Making Paradise: Exploring the Concept of Eden through Art and Islamic Garden Design is the latest exhibition at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery in London, UK. In this interview, its curator Esen Salma Kaya gives an insight into the multi-sensory show, the diverse artists involved, and planning it “from the heart.”


Esen Salma Kaya, curator of the Aga Khan Centre Gallery
Esen Salma Kaya, curator of the Aga Khan Centre Gallery

How did the Making Paradise exhibition come to be? Could you tell us a bit about its concept and themes?

I wanted to curate an exhibition about Paradise. The very word itself fills us with joy. The commonality across all faiths and spiritual beliefs is the aspiration to be in an ideal state of being — a place that gives us ultimate peace and happiness. I imagined curating a beautiful exhibition that evoked some of these thoughts. My reasons were varied.  

Primarily, I wanted to create a multi-sensory exhibition that brought together a confluence of ideas and approaches around the concept of al-Jannah: the Garden of Eden and the concept of Paradise in Islam. I wanted to connect the Aga Khan Centre (AKC) Gallery to its Islamic Gardens and, through this, explore the architectural components of Islamic garden design, universal messages around pluralism and the key references to Paradise mentioned in the Qur’an. 

Messages around biodiversity and audience development also played a key role in my thinking. Exhibitions come to life when people engage with them, so I wanted to ensure this exhibition appealed to a really broad audience — so, there were many ideas that I wanted to achieve. 

The exhibition contains a range of responses to the concept of Paradise, from historical to contemporary, eastern to western. Why did you want to have this broad scope of interpretation?

I specifically invited artists of eastern and western origins to respond to the theme in order to bring a variety of interpretations and attract diverse audiences to the exhibition. I chose artists primarily for the work they make and not because their practice fit into any specific genre. I liked the idea of juxtaposing eastern and western art, which is something you wouldn’t generally expect in an exhibition with the word “Islamic” in its title. This was intentional and I like to do things differently at times. 

The partnerships with Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library, Aga Khan Museum, Royal School of Needlework and Prince's School of Traditional Arts were also an opportunity to create mutually beneficial sustainable collaborations. 

Many of the pieces in the exhibition are characterised by their use of geometry and symmetry. What’s the significance of this, in relation to the exhibition’s themes of Paradise and Islamic garden design?

The geometric designs in Islamic art are often built on combinations of repeated squares and circles, which may be overlapped and interlaced. This use of geometry is thought to reflect the language of the universe and helps the believer to reflect on life and the greatness of creation. 

The exhibition’s composition and layout is inspired by the classic chahar bagh (meaning four gardens) Islamic garden design, which is based on geometric components and repetition through symmetrical composition. The silent fountain in the centre of the gallery, for example, refers to the water source, a key component in all Islamic gardens. The gallery walls represent each one of the quadrants in the chahar bagh design.  

The element of symmetry goes further, whereby I intentionally positioned artwork to create playful, almost symmetrical visual patterns. Laying out an exhibition is, to an extent, an intuitive process for a curator. But it is also a learned skill developed over time. A curator learns to understand how to navigate a space, and how to create harmony with different artworks, so everything feels connected. It’s a leap of faith and so not an easy task. I like to have quiet time in the gallery by myself to work through this process. Sometimes it comes quickly and other times, like this show, it took me a few attempts to find the right balance. 

The exhibition is a multi-sensory exploration of Paradise. Why do you want visitors to experience it that way?

The word Paradise conjures imaginings of a space that offers us delights to indulge in and elevate all of our senses. This was at the forefront of my mind when I conceived the exhibition. I wanted the senses to be stimulated as soon as one entered the gallery. I wanted visitors to find the unexpected: to hear birdsong in a gallery where there are no windows, to be greeted by the scent of perfume and to be captivated by the beautiful artworks on display. I wanted visitors to be surprised, to be uplifted and smile as soon as they entered the gallery. The visual stimulus from the artworks marries beautifully with the soundscape and bespoke perfume, creating an altogether sensory and sensual ecosphere that we associate with Paradise. 

Could you tell us a bit about the central feature of the exhibition, the “silent” fountain?

From the outset, I wanted to have a fountain in the exhibition and for this to be a central feature — the water source is key to all Islamic garden designs and is one of the fundamental features mentioned in the Qur’an in relation to Paradise. I invited renowned Islamic garden designer Emma Clark to design a fountain inspired by those in our building. It is “silent” because I didn’t want a literal interpretation, but rather a poetic translation and to create a sculptural form suggesting the gift of water. 

I also had the work of designer Tord Boontje at the back of my mind when I was thinking about the fountain. He is known for his expression of romanticism in contemporary design and famous for his paper, sheet metal, and fabric garlands as well as his site-specific botanical inspired installations. I then found installation artist Clare Celeste Börsch. I was attracted to her practice because of her mesmerising depictions of the natural world, her ethical practice and keen interest in biodiversity — she is passionate about climate and this was another quiet thread I wanted to sew into the exhibition. I invited her to create the ‘poetic’ translation of water. She was captivated by the brief, creating exquisite paper-cut organic forms which brought the silent fountain to life. 

The exhibition feels very timely, given the increased significance of gardens and green places to many of us over the past year of the Covid-19 pandemic. How does the exhibition explore the social and communal aspects of gardens?

Yes, the exhibition became very important to me—I planned it from the heart, asking Allah to allow me to curate a beautiful exhibition simply because its subject matter was al-Janna. The pandemic has made us all too aware of how important the natural world is to us, we have all yearned to be in green spaces and gardens, so this celebration of the ultimate garden of Eden offers something for everyone. 

This idea is emphasised through the inclusion of a short film — Islamic Gardens: Catalysts for Change — that depicts the many incredible restoration and garden development projects realised by AKDN across the world and how these spaces bring communities together. The exhibition also connects with the gardens at AKC as well as Jellico Gardens, a new paradise garden inspired by Persian and British influences opening later in 2021. Designed by Tom Stuart-Smith in partnership with Argent and AKDN, this will be a free space available for everyone to visit and enjoy. 

What do you hope visitors take away from the exhibition? 

Making Paradise has something for everyone. You can simply be inspired by the beautiful artwork on show, take away greater knowledge of Islamic garden design, or gain a better understanding of the key elements of Paradise mentioned in the Qur’an and its significance to the global Muslim community — but also how these messages are universal. I would like visitors to learn more about the work of the AKDN that supports and enriches the lives of communities around the world, and the message from His Highness the Aga Khan around the importance of gardens as spaces that build bridges and invite different communities and cultures to come together as one. I would also like people to be inspired by the artworks and to visit our partner organisations to experience what they have to offer too.

And in relation to our emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing, I would like visitors to think about what Paradise means to them. It can mean something different to each one of us and, although the concept of Paradise is based on a utopian and ethereal space, we have an opportunity to think about how it can also exist here on Earth. We have, in all the corners of this planet, all the fruitful elements and heavenly abundance granted by nature. We can have Paradise here on Earth too, our planet is heavenly. We just need to take stock of what we have, nurture our world and all life forms. So, we can enjoy the delights given to us. 

The following quote is a beautiful statement that perfectly summarises my vision and aims of the exhibition:

“The garden has for many centuries served as a central element in Muslim culture. The Holy Qur’an portrays the garden as a central symbol of a spiritual ideal — a place where human creativity and Divine majesty are fused, where the ingenuity of humanity and the beauty of nature are productively connected. Gardens are a place where the ephemeral meets the eternal, and where the eternal meets the hand of man.”

-Mawlana Hazar Imam

Making Paradise runs until 30 September 2021 at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery, 10 Handyside Street, London, UK. Book your free visit here.

Join Islamic Garden Designer Emma Clark and Head of RHS Libraries Fiona Davison for a free talk on the exhibition on 30 June at 5pm GMT.