This 12-foot-tall Syrian mural travelled 10,000 kilometres to get to the Aga Khan Museum

By Vibhu Gairola| Photography by Giordano Ciampini
This 12-foot-tall Syrian mural travelled 10,000 kilometres to get to the Aga Khan Museum

This Saturday, the Aga Khan Museum unveils its newest exhibition, Syria: A Living History, a collection of art and artifacts from across the globe that stretches 5,000 years into the country’s past. As one of the first major international art shows to focus exclusively on Syria, it offers Canadian audiences first looks at paintings, sculptures and objects from private collections and major institutions like the Louvre and Met. One of the show’s highlights is Deluge: The Gods Abandon Palmyra, a 12-foot-tall mural by contemporary Syrian artist Elias Zayat that arrived in a crate from Syria last week. We shadowed the team in charge of its installation to find out what went into getting the piece out of the box and onto the wall.

Deluge: The Gods Abandon Palmyra, 2011–2012. Acrylic on canvas.
Deluge: The Gods Abandon Palmyra, 2011–2012. Acrylic on canvas. Mural by Elias Zayat

The mural is a depiction of the Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, which Zayat situated in Palmyra as a way to link Syria’s past, present and future: Palmyra is both an ancient city and a symbol of resistance in Syria’s current circumstances.

The painting is on loan from the Atassi Foundation, an organization in Dubai dedicated to preserving Syria’s creative legacy. When Filiz Çakir Phillip, a co-curator of the Aga Khan’s exhibit, first saw the painting in person, she thought, “No matter what, we have to have it. Raise the ceiling if we must, I don’t care.” The Foundation dismantled it (the painting stretches across five panels), packed it into crates and shipped it nearly 10,000 kilometres to the Aga Khan Museum. A crew began unpacking it last Friday:


After opening the crate, the installation crew removed multiple layers of Styrofoam and tissue that cushioned each of the panels, a process that took 45 minutes:


Senior exhibitions manager Sarah Beam-Borg explains that the Aga Khan was in the dark about some of the mural’s specifications until it arrived at their door. “We knew it was painted in sections but we did not know how many or what the dimensions were,” she says. “Happily, it proved really straightforward to hang. It’s really light—perhaps 12 pounds. It’s just a painted canvas on a wooden stretcher frame”:


The team transferred each panel to a special trolley to prevent it from getting damaging in the moving process:


A tiny snapshot of each panel was tagged onto its packaging for easy identification:


Then came the grand reveal. The team removed the panels’ protective covering to unveil the mural for the first time. But before they could begin assembling or mounting its pieces, the museum had to file a report to record the condition the artwork arrived in, which took an additional two hours:


It took about a half-hour to measure the panels and plot their placement on the wall, then another 45 minutes to actually mount the panels (the hardware they used to mount it is under wraps for security purposes). They started with the largest piece and worked upwards, eventually finessing the lighting to finish the process. “The aim of the Aga Khan Musem has always been to educate through art, so our goal for the exhibition is that our visitors form a different image of Syria and its world-class cultural heritage,” says Çakir Phillip. “We are all responsible for its future.”



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October 14, 2016

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Atassi Foundation is located in Damascus.


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