Floating calligraphy, precise and lilting, sits on a backdrop of color. It has been created with careful exactitude to express concepts as ephemeral as love. Divine love.
A scroll of words from the Book of Lamentations is created to carpet a room. Its large scale, with each letter cut by hand as if they were reverse appliqué embroidery, seems to convey the depth of longing by the very scale of its presence.
A Nordic rune, solid and mysterious, is woven in rich colors of stone and dirt in a hanging tapestry. It is an iconic image suggesting it will endure the weathering of time and calamity.
These descriptions are personal reflections referring to just three of over 130 works of art on view at the opening reception of an interfaith exhibit called, Finding Common Ground through Sacred Words. The show is on display until June 7th in Oakland at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC). Supported by a Living Cultures grant, the Center is providing a series of public exhibitions and workshops to showcase traditional Islamic calligraphic art in dialogue with calligraphic art from other religions and cultures. ICCNC is one of three congregations that, along with Kehilla Community Synagogue and Montclair Presbyterian Church, make up the ‘Faith Trio,’ an interfaith initiative that has coordinated this exhibition and has collaborated on a variety of community-building activities over the past eleven years, since the events of 9/11.
Art work created primarily by Bay Area artists in a wide variety of mediums like painted canvas, ceramic, paper cuts, and textile arts incorporate words or texts that reflect interfaith understanding, spirituality, peace, and cultural dialogue. Pastor Katie Morrison of Montclair Presbyterian Church referred to the trio as members of the Abrahamic faith. “Words have power to bring us together or to divide us,” she remarked, summing up succinctly the inherent wisdom behind the exhibit concept.
For Judaism and Islam, the prohibition against depicting the divine in human form is a core principle; sacred and secular art has been elevated through manuscript illumination and through calligraphy. The iconic calligraphy of the Muslim world provides a shared artistic heritage for its diverse populations. This traditional art form is clearly an evolving and supple form, as seen throughout this exhibition. Christianity, which also understands scripture to be divine, allows for the depiction of human forms which has contributed to the wide canon of religious art particularly from the Western world. Even with this difference, the focus of the exhibition was on mutuality rather than divisiveness. When asked if this across-the-aisles approach has caused any difficulties between the organizers, one artist was quick to reply, “Absolutely not! I create to communicate and would rather be part of a receptive audience as opposed to people who will not look at my art at all.”
The spirit of tolerance was clearly evident in trying to characterize the wide swath of the exhibiting artists: they were male, female, of multiple generations and religious practices. An openly gay Muslim man spoke of the support he has found through his mosque; a Native Canadian artist incorporated symbols of her indigenous practice into her piece; secular artists spoke of their relationship to the power of sacred words; a Persian woman modestly pointed out how she had been characterized as a Muslim radical when she was not simply because of her head covering. Religious symbols were evident as artists proudly wore their Muslim head scarves, or Jewish head coverings, or necklaces expressing their religious affiliations.
The number of artists exhibiting work has tripled since the last interfaith art exhibit two years ago. If one believes that artists can be effective brokers of communication, breaking ground where other forms of communication fall short, then the response of artists to exhibit along these themes will not be a surprise. Arash Shirinbab, calligrapher and member of ICCNC, echoes the sentiments of other volunteer coordinators who worked for months to put this exhibition together in saying, “It’s wonderful to see so many works of art in one space that beautifully reflect togetherness, spirit and joy.”
Leaving the Center, I think: Is it possible to hold up the intention and effort of these art makers as a path to disrupt the status quo narrative of creating enemies out of neighbors? Traditional arts can be very radical in this way.
The next iteration of this project will take place in the fall at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in cooperation with the Ziya Multicultural Art Center, a Persian school of calligraphy, and artists of Chinese and Hebrew calligraphy. Dates and times of the events and exhibition will be available through ACTA’s website in the coming months.