Portfolio Essay

Introductory Essay

 

Creative Response Portfolio Essay 

 

I believe that my art portfolio as a whole illustrates my experience of Islam, coming from the perspective of a strong Western and Christian background. For many of my artistic responses I chose to depict specific aspects of readings that especially intrigued me. My first piece is a response to the critique on Western approaches to Islamic art and architecture. One of the subjects that was discussed in regards to architecture was the arabesque design. I used to draw designs and patterns that look quite similar without knowing the religious background of arabesque. Western historians have previously dismissed arabesque as anti-natural, but Ismail Al-Faruqi corrected these thoughts by discussing arabesque as a representation of foliage and natural elements in a complex fashion. I really appreciated Al-Faruqi’s clarification on this matter and the philosophical implications. It was very easy for Westerners to look at the grand-scale image of arabesque designs in mosques and label it as a diversion from the natural forms of architecture that may have been more common at the time. He challenges people to take a closer look at the arabesque designs; after a closer inspection, arabesque actually just looks like the intertwined branches of a tree. Maybe the intention of arabesque art was to depict God’s creation; it appears to be decorative and whimsical from a far distance, but when one really reflects on the underlying purpose of our existence, the intricacies and similarities between us are very apparent. It was that intricacy that I hoped to convey in my creative response, especially in my incorporation of the Arabic calligraphy for Allah.

I wrote an Islamic poetic form, a gi’nan, for my second response to devotional literature. This literary form stresses the relationship of a believer to a religious authority as one of anxious and almost obsessive love. I was really intrigued by the fact that many Muslims view their relationship with God as one of love. I’m more familiar with people having fear of God and understanding God’s love for them, but I found beauty in the level of compassion that Muslims can have for their creator. To some extent I think that the emphasis on love and passion might be a better way to instill positive values than threatening believers with the prospects of hell. Two of my other responses were related to this same theme of an emotive relationship with God. I chose to draw an image of a rose and a nightingale and a rose in response to poetry by Muhammad Iqbal and Professor Asani. Roses are recurrent motifs in Sufi literature because of their bright passionate color and natural beauty. To Sufis, the rose perfectly represented the beauty and majesty of God, so both of the poems were metaphorically referring to God. It was very interesting to me that Sufis attempted to use natural beauty as a way to observe glimpses of God’s presence; this probably drew me to responding to the same motif as it appeared in two separate poems. The nightingale was often a way for Sufis to describe themselves since they sing at all times of the day. In my opinion, Sufi poetry was probably one of the most entertaining artistic forms that were covered in the course. I used to read a lot of poetry when I was younger and I was happy to revisit my childhood pastime. It was interesting that some poetic forms, such as the ghazal, had structure and meter that are typically associated with Shakespearean poetry.

My other two responses are based on other aspects of creative writing in Islam. One of my favorite components of this course has been the creative writing. I really enjoyed the allegorical poem, The Conference of the Birds because of the message of finding the truth and answers of life’s mysteries. Honestly I feel that this story can be applied to any type of life journey that a person takes even if it isn’t religious. In anything that comes with a struggle, some individuals will falter due to personal setbacks and excuses. There are no quick and easy solutions to problems of this magnitude. I liked the end of the poem when the birds realize that the true solution to their problems lies within themselves. I illustrated the birds in flight using construction paper as they journeyed to the Simorgh. I chose to make my final project in response to the satirical poem about the hypocrisy of Mohja Kahf’s mosque. I’ve actually had the same exact thoughts about my religion as a whole. I also dislike the false piety and judgment that some practitioners of my religion, especially religious faculty in previous schools. I really liked the idea of having a mosque that is based in acceptance and tolerance that welcomes all people regardless of their own spiritual standing. Using digital graphics, I illustrated a mosque that was in a traditional Middle Eastern setting but that lacked a minaret. The stone in the front of the mosque had a plaque that read “Bad Muslims Welcome” and a foot was placed over the mosque. My inclusion of the foot was motivated by the final revelation of Kahf at the end of the poem, when she realizes that the true essence of the mosque was actually around her at all times, and within the ground beneath her feet. Since all of creation comes from God, it is always important to remember that He is within all of his creation to some extent. The dress codes and insincere donations don’t bring the spirit of God to the mosque; rather, it is the faithful prayer and praise of the congregants that attracts God’s attention.

My personal religious background definitely influenced the portions of this course that I enjoyed the most. I grew up raised in Catholicism and spent most of my education in Catholic schools. My parents tried to instill morals and values into my siblings and me without attempting to indoctrinate us. As the child of immigrants, I’ve always been sympathetic to other minority groups and faiths. I actually grew up with a great deal of curiosity towards foreign cultures, and I was especially interested in Islam given the portrayal of fundamentalist Islamic nations and leaders in the media.

My first encounters with Islam didn’t occur until I was in high school. One of my friends who attended a different school was an African-American Muslim. Her grandparents had converted to Islam during the height of the civil rights era and her parents passed the faith down onto her. She didn’t speak much about her faith to me personally, and she rarely wore her headscarf when we were in public. However I understood the variability of individual expressions of faith as it exists even within Christianity.

To earn extra credit in a World Religions course at my Catholic high school, I visited the mosque located on the local university campus. My father accompanied me to this mosque shortly after their Friday prayer had ended. It was certainly much different than I expected. Unlike the large churches I attended with ornate decorations and filled with people dressed in their Sunday best, the prayer room of the mosque was small and modernly designed. There were still a few men scattered across the room on the plush carpets and the sun’s warmth brought comfort through the windows. It seemed to be a place of worship that was primarily focused on personal spirituality, which I appreciated.

The one thing that detracted from the entire experience was the dominant theme of female subordination. Women were sequestered to a corner of the prayer room and shielded away by a hanging cloth. I was also forced to wear a garment covering my entire body and only exposing my face, and our tour guide refused to shake my hand because I was an unmarried female. It also disturbed me to see young girls playing in the desert heat while wearing these thick garments. After that experience, I had been unable to ever see Islam in a positive light because I was unable to comprehend the reasoning behind all of the seemingly anti-female doctrines. I believed that Islam may have had good intentions but had been largely manipulated by political leaders throughout history. Eventually I developed the same opinion about my own faith, and had a negative view of religion altogether as tarnished by human shortcomings.

I decided to take this class as a way to learn more about Islam through the medium of art. I’ve always enjoyed observing and creating works of art and I was interested in seeing a more spiritual and whimsical aspect of Islam; I definitely was not disappointed. I’ve enjoyed all of the YouTube videos and guest speakers that have shown me firsthand that Islam is just as multifaceted as any other faith. Perhaps the most essential lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that Islam can be interpreted differently. I recall that one of the earlier readings described the role of women in Indonesian versions of Islam as equal to men, dispelling my belief that Islam itself promoted the subjugation of women. The different bodies of interpretation are maybe even more variable than the discrepancies between Catholicism and Protestantism within Christianity. The nuances of Arabic even leave the Quran itself open to interpretation, in addition to the many compilations of hadith that come from secondhand accounts. Islam lacks the theological structure and organization that many other Christian faiths have because it is often so directly tied to the political regime. Unfortunately, many of the negative aspects of some Arab dictatorships are confounded with Islam when they are actually not the original teachings of Muhammad. I was surprised to learn that Muhammad actually advocated for women’s rights at some points in the Quran.

Taking this class actually strengthened my own personal faith because it highlighted the distinction between faithful spirituality and organized religion. I now can respect Islam for its teachings on peace and seeking understanding of God while disagreeing with the teachings of fundamental Ayatollahs. Likewise, I can now have a pure relationship with God that is focused on my own moral astuteness and spirituality without becoming burdened with the ultra-conservative teachings of the Pope. The arabesque visually describes my opinions now-I think that Islam is a very diverse and rich culture that can yield incorrect perceptions depending on the breadth of your scope. Sometimes your previous opinions and experiences might shape your view of Islam if you neglect to appreciate the intricate and fundamental components. I will surely remember some of the lessons I learned from Sufi poetry that emphasize closeness with God himself as I move forward in life.

Published in: |on May 4th, 2012 |Comments Off on Portfolio Essay

Conference of the Birds

 

I decided to construct birds out of different colored construction paper to illustrate the poem entitled Conference of the Birds by Farid al-Din Attar. The Conference of the Birds is a poem from the Iranian Sufi Islamic tradition. The poem personified birds as a means of explaining the roadblocks people face to having an open and pure relationship with God. The birds in the poem describe how they have to relinquish their egos and negativity in order to become one with God. It is characteristically Sufi in that it focuses on capturing the spiritual nature of humanity. This tradition is a common theme in most traditional literature. It is often difficult for people to reflect on their own wrongdoings, but much easier to point out the negativities by using animals that all people can relate to. The journey that the birds take reminds me of the American book The Wizard of Oz, in which characters also have personal quests and seek to reach a different land to solve their problems. It is also quite interesting as some of the birds give up the journey for various reasons; I found some parallels in real life of why people give up before reaching their destinations.

I especially enjoyed the ending of the poem, as the things they were looking for were found in their own reflection. God is transcendent in every aspect of creation. I honestly do believe that at times people look for escapes or alternatives to their own struggles without realizing that they already have all that they need within them. Despite the birds efforts to find contentment in other things such as immortality the eventual happiness comes from recognizing that God is within them.

Published in: |on April 29th, 2012 |Comments Off on Conference of the Birds

A Rose and a Nightingale

…were it not for this fair blossom, songless were the nightingale…

This is a response to Muhammad Iqbal’s poem, Complaint and Answer. The poem is written as a ghazal, a common form of prayer in Persian Islamic traditions. I chose this specific line because it is a common motif in Sufi poetry. The nightingale and the rose are often paired together as a symbolic representation of religious searching.  The nightingale is a unique bird in that it sings both during the daytime and the night, so it is revered for its seemingly spontaneous and never-ending song. The nightingale might represent the mystic, or anyone who seeks a greater understanding of God while the rose represents the perfect beauty of God. Although roses don’t have much of any relation to nightingales in nature, the Sufis have believed a relationship exists for centuries. They believe that the nightingale is desperately enamored with the rose and sings to it at all hours of the day. However, the rose cannot return the love to the nightingale. Similarly, the Sufi mystic appears to be professing love in something that does not truly exist, but God’s grace is just too beautiful to ignore.

Iqbal is essentially wondering whether or not he and other followers of the Sufi tradition would even be able to perform their basic functions if it weren’t for the existence of God. They see God’s majesty in all aspects of their lives and see all that they do is centered around God and what God has afforded them. This poem really resonated with me because I also find a similar approach to my faith.

Published in: |on April 29th, 2012 |Comments Off on A Rose and a Nightingale

My Little Mosque

 

This project is a response to the poem by Mohja Kahf entitled Little Mosque Poems. The poem is a satirical piece of writing that contrasts the welcoming atmosphere of older versions of Islam to the exclusive and judgmental practices she views in her mosque today. Some of the themes she discusses are the fact that charity is only offered to other Muslims and possible corruption and theft by mosque leaders. She also notes that as a woman, she is turned away from prayer at times and that a ‘bouncer’ mans the door to filter out those who don’t appear to be pious. I especially liked the stanzas that discussed angels being in the broom closet or God applying for a janitor position, or the Qu’ran reciting itself as they illustrate just how far away God is from this so-called place of worship.

This story shows perfectly how sanctimonious and sexist the men of her mosque can be:

Once a woman entered
my little mosque
with a broken arm,
a broken heart,
and a very short skirt
Everyone rushed over to her
to make sure
she was going to cover her legs

No attention is paid to the hardship of the woman and no assistance os offered. Rather, the congregation is more concerned with ensuring ritual piety, without considering the kind and just course of action.

My artwork, created by computer-modifying an image, illustrates one of the scenes of the poem, in which the narrator dreams of a Mosque without the typical adornments that is dedicated to spiritual cleansing and finding oneness with God.

…I would like to build
a little mosque
without a dome
or minaret
I’d hang a sign
over the door:
Bad Muslims
welcome here
Come in, listen
to some music,
sharpen
the soul’s longing…

I really related to this poem since I’ve experienced similar disheartenment with my own places of worship. Sometimes the fallibility and sin of human beings interrupts divine connection with God. The place of worship turns into a place of hypocrisy and false piety, and it makes one wonder whether God actually even is present. But at the end of the poem, the narrator comes upon a conclusion that I also have-God is within each one of us. Places of worship are good to openly profess faith, but the true place of worship is all God’s creation around us. Kahf compares this omnipresence of God to having a mosque underneath her foot, which is why I included the foot in my image.

Published in: |on April 29th, 2012 |Comments Off on My Little Mosque

The Rose of God’s Garden

I’ve created this piece of art as a representation of Muhammad as a rose, a motif in Islamic scripture and art.

A poem entitled ‘Qamar’, from a compiliation of Urdu na’ts, has a line which reads “Even the roses do not possess such a fragrance as there is in your sweat, kind sir!” in reference to Muhammad (from “In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems”). Another na’t from this collection praises Muhammad as the “rose of God’s garden”.

Symbolism is very common in Islam, as Muhammad is revered as everything from an oil lamp to a sage. These verse from Islamic poetry evoke a more awe-inspiring and beautiful image of Muhammad as a gentle and delicate, yet bold. Roses are known for their characteristic fragrance and their strong emotional connections, particularly red roses. It is very interesting to me that Muslims have historically felt such intense and personal connections to their prophet, especially to the extent of loving Muhammad as they might love a close friend or spouse. Looking back at the poem, subsequent lines read “pleasure lies in drinking from the goblet of [your] love. Qamar whoever does not possess love of Muhammad, he is among neither the dead nor the living!”. The passionate imagery provided by these lines inspired me to create this painting of a red rose.

In the bottom corner of the painting, I added a calligraphic interpretation of the Arabic script for Muhammad’s name. I chose this method of writing Muhammad as the final symbol combines two characters, and almost resembles a rose itself.

Published in: |on March 10th, 2012 |Comments Off on The Rose of God’s Garden

A Gi’nan

Wedded to God

My heart races to think-

I know one day we will be united

The melodies of Friday prayer

Shift into wedding tunes to my ears

And the mosque of prostrating figures

Transforms into the most elegant wedding scene

The long aisle littered with rose petals

Leading me to your side

Where our fingers will interlock

And our gazes will fix upon each other

And we will finally embrace

Oh Allah,

Hasten the days until our wedded bliss

 

 

I decided to compose a poetry response to the reading on bridal symbolism “Ecstasy and Enlightenment-The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia” by Ali Asani. Shi’a Muslims place a great deal of importance on the spiritual leadership of their Imams. Unlike Sunnis, Shi’as believe that Islam’s message can only be adequately professed and interpreted under the enlightened guidance of an Imam. The Nizari Ismaili Shi’as of the Indian subcontinent also hold this view, and have historically composed hundreds of poems illustrating the relationship between the Imam and his ‘murid’, or disciple.

Some of these poems are intended to be put to song, while others are just prose. But a common theme in all of them is the bridal symbolism used to express the Imam-murid relationship. The imam is typically metaphorically represented as the husband, while the disciple is the bride. Other ginans use bridal symbolism to express yearning or longing for Allah or divine knowledge. An example:

O Lord how long must I remain alone?

The days pass is separation from You.

Change my state of separation to married bliss.

Lord of the fourteen heavens, preserve my honor.

As mentioned in prior posts, I am always intrigued by the amount of passion in the Muslim relationship with Allah and prophets. I am not used to hearing such emotional prose in reference to divinities on other popular religions. I attempted to express a similar level of desperation and anticipation in the poem I wrote. I chose to write this poem from the point of view as a Muslim desperate for a closer connection to God, writing metaphorically as a bride anxiously awaiting her groom and dreaming of her wedding day.

Published in: |on March 9th, 2012 |Comments Off on A Gi’nan

Islamic Arabesque

 

This piece is in response to the text entitled “Misconceptions on the Nature of Islamic Art” by Ismail R. Al-Faruqi. Al-Faruqi critiqued many Western views of Islamic art which he felt were inaccurate or unfair representations of the true nature of art in a Muslim context. He counters the Western view of arabesque as “anti-natural” in comparison to previous European (Hellenic) forms of arabesque.

To me, the ultimate message of arabesque art is the complexity and interconnectedness of Islam as a faith. The repetition of particular symbols or images of foliage stress their significance in a way that is far from monotonous. The Qu’ran is oftern viewed as the prime expression of art to Muslims, so arabesque depictions of Quranic verses are quite common on artwork as well as interior decor for Mosques and other places of worship. Al-Faruqi also mentions the fact that the “ornamental decoration” composed of both arabesque foliage designs and Arabic calligraphy may have been preferred to historical Muslims, who shied away from extravagant displays of art when related to Islam.

I liked the beauty and meticulousness of the arabesque designs, so I decided to create a small piece of art that depicted it on a smaller scale. I arranged cutouts made from glitter-embossed paper in a style which is reminiscent of arabesque. Since arabesque desings are usually intended to illustrate some aspect of Islam, I chose to arrange the cutouts in the Arabic script for Allah. The calligraphy is quite interpretive, as most calligraphy tends to be.

Published in: |on March 9th, 2012 |Comments Off on Islamic Arabesque