museum tour guide Mohamed Bhanji reflected on Dr. Kim’s talk, saying art was never a career option for him and his friends growing up in east Africa.

“Now that I’m in Toronto, I’m beginning to appreciate the value of art from an intellectual point of view and from the point of view of knowledge and beauty,” said Bhanji. “This [talk] helped me learn more about how to articulate what we have [in the museum] and tell a story.”

Why Art Matters was the last of six talks that are part of the Ismaili Centre Conversation Series curated by Dr. Amyn Sajoo on the ethics of citizenship, religion, and identity.


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