Paintings That Speak to the Pandemic | The Ismaili Canada

In Arts and Culture

Paintings That Speak to the Pandemic

The Aga Khan Museum celebrates resilience and everyday heroism with timeless Islamic art

Gazalla Hirji
Published October 23, 2021
In this painting from a 16th-century Pakistani manuscript, a Mughal prince hurls a spear into the air. The accompanying text describes horsemanship and military prowess as skills one should aspire to attain as part of a model life cultivating mind, spirit and body. Image Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum.

A 1527 manuscript painting displayed at the Aga Khan Museum depicts Muslim poet Nizami Ganjavi’s story of Layla and Majnun, two young soulmates kept apart by their families until old age. At their long-awaited reunion, so weakened are they from years of pining for one another, they are unable to physically embrace. The painting shows them sitting far apart, connecting verbally and emotionally through poetry, conversation, and music—a poignant parallel to how friends and families have adopted physically distanced forms of connection during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. This is one of many rich stories of hope and resilience featured in Remastered, a 2020-2021 exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum.

The digitally enriched exhibition showcases masterpieces that highlight epic tales of love, living well, and bravery. Persian, Turkish and Mughal Indian manuscript paintings from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries invite viewers to contemplate the uniquely human ability of the depicted heroes and heroines to overcome adversity. The exhibition itself was also created by overcoming challenges. Unable to borrow items from other museums due to travel restrictions, the Museum sought inspiration from today’s unparalleled circumstances and developed Remastered solely from its own collection. At its core, Remastered examines how art inspires us to hope and seek fulfillment even in arduous times, two qualities that have proven invaluable to many during the pandemic.

Layla and Majnun are reunited in a palm grove in this painting from a manuscript of the Khamseh of Nizami from 16th-century Iran . The majesty of the grove is a metaphor for their eternal desire. Image Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum.

“I wanted to honour…how everyday heroism is taking place around us in the moment of the COVID-19 crisis,” said curator Dr. Michael Chagnon at the exhibition’s virtual opening ceremony on November 7, 2020. The purpose is to “see our own humanity and virtues in works of art from the past,” he said.

“We can look to the past to really understand…that we are not alone,” continued Chagnon. “Humanity has…throughout history, relied on certain things that we still rely on today: family and friends, love, community, stability, and government. These core values are reflected in these works today.” 

Remastered provides guests with a “full sensory experience” even though it is a touchless exhibition, said Chagnon. Various pieces have been enhanced through digital interventions developed in conjunction with Toronto’s Ryerson University Library. These include holographic, three-dimensional visualizations; behind-the-scenes tours of the restoration process via viewers’ smartphones; and digital restorations of illustrations that have faded or been damaged over the years. Guests can also immerse themselves in auditory recordings that re-create the sound of pre-modern instruments depicted in the paintings, such as the barbat, a lute-like instrument known today as an oud. 

This painting from a 16th-century Iranian manuscript depicts a scene from the story of a pigeon named Bazindeh, who leaves home to see more of the world. He is caught in a terrible storm, an omen of the troubles he will face on a perilous journey. Image Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum.

There are also “cutting-edge” interpretive animations, explained Chagnon, citing a 1593 manuscript painting of the fabled pigeon Bazandeh. Despite a travel warning—a nod to current pandemic-related restrictions—the animal ventured outside and was immediately caught in a typhoon. The digital illustration shows Bazandeh flapping his wings in fear as the storm, complete with an animation of colourful rain and lightning, rages in the background. 

The museum is offering virtual tours to schools, universities, and other institutions, said Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis, the Museum’s Director of Collections and Public Programs. “The digital and the virtual domain is absolutely perfect…for working with school audiences, not only in Canada but all around the world,” she explained.

Like the hopeful story of Layla and Majnun expressing their eternal love through evocative forms of art, Remastered is a meaningful reminder of the resiliency and creativity of the human spirit. “We can look to the arts for guidance, and we can look to the past for guidance in our ways forward,” said Chagnon.

The Remastered exhibition is available online. For more details, visit

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