Prince Hussain Aga Khan Thoughtfully Remembered Through 2 Artistic Exhibitions at Banff’s “Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies”

Islam says that we as Muslims have to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, when we were born. In other words, Allah has entrusted to the human race the duty to improve, work with his creation. And that’s why the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is called a Trust, and that’s how the ethic of the faith comes into the way you work — His Highness the Aga Khan, interview PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

Whyte Museum of Canadian Rockies
At centre of exhibition room “Contemporary Consciousness,” a display of exquisitely created artistic sushi meals out of objects such as plastics, styrofoam cups, metals and other objects that had washed ashore at the Tofino beach in British Columbia, Canada, following the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. The evocative artwork was created by trans-global artist Alexander Ewen from material he collected cleaning the beach as a volunteer. The exhibition continues in Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies until the end of January 2023. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simerg Photos.

By MALIK MERCHANT

Whenever I open the home page of Prince Hussain Aga Khan’s website Focused on Nature I find that it has been updated with new links to articles in the media from around the world with titles such as “Serious Fire Danger for Australia as temperatures smash records”, “Brazil’s Pantanal Fires: Animals dying of hunger and thirst”, “Fires are raging in the Amazon”, among many other pieces on global warming and climate change. I also came across “There’s 14 million metric tons of microplastics on the sea floor.” That converts to 493,835,467,730 ounces (or appx. 494 billion ounces). I have done the conversion because I want to come back to the number a little bit later.

According to the World Economic Forum, there is 75 to 199 million tons of plastic polluting our oceans. The plastic bag, like the one we get at grocery stores, is now the deepest known piece of plastic trash, found at a depth of 10,975 meters (36,000 feet) inside the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean! I am therefore glad that measures are underway within the Ismaili Muslim community in Canada to eliminate the use of plastic bags at the Jamatkhanas. We have been asked to bring our own reusable bags from home.

This then brings me to two extraordinary and relevant exhibitions that I was very fortunate to see at the beautiful and informative Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies located in the heart of Banff, during my recent visit to Banff National Park.

A view of the room at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff hosting the exhibition "Cold Regions Warming".
View of the room at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff hosting the exhibition “Cold Regions Warming”. The exhibition along with “Contemporary Consciousness” continues until the end of January 2023. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simerg Photos.

I was least expecting to come across concerned voices on fires and plastics at the museum, but two ground-breaking exhibitions Cold Regions Warming and Contemporary Consciousness that will both be winding down at the end of January (2023) in Banff, deal with those subjects in very interesting and evocative ways.

In the exhibition Cold Regions Warming, I came across paintings, drawings, and videos that depict locations in Canada where global warming has impacted glaciers, oceans, lakes and rivers. Fire is a recurring theme in the exhibition. I was able to relate quite well to several of the art works that were spread across walls in a very large room, as a number of paintings depicted Peyto Lake and Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefields, both of which I visited during my drive last autumn through the Icefields Parkway, the road between Lake Louise and Jasper. I am pleased to present a selection of photos that I took of the paintings by artist Gennadiy Ivanov, who collaborated with Global Water Futures, and scientists John Pomeroy and Trevor Davies for the exhibition. Gennadiy emphasizes that his art work was not done randomly; rather he assessed his works with the scientists and experts in preparing them. I think his works are masterful and worth visiting if you are in Banff or anywhere else the exhibition is shown.

Cold Regions Warming

Peyto Lake
A view of the glacier snout that flows into Peyto Lake located on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. The Lake is the subject of several paintings in the exhibition Cold Regions Warming that is currently underway until the end of January 2023 in Banff at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies; October 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simerg Photos.
Peyto Lake, Banff National Park, Gennadiy Ivanov
Wild Bill Wouldn’t Recognize It”, 2019, oil on canvas, 90 x 150 cm, Gennadiy Ivanov. The Peyto Glacier in Alberta is named after “Wild” Bill Peyto, who was born in England. On moving to Canada and after assuming many roles, he eventually became one of the first wardens of Banff National Park. The Peyto is one of the of the world’s longest-studied glaciers. It has lost more than 70% of its volume since the beginning of the 20th century with the most rapid loss being in the last decades. It is losing 3.5 million cubic metres of water each year. Observation stations placed on the glacier in recent years have been lost because the ice is melting so rapidly. Where there was ice, there are now banks of silt and mud. The painting with the finer detail portrays ice remnants discoloured by mud and silt. Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.
Gennadiy Ivanov
The Last Bear Series: “Powerful and Vulnerable” 2018, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm, Gennadiy Ivanov. This work reflects the last stand of nature as the melting cryosphere leaves many species stranded. The polar bear is an iconic symbol of a cold regions animal that is threatened by declining sea ice in much of its range. It needs the sea ice to hunt and so looks vulnerable without it. Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.
Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia seen from the Saskatchewan Crossing on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park
The sun appears as a fire in the sky as smoke billows from wildfires originating in British Columbia, as viewed from the Saskatchewan River Crossing on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park; October 19, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simerg Photos.
Gennadiy Ivanov
The Athabasca Glacier, the most well-known glacier on the Columbia Icefield located by the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park. The Columbia Icefield is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies;, October 16, 2022. Photograph: Malik Merchant/Simerg Photos.
“Athabasca Glacier Runoff”, 2019, oil on canvas, 91 x 116 cm, Bennadiy Ivanov. Wildfires create smoky days and deposit soot on the Columbia Icefield, darkening the surface and accelerating melt by 10%. This combined with global heating has caused the Athabasca Glacier to recede 1.5 km and lose over half its volume in the last century. The snow and icemelt forms runoff which forms streamflow. Runoff from the Columbia Icefields feeds rivers that flow to the Pacific Ocean (Columbia River), Arctic Ocean (Mackenzie) and Atlantic Ocean (Nelson) making it a triple point continental divide and the Hydrological Crown of North America. Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.
Gennadiy Ivanov
“Fire Across the Ice”, 2020, Oil on Canvas, 80 x 80 cm, Gennadyi Ivanov. The Arctic Ocean has undergone massive warming in the last 40 years. The ocean is surrounded by Arctic lands of Russia, Canada, Greenland and Scandinavia – much of which are warming three times faster than the rest of the world – and receives the warmer and increasing freshwater flows from the major flow northward flowing rivers as well as freshwater from melting glaciers and ice sheets. In this painting, the view from the Arctic coast of Canada looks across the remaining ice to Russia, a view that foretells the increasing temperatures, permafrost thaws, greenhouse gas emissions, wildfires, floods and streamflow volumes that span the circumpolar North. The bubbles in the ice remind us of methane emissions from permafrost through lake ice that are ubiquitous in northern peatlands. Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.

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Contemporary Consciousness

Then, after quickly moving through a number of permanent galleries in the museum, I walked into a much smaller room where, from a distance, I saw what looked like plates of sushi placed on white boards of varying heights in the centre of the room. The walls surrounding the central sushi display had photographs of dreamy large-scale beach destinations around the world. The contrasting works of art were themed under the common title Contemporary Consciousness.

After reading a brief introduction about both the exhibits, I became totally immersed on the sushi exhibit and largely ignored the scenes of beauty that were mounted around the room.

The story is that trans-global artist, Alexandra Ewen, while participating as a volunteer for a community cleanup project on the Pacific Ocean, was struck by bits of styrofoam, plastic, rubber, and metal that were washed onto the beaches in Tofino, British Columbia, following the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. For Ewen, it was clear the shore wash was microscopic in comparison to the quantity remaining afloat or beneath the ocean surface (remember the staggering number I have mentioned earlier? More on that below).

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Banff, Sushi
A display of exquisitely created artistic sushi meals out of objects such as plastics, styrofoam cups, metals and other objects that had washed ashore at the Tofino beach in British Columbia, Canada, following the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. The evocative artwork was created by trans-global artist Alexander Ewen from material he collected cleaning the beach as a volunteer. Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.
A display of exquisitely created artistic sushi meals out of objects such as plastics, styrofoam cups, metals and other objects that had washed ashore at the Tofino beach in British Columbia, Canada, following the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. The evocative artwork was created by trans-global artist Alexander Ewen from material he collected cleaning the beach as a volunteer. Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.

With resourcefulness and compassion, Alexandra connected the oceanic resources with the culinary creativity of Japanese culture by reconstructing the garbage into exquisitely formed sushi meals, edible in scale and served to order. His plates of sushi were evocative and striking.

Assuming that each sushi plate is around 8-10 ozs in weight, that amounts to 62-100 billion plates of sushi that can be rendered artistiscally from the plastic in oceans based on the figure of 493,835,467,730 ounces that I cited above. Astonishing!

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Malik Merchant, Simerg
A display of exquisitely created artistic sushi meals out of objects such as plastics, styrofoam cups, metals and other objects that had washed ashore at the Tofino beach in British Columbia, Canada, following the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. The evocative artwork was created by trans-global artist Alexander Ewen from material he collected cleaning the beach as a volunteer. Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.

At seeing these incredibly creative works of art, my thoughts immediately turned to Prince Hussain Aga Khan, a marine diver and an advocate for the environment. He had this to say about plastics and other dangerous objects that he has seen in the oceans:

“When I dive, I see plastic everywhere, absolutely everywhere. I see hooks in the mouths of sharks and other fish all the time. In the Bahamas, a third of the sharks I see have hooks in their mouths even though shark fishing is prohibited there. I’ve even seen a shark with a bullet hole. It was horrible. And a couple of years ago I saw a shark of a very rare species eating aluminum foil. You can see terrifying things down there.”

Prince Hussain offered members of the Jamat a guided tour of the The Living Sea exhibition in Bahrain. The exhibition was inaugurated on Noveber 3, 2022 and continues until March 9, 2023. Photograph: The Ismaili.

Speaking at the travelling Living Sea exhibition — it is now in Bahrain — that was held in Lisbon, the Prince said:

“When I started diving, there was no plastic. Today, there is not a single place where you don’t see debris. From Agadir to Egypt, from the Bahamas to Indonesia. We have to stop the plastic.”

Having spent many years swimming alongside dolphins, turtles, sharks, whales and more, Prince Hussain has noticed with sorrow the increasingly rapid degradation of our oceans. He says:

“Over the five decades of my own life, I have been heartbroken to see how our oceans have become so clogged up by plastic and other forms of pollution and waste… Coastal areas I visited as a child are unrecognisable today — the wildlife is suffocating and the coastal economies are stagnating. It is clear to me that we have to act now before it is too late.”

Prince Hussain Aga Khan and Princess Fareen.
Prince Hussain Aga Khan and Princess Fareen at the UK launch event for the photography exhibition The Living Sea – Fragile Beauty held at The Ismaili Centre London in September 2022. The Prince and Princess have completely stopped using plastic in their house. Photograph: Anya Campbell/IPL.

And he has himself set an example on plastics. In a telephone conversation with Out of Series, he said, “… my wife [Princess Fareen] and I have completely stopped using plastic in our house. It took us months and a lot of effort to get to it, but we no longer use plastic. In addition, I turn off the lights if they are not necessary; I turn off the water tap when it is not necessary to have it open. I believe that these individual behaviors have their effect.”

Last summer, the UN Ocean Conference that concluded on July 1, 2022, sought to propel much needed science-based innovative solutions aimed at starting a new chapter of global ocean action. Prince Hussain’s older brother, Prince Rahim, led the Aga Khan Development Network team to the conference and both Prince Hussain and Prince Aly Muhammad were also present.

Clockwise from top left: Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa greets Prince Rahim and Prince Hussain at a dinner he hosted on the occasion of the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon; Prince Rahim in conversation with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon; Prince Hussain explains the story behind one of his photographs in the Fragile Beauty exhibition at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon; and Prince Aly Muhammad in conversation with Carlos Moedas, Mayor of Lisbon, at the United Nations Ocean Conference; all photos dated June 27, 2022. Photos: Humberto Caldas/AKDN. Collage prepared by Barakah.

I may point out that Prince Hussain is a great admirer of Greta Thurnberg, who is shown below in an art work exhibited at the Whyte Museum. The Swedish environmental activist who is known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation, is only 20 years old — her birthday was on January 3. The Prince has remarked, “She is fantastic!”. A message that Greta often gives is, “Listen to the scientists.”

“Listen to the Scientists”, 2020, oil on canvas, 200 x 140 cm. Gennadyi Ivanov. In this painting, Greta Thurnberg, the Swedish environmental activist who is known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation, is seen listening to Professor John Pomeroy as he explains some of Global Water Futures research on the Athabasca Glacier on the Icefields Parkway in early winter 2019. A message that Greta often gives is, “Listen to the scientists.” Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.

To conclude, it is therefore not a coincidence that Prince Hussain’s older sister, Princess Zahra, speaking on behalf of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, made the following statement at University of Central Asia’s (UCA) graduation ceremony last June:

Princess Zahra Aga Khan speaking remotely to the 2022 graduates of the University of Central Asia. Photograph: Clip from video of the speech, AKDN.

Princess Zahra said:

“The reason that UCA teaches Earth and Environmental Sciences is that climate change will affect Central Asia as it will the rest of the planet. This sad reality will have several outcomes for the students of UCA. First of all, it will affect your daily lives and your families. It will force changes to the way you grow and distribute food; to your approach towards resources; and to the way you will build house in the future. It will also create a raft of new jobs and careers that will be essential in the decades to come. Not only will this area, like others, require technicians and engineers who are capable of adapting daily life to a new and different reality, but it will also force changes to architecture, transport, forestry management, water conservation, livestock management, trade, and effectively all areas of daily life.”

This quote very much reflects what artist Gennadiy Ivanov articulates in the following painting exhibited at the Whyte Museum of Canadian Rockies.

The Ice and Fire”, 2019, oil on canvas, Gennadiy Ivanov. In this painting, artist Ivanov expresses some of his memories of the Transitions trip to the Rockies and the Prairies. One is the seemingly endless trains which transport Canadian resources for export and carry manufactured good from around the world — a symbol of the nature of human activity which is driving global change. Also included is a Global Water Futures’ observation centre which monitors the changing weather due to climate change, and the changing state of glaciers and snow-packs. A scientist reflects on the challenges global society faces in de-coupling our necessary activities from continuing in greenhouse gas emissions. We need the window to adopting, and identifying, new solutions. Photograph: Malik Merchant, taken at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, January 3, 2023.

Exhibitions such as the ones I visited in Banff raise our awareness of  our surroundings and to practice habits that protect our environment.

As Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, said in an interview with the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, “Islam says that we as Muslims have to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, when we were born. In other words, Allah has entrusted to the human race the duty to improve, work with his creation. And that’s why the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is called a Trust, and that’s how the ethic of the faith comes into the way you work.”

Date posted: January 18, 2023.
Last updated: January 19, 2023 (updated story and typos.)

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