Behind the Veil

April 26th, 2012 at 10:08 pm (Uncategorized)

 

I was intrigued by Professor Asani’s discussion about the three academics debating the relevance and significance of the hijab- one Islamic scholar argued that it represented oppression and another argued that it represented freedom- especially in the context of African Islam as African slaves were stripped of their Islamic identity in the US and modern African Americans are able to reclaim the right to an Islamic identity.  The third American scholar was criticized for wearing make-up, which the first Islamic scholar viewed as a kind of hijab. The theme of identity and the Hijab has prevailed throughout our readings. In Persepolis, Satrapi dedicates the opening chapter of her graphic novel to the veil as seen though the lens of a child and reflects on it explicitly and subtly throughout, often asserting mutual exclusivity between the veil and its traditional religious implications and modernity, science, and progress. Hossain’s utopian society in Sultana’s Dream depicts the veil as a necessary evil when coexisting in a society of lustful men which women are liberated from when they take the leadership role in society.

The hijab, like many elements of Islamic identity, means different things to different people. As we do so often with the cultural studies approach, we must ask “What Islam? Whose Islam?” to get an accurate and full perspective.

My art project portrays women wearing the veil, looking externally similar, but internally unique. To achieve this, I used print making to create several similar veiled silhouettes of women and within these prints using pen and calligraphy to portray the characteristics that make them unique, whether they are singers, dancers, scientists, poets, teachers, or mothers.

This piece will be interpreted in a number of ways depending on the observer’s view of Islam. Some will interpret the piece as having a pejorative attitude toward the veil- that it makes unique individuals conform to a single perception. Others will see the veil as a positive force in unifying a diverse Muslim population. Others will see the message that first impressions and quick judgment force us to generalize and ignore the nuances and uniqueness of individuals. The aim of the piece is to play with people’s perception and the idea that we see what we want- in society, in people, in art as a product of our own preconceived notions and viewpoints. The more limited our viewpoint, the less meaning we can draw from any of these.

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Kintampo Road

April 17th, 2012 at 9:07 pm (Uncategorized)

Kintampo Road

Trade your gold for my Christ

Empty chalices line

The streets where my God’s supposed to be

And the methods are madness, the grapes are all wrath

And the wine was lost south of the sea

 

Trade the fruits of this world for the soil of another

Water cleanse my iniquities

‘Til With our tarnished hands, friend

We’ll till ‘til we’re dead and our garden is finally pristine

 

I’ve been waiting

For a light and a life and a dream

And a hand I can let go

My Melody echoes

E cho, I’ve been waiting for thee

 

Said the mime in the glass to the faces that pass

Look at all of you hiding in screens

When all you need is a touch

And a Luddite foray

And a day for to dance in the streets

 

He shouts to the highway beneath

We’re in debt, we have hearts to unharden

Aren’t we so much the same?

In our passing car rage,

Breathing diesel and spitting out carbon?

 

Tear your books from the shelves drain the watering wells

Where a lonely bird weeps to the fishes

Out damned spot, out damned spot

Asleep, my wakeful heart

My purpose and my fear torched and quenched and it’s here and it’s now

 

Brother, sister

How the brushfires burn out Kintampo road

How the dusty spires and the lightened load

Show me just how far I’ve yet to go

Brother, sister

Where electric wires hang limp and low

Bringing power to the people, but the stars and the steeple

Are all I need

 

The cultural studies approach pushes us not to limit ourselves to a singular interpretation of any religion, but to see it as a product of the cultural and temporal context. Islam in one country is not the same as Islam in the next.

 

I spent January in rural Ghana. The influence of Islam and Christianity was unmistakable in the simplest sense, motivated out of the message of love for God and his creation. Ritual played very little part in the celebration of religion to the extent that the labels of Muslim and Christian didn’t matter; everyone had the same goal of glorifying God. This phenomenon is based purely on my own anecdotal observations of one small village, and I am aware that religious tensions do arise frequently throughout the rural developing world, but for me, even this unscientific observation was heartening. I have grown frustrated with the ways in which wealth and power have corrupted the church that I was brought up in, and until this January, I had blamed that corruption on religion itself. It was not until I experienced religion in this context that I was able to see it in a different light and reevaluate the positive aspects (sense of community, selfless motivation, etc. Religion itself is not inherently a positive or negative influence in society in and of itself, but rather a tool that can be used to justify or promote negative or positive actions

 

The paradox of missionaries and colonists simultaneously exploiting and spreading religion has always troubled and intrigued me. The idea that the gold exploited from the African coast was made into chalices for the blood of Christ is fraught with irony. In an attempt to carry out ritual at the expense of human dignity, the sentiment behind the ritual is lost. The true blood of Christ (wine) meanwhile, remains in Ghana, thriving despite poverty. This theme is reflected in the writings of prominent Muslim writers; The Beggar’s Strike comes to mind for its central theme of the importance of the poor and the hypocrisy of the wealthy, as well as the Conference of the Birds for its call to leave behind wealth, ritual, and material things to follow the path to God.

 

The second verse describes the work of pious people, renouncing the material world for the promise of God’s kingdom. They know that they are poor and sinful, but they are constantly working for the betterment of themselves and their community to glorify God without selfish expectation. Across all understandings of Islam in diverse cultural contexts, this is the quality of true religious piety in my opinion. I believe that many scholars of Islam would echo this sentiment, including Iqbal as demonstrated by his call to Muslims to reclaim the greatness of their ancestors in “Complaint and Answer” and Professor Asani in “Infidel of Love.”

 

The chorus expresses the longing of someone who has only seen what they are realizing now to be a secular façade of religion at seeing religion in its purest form. The last line plays with the word Echo, and “E-cho,” the Mo word for “good morning” or “welcome.”

 

The third verse expresses frustration at Western society, the hurried lifestyle of which contributes to the destruction of the purity of religion. The onlooker, recognizing the need to reassess Western values tries to persuade his people to revert back to humanness and simplicity, but consumed by technology and individualism, his pleas fall on deaf ears. The conflict between modernization and Westernization is one that has troubled me, not just in the religious context, but in a development context, and the fact that the two have become synonymous speaks volumes about the global power dynamic and our flawed theories of cultural supremacy and development policy. This verse critiques Western society simply because it is where I am coming from in terms of my understanding of the negative influence of modernization, but as countries modernize and grow more reliant on technology and less reliant on humanity, the critique could just as easily be applied to those countries.

 

The fourth verse is a continuation of his plea, asking his people to recognize that they have been dehumanized to the point that they behave like the mechanized traffic.

 

The fifth verse invokes imagery from a number of the Islamic texts we have read encouraging a divergence from rote ritual in favor of a religion that is purely motivated by the love of God. The first line is taken from the imagery of one of Professor Asani’s early lectures that resonated with me comparing keeping sacred texts on the shelf to rote ritual practice not rooted in love of God. The second line was inspired by the duck in The Conference of the Birds, who continually performs ablution rituals but fails to seek his creator. The third line is a reference to Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth’s futile attempts to wash away guilt with water. The fourth line was inspired by an Iqbal quotation “an infidel with a wakeful heart before his idol is better than a religious man asleep in a mosque.” The final line is a reference to Rabia, who carried a torch to burn Heaven and a pitcher to quench Hell. If the events unfolded as the onlooker sees fit, the books would be taken off the shelves, the ritual ablution facilities drained and Heaven and Hell gone, all in an attempt to shift the focus from hope, fear, ritual, and status to the root of religionlove.

 

The final verse describes the simplicity of the rural Ghanaian landscapethe only dirt road connecting the village to the nearest town is physically long and winding, but also represents the spiritual distance between what the small community has achieved in their pious poverty and how civilization has devolved at the other end. Electric wires span the length of the road, but most people can’t afford the electricity they bring. The people aren’t bothered by this- they have the power of community and of God on their side.

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Begging the Beggars

April 2nd, 2012 at 5:17 am (Uncategorized)

This project was inspired by the novella The Beggar’s Strike. The central message I took from the text was that regardless of status or wealth, the human race is made up of selfish and needy individuals caught in a symbiotic relationship with one another. The author demonstrates this by turning society upside down, and showing that not only are the traditional beggars reliant on the wealthy for their physical survival, but the wealthy people are reliant on the beggars for their own spiritual survival.

My piece depicts the poignant scene in which Mour is begging to the beggar community to accept his offering. All of the subjects in the picture are composed of trash to demonstrate that everyone is a beggar under the surface of pretention and material wealth. Mour is the prostrated figure, composed of flashy, luminescent trash while the beggar is standing erect at left, composed of grungier trash. The figures are separated by Mour’s offering, composed of more metallic trash.

Through this piece, I also incorporate my own commentary on the novella; though I agree with the author’s rather pessimistic view of the relationship between the various groups within society, and the idea that all men are equal regardless of whatever societal categories we are placed in, I also believe that though we are all self-interested beggars on some level, we are multidimensional, and God sees the good in all of us,in spite of our poor choices and outward actions.  Inspired by the story of Jesus and the dog in which Jesus points out the beauty of the dog’s teeth within its ugly corpse, I made gold hearts for each individual in the picture. Buried beneath the trash and selfish motives is purity.

Materials:

wood scrap, metal scrap, welding rod, ceramic tile scrap, razor blade, plastic beads, straw, pen cap, guitar picks, airplane headphones, jar cover, coins, plastic costume badge, yarn, screws, nuts, paint, water bottle cover, pins, washers

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Keys to the Kingdom

March 3rd, 2012 at 3:18 pm (Uncategorized)

I was struck by Professor Asani’s story of someone knocking on a door and proclaiming “it’s me” and being turned away several times by the inhabitant of the house before knocking again and proclaiming “it’s you” and being let inside.  This story underscores one of the core tenants of Islam- complete submission to God above the self.

This theme has been universal throughout the course: the idea of creation being brought into existence to worship God, the entire earth as a mosque, the penetration of Islamic law into daily life in predominantly Muslim countries, etc. I feel, however, that it is reflected particularly beautifully in the “The Miracle Play of Hasan and Hussein.” All of the characters in the Imam’s family are poised to undergo terrible suffering as the Imam is about to be killed by his enemies, yet their chief concerns are for others in the family, and their underlying mission is complete submission to God’s ultimate plan, however difficult that might be. This is a paradigm for Muslims across cultures and time- to shape oneself in the likeness of such role models so as to

I chose a coat hanger as a medium to demonstrate the arduous process of molding and shaping something that serves a mundane, worldly purpose into something more beautiful that serves a much higher purpose (i.e. the transition from self-centrism to God-centrism).

Playing on the pictogram theme of earlier lectures, this piece consists of two keys, one created out of the Arabic word for “you” and one similarly created for the word “me”

One can imagine a lock that only opens with the “you” key, and similarly, the void in the lock that can only be filled by God.

 

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Little Hells

March 3rd, 2012 at 7:32 am (Uncategorized)

In the graphic novel workshop, we discussed the many artistic layers of Arabic calligraphy and how both ancient artists and modern graphic novelists manipulate calligraphy into pictures to draw out symbolism or tell a multi-layered story.  We also discussed the use of the “gutter” or the space between panels as a tool to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions about what happens between panels. The most striking theme of the workshop was the unique way in which comics can convey time and space; as the workshop leader illustrated, one cannot see all of the scenes of a movie or hear all of the notes of a song simultaneously, but comics allow the reader to focus on all or one portion of a story and the author to direct their eye.

Employing the strategies I learned, I have created a comic depicting the idea of the simple message of God (in this case, the idea of Hell) can be interpreted in a variety of cultural and geographical contexts or tailored to fit an ideology or agenda.

Here, I saw the Arabic word for tradition or imitation forming a picture that goes from simple to chaotic, representing the simplicity of how I imagine God’s intended message, and how it can be complicated by human interpretation, bias, and culture.  The “simple” end of the word extends beyond the gutter from Heaven into the human realm where the perceptions of Hell are being created. From our readings, I drew out four major perceptions or ideas about the nature of Hell.

First, and most descriptive was the Swahili view, which described a very physical hell existing to punish sin justly. To an outsider, this view had clear male-centric and anti-Semitic undertones.  Second is the notion of separation from God in a physical sense as being Hell.  The third is the separation from God in a spiritual sense, allowing modern or western ideas to infiltrate purity. The last is the idea of fear and self-centrism as Hell, as suggested by the story of Rabia, who carried water to distinguish hell and a torch to set fire to Heaven to remind people that true devotion to God should not be motivated out of fear or selfishness.

I gave each of these ideas their own panel and make use of the unique expression of time offered by comics to demonstrate that these ideas about Hell are occurring simultaneously even if we choose to subscribe to or focus on a particular one. Each hell extends beyond the gutters to interact with other perceptions of hell at times, informing the reader directly what is occurring between panels. The newspaper background demonstrates how words, whether through ancient oral tradition, books, or modern media connect these various viewpoints and allow them to interact across time and geography.

I chose collage as a medium to as a parallel to the message behind this piece; to convey the way people create new pictures and meaning out of existing material they have and understand.

 

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One Light, One Peace

February 15th, 2012 at 1:48 am (Uncategorized)

 

This piece was inspired by The Prophetic Succession, a section of Suleyman Celebi’s Turkish poem, Mevlid-i Sharif, which describes the transmission of God’s light through all of the great prophets. The poem underscores the idea that this light makes its truest manifestation in the Prophet Muhammad, but that it is the same light that is passed down from Adam and Eve and to other prominent figures in Judaism and Christianity. I was struck by this imagery, and by the idea that so many of the major religions are deeply interconnected and dependent upon one another for completion.

Additionally, I was intrigued by Professor Asani’s “Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam” in which he outlines common misconceptions of Islam and emphasizes the true tenants of the faith to be peace and social justice. Every major religion, to some extent has known similar misconceptions from outsiders and deviations from its core values by proclaimed “followers.”

The focus of the piece is a composite face that is (from left to right) of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Moses is depicted in pencil, Jesus in watercolor, and Muhammad in acrylic paint in an effort to show how in the Islamic tradition, the message of God was manifested partly through Moses, became clearer as time went on through prophets like Jesus, and became full through the last prophet, Muhammad. Muhammad’s face is not depicted, both to avoid the controversy surrounding the sensitive practice and because the gold acrylic paint used in lieu of his face best reflects the light, just as Muhammad fully reflects the light of God. Above them, I have combined the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic words for peace into one, to demonstrate that peace and love were the central messages of all of these prophets, and though they look slightly different due to context and geography, the meaning is the same. Surprisingly, both the pronunciations (Shlomo, Shlama, and Salam, respectively) and the characters are fairly similar in all languages.

The central theme of the piece is that Muhammad’s message of peace does not contradict the messages of those that came before him, but rather that it must be combined with prior revelations to create a fuller picture of God’s intended message, and only truly makes sense in the context of the messages of the previous prophets.

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