On a mild February afternoon, moments before sunset, Houston's civic and cultural leadership gathered at the bank of Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston to admire a spectacular installation. Seven 10-foot high stainless steel mesh human figures, each set atop specially selected boulders, were kneeling in a contemplative pose. With the downtown Houston skyline serving as a backdrop, the view was at once breathtaking and inspiring.
The vision – which was stopping traffic and turning heads – was the work of internationally renowned Spanish artist, Jaume Plensa. Titled Tolerance, the installation was dedicated to the City of Houston in a ceremony presided over by Houston Mayor Annise Parker on 15 February 2011.
“The seven figures represent the seven continents,” Mayor Parker remarked as she opened the dedication ceremony, adding with a smile, “and we all know that the whole world is in Houston.”
During the dedication, Mayor Parker and former Houston Mayor Bill White publicly recognised Mawlana Hazar Imam's partnership with the City of Houston in the Tolerance project, and his longstanding engagement with the city. Indeed, the vacant expanse along Allen Parkway across from the Tolerance sculptures is the site of a future high profile Ismaili Centre. There are five Ismaili Centres located in London, Vancouver, Lisbon, Dubai and Dushanbe, with another in Toronto under construction and Centres in Houston, Los Angeles and Paris in the planning stages.
“The Ismaili Centre will be an architectural statement and a place of peace, harmony, and welcome,” said Mayor Parker. “Thank you to the Aga Khan for a very significant gift towards the Tolerance project and for his commitment to Houston.”
Dr Mahmoud Eboo, President of the Ismaili Council for the United States of America, represented Hazar Imam at the dedication ceremony. “We are one humanity manifested in a multiplicity of traditions, cultures, and languages,” Dr Eboo said as he explained Hazar Imam's principles of pluralism and tolerance.
“His Highness has said, ‘The spirit of pluralism, at its base, is a response to the realities of diversity – a way of reconciling difference on the one hand with cooperation and common purpose on the other. It is an attitude, a way of thinking, which regards our differences not as threats but as gifts – as occasions for learning, stretching, growing – and at the same time, as occasions for appreciating anew the beauties of one's own identity.'"
Interview with Jaume Plensa,
creator of Tolerance statues in Houston
Plensa explains his vision, inspiration and technique in creating this work of art.
Situated in an area designated as “Harmony Walk”, the seven Tolerance figures celebrate the city's culture of diversity and unity. From a distance, they all look the same–– but upon close examination, they each have unique characteristics that set them apart.
“I love to fly,” says Barcelona-based artist Plensa, “From up high, you can see the world as one, but when you go closer, each person is different and unique.”
And different they are – each figure is adorned with characters from the alphabets of nine different languages – Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Greek, Hindi and Cyrillic. While we can all agree that words can unite or divide us, Plensa uses the power of letters as the inspiration behind his work.
“Alphabets by themselves are nothing, but when you put them together, you have the capacity to spell out words, text, and culture,” says Plensa, “And I guess people are very similar – alone we are nothing, but together we are everything.”
The Tolerance sculptures are symbols of harmony, but the idea for this installation emerged from a tragedy. In 2006, a teenage victim of a hate crime sparked a nationwide debate on tolerance and acceptance. Before he passed away, the teen testified in Washington for stronger hate crime laws. Moved by the incident, Houston philanthropist Mica Mosbacher – Honorary Consul of Iceland and wife of the late former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher – initiated the Tolerance project three years ago with the support of former Mayor Bill White, together with Mawlana Hazar Imam and other private donors. The City of Houston called upon the Houston Arts Alliance to coordinate the project.
“In contemplating how in some small way I could help to right that wrong, I began to think, we are an open city and those are not part of our values,” said Mosbacher. “We are tolerant, we embrace other cultures, and in fact, those other cultures have been the engines of our healthy and prosperous economy.”
The Ismaili Muslim community in Houston regularly engages in activities and dialogue that demonstrate the values of pluralism and tolerance in human relationships. Fewer than two weeks after the Tolerance dedication ceremony, the Ismaili community hosted a session of the Sacred Songs, Sacred Sites initiative undertaken by Houston Arts Alliance.
Under this initiative, the Onsite/Insight programme gave participants an opportunity to visit four diverse sites of worship in the Houston area in order to experience the culture of each participating faith community. On 27 February, approximately one hundred visitors to the Houston Permanent Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center enjoyed a vibrant morning filled with inspiring stories of the history of the Ismaili community, devotional music, architectural tours, calligraphy demonstrations, and a variety of authentic foods to satisfy any craving.
The new Ismaili Center, Houston along Allen Parkway will offer many such opportunities to engage and inspire Houstonians, through events, dialogues, community initiatives, and educational activities that will seek to promote peace and tolerance through the expansion of knowledge and understanding.
“I believe the Aga Khan's vision is always to bring people together,” said Mayor Parker prior to the Tolerance dedication ceremony. “And as the Aga Khan opens his centres around the world, I know that each Ismaili Centre finds a way to not only bring the community in, but also to open out to the community.”