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Kachakchi by Hayv Kahraman.Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Galler

Tucked away in one corner of a current exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum, there is a panel of blue and white tiles that was made in Syria in the 16th century. It shows an archway, a lantern and the dark silhouette of a pair of sandals. These are the prophet’s sandals, a way of invoking the holy man without showing him: The panel confirms the Western understanding of art’s role in Islam, a religion where it’s deemed sacrilegious to represent any human figure.

And yet this show, titled Image? The Power of the Visual and curated by Marika Sardar, contradicts that interpretation at every turn. It is stuffed with human images, of sheiks and shahs, heroes and lovers.

“It is really a misconception that was created by Western academics,” said Ulrike Al-Khamis, who was appointed the Toronto museum’s director last July and curated this show. “They did not account for the complex and diverse nature of Muslim cultures. This exhibition looks at the fact that Muslim cultures, like any other cultures, have their images in relation to their needs.”

One of those needs is the expression of political power. In a section on that theme, delicate miniatures celebrate the refinement of the Mughal emperors, who ruled parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh from the 16th to 19th century, while recent photo portraits affirm the dynastic continuity of the royal houses of the Gulf states.

Subtle or not so subtle, images of leaders are a form of propaganda: It’s a point made bitingly by the current Iranian artist Siamak Filizadeh in a 2014 photo montage titled Coronation that shows the philandering 19th-century Persian monarch Naser al-Din Shah sitting on a throne supported by women’s legs and surrounded by other images of his corruption. The work is on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art but Filizadeh lives in Iran: One wonders if its current leaders know a metaphor when they see one.

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Tile panel with the Prophet's sandals, a way of invoking the holy man without showing him.

That inclusion of a pertinent contemporary work is typical of the way the Aga Khan Museum, custodian of a rare collection of historic Islamic art, works tirelessly to demonstrate links with the 21st century. This show establishes the current context for considering the social role of imagery right off the bat with a new work by Quebec artist Roberto Pellegrinuzzi, a forest of little digital photos hanging on nylon threads. People, places, pets: Pellegrinuzzi has included 275,000 photos here, the number the average smartphone camera can record before it hits the trash heap.

Yes, we are inundated with imagery. So perhaps we don’t fear its power as much as the anonymous Ottoman craftsman who fashioned a large wooden roundel with the word Allah as devotional aid for worshippers in 19th-century Turkey, the calligraphy taking the place of any image of God. Or understand its workings as fully as the Javanese puppeteer, shown on a video explaining his traditional art form where paper figures of the nine saints who brought Islam to Indonesia create shadow plays on a screen. Both the richly figurative and the symbolically non-figurative exist side by side here.

Sometimes the contemporary work merely updates the historic: There’s an anodyne piece by Saudi calligraphy artist Nasser Al Salem where the name Allah is now fashioned in neon and placed inside a mirrored box to evoke the infinite nature of God.

More often, contemporary artists interact with Islamic tradition in arresting ways. Both the Iraqi-American artist Hayv Kahraman and the Iranian-American artist Soody Sharifi cleverly insert contemporary female figures into images inspired by traditional illuminated manuscripts. Riffing off male groups shown in Arabic literature, Kahraman creates a bold painting showing women smuggled out of Iraq to Sweden, as she was during the Gulf War. Sharifi sneaks photographs of contemporary Iranians – young men in jeans; young women in head scarves – into a 15th-century miniature illustrating a poem of courtly love.

The literary references may be unknown to many viewers but the layered approach questioning the relationship of tradition and modernity is compelling. From the manuscript to the smartphone, the visual holds sway.

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Coronation from the Underground series by Siamak Filizadeh.Aga-Khan Museum

Image? The Power of the Visual continues at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto through Sept. 5

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story failed to identify Marika Sardar as the curator of the Image? exhibition. The story has been updated.

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