Introductory Essay (click to open pdf)
Course portfolio for culture and belief 12
In the readings for Week 9, we encountered Sufi poetry, in the form of the ghazal and the mathnawi. One of the formal aspects of this poetry is the use of recurring symbols and metaphors, such as the pining or spurned lover, the drunkard, and the garden. The garden as a mystical destination provides many layers of imagery and symbolism to help illustrate the beauty and richness of divine love.
For my recitation project, I studied the poem, “Andak, Andak,” by Rumi. This poem describes a number of diverse figures arriving in waves to a garden. The last lines of the poem, as transliterated by John Arberry, reveal the enchanted nature of this garden:
Blessed is that garden, where, for the sake of the Mary’s, new fruits are arriving, even in winter.
Their origin is grace, and their return is grace; even from the garden to the garden they are coming.
Since the garden appears so often, and in so many forms, in Sufi poetry, I sought to create a visual representation of such a place, while also retaining its mystery and elusiveness.
In this project, I used acrylic paint to illustrate a symbolic garden, made up of layers of saturated color, with a fountain in the center. Through this work, I have attempted to convey that this garden is an ineffable, otherworldly place, accessible only by a spiritual path.
In the above drawing, I have portrayed the eleven birds who appear in Attar’s Conference of the Birds. The hoopoe, shown here at the center of the drawing, leads the other ten birds on a journey which represents the sufi path toward mystical union with God. Each of the birds is used to illustrate a different characteristic of human resistance, which must be overcome in order to truly encounter the Divine.
As I read this work, I found that each of the birds took on such vivid characterizations, and I alternately laughed, nodded, and scowled as I sympathized with their protestations to the Hoopoe. There were a few types of birds with which I was unfamiliar, however, so I was curious to flesh out their figures in my mind, to go along with their vibrant personalities.
For this work, I decided to simply sketch the figures of the various birds which appear in the Conference of the Birds, with the hoopoe at the center. Rather than striving for detailed realism, I simply tried to convey the simple and somewhat whimsical outline of each bird, with the hope that some of their characterizations from the poem would emerge through their figures. I decided to fill the page with only the figures of these birds, in order to convey a sense of noisy chaos as the hoopoe attempts to rein in their competing and self-indulgent personalities.
For this project, I created a graphic depicting head coverings worn by women of different religious and cultural backgrounds. This graphic is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to offer interesting comparisons between head coverings, to emphasize the diversity of styles and functions, and to dispel some of the myths surrounding them.
As we learned in Week Ten, and throughout our course, the head covering known alternately as hijab, headscarf, or veil has a long and varied history and is worn, in contemporary society, in many different styles and for many different reasons. In some countries, such as France and Turkey, hijab has come under political scrutiny, while in others, such as Saudi Arabia, it is part of a mandatory dress code.
In many cases, the veil has been a focal point of Western discourse surrounding feminism in Islam, and unfortunately, such conversations are often lacking in nuance due to cultural illiteracy. The “veil,” in its broadest sense, has many functions, as I have shown in this graphic, and those functions are always dependent upon a number of influences—perhaps most significantly, cultural context and individual interpretation.
As I began to research images for this project, I came across a number of style blogs which offered creative ideas for everything from styling a hijab to putting together glamorous yet modest outfits. I also stumbled upon images of Western style icons, such as Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Marilyn Monroe, wearing headscarves which bore striking similarities to some forms of hijab.
The title of this piece is, of course, ironic. It would be impossible to catalogue all of the different head coverings worn by women throughout the world, along with their infinite reasons for wearing them. Instead, I chose to offer a few examples which would emphasize the sartorial aspect of the head covering. This emphasis is certainly not meant to downplay religious or political reasons for wearing the veil, but rather to emphasize its beauty and diversity.
In Week Six, our readings and discussions centered around the topic of Islamic art and architecture, and in particular, the elusive and contentious concept of “Arabesque.” Our discussion addressed not only the breadth and diversity of styles which may be encompassed by the term “Islamic Art,” but also the problematic issue of Western conceptions of Islamic art and arabesque.
Although arabesque is often viewed by art historians as a defining aspect of Islamic Art, the styles and techniques of arabesque build upon pre-Islamic art and architectural styles. The term “arabesque” is itself difficult to define, but is generally used to refer to repeating floral motifs and geometric designs which adorn objects ranging from pottery to walls to textiles.
Since the concept of arabesque is contentious and often over-simplified in Western scholarship, I thought it would be interesting to attempt to create a design which might fall under the umbrella of arabesque. I set out to include a few underlying concepts, such as repetition and floral representation.
Not surprisingly, I found it quite challenging to create a sophisticated and compelling design. I used acrylic paint to create the above piece and sought to evoke flowering vines through the repeating use of “S” shapes. The “flowers” are shown in a budding stage, and the blue vines range in color from light to dark, adding a level of abstraction and visual interest to the design.
Through this piece, I hope to address stereotypes regarding Islamic art and arabesque. Although this piece incorporates concepts often considered central to arabesque, it would be difficult to define it as “Islamic art” since it lacks Islamic cultural and historical context.
In Week Five of our course, I was struck by the figure of Zainab, whose speech in the aftermath of the massacre at Karbala continues to have powerful resonance, particularly for Shia muslims.
It is rare to encounter female characters who are remembered through history or mythology as bold, brave, eloquent, and admirable speakers. Yet Zainab is said to have risen up out of her suffering to confront and shame Yazid, who was responsible for the death of her brother and her sons. In the wake of such devastating violence at Karbala, it is striking that Zainab’s presence has such lasting force simply because of the power of her words.
Although Zainab is victimized due to the violence done to her family, I decided to portray her in simple, modest dress and with erect posture, recalling her noble status as the granddaughter of Muhammad. I chose charcoal as my medium and made use of bold lines to convey her character. Her profile occupies only a portion of the image, while her words billow outward like smoke, drifting far beyond the canvas.
The symbol of the rose offers many layers of significance in connection with the Prophet Muhammad. Firstly, the beauty of the rose may be employed in honor of the Prophet, as we see in the following maulud:
The bridegroom mounted the horse, [seated] on a gold saddlecloth.
The Lord sat on the bed; roses strewn on the cushions!
Come, Muhammad, come and meet the “rebel” Abd ur-Ra’uf. (Maulud 10, Asani 165)
Here, the poet portrays himself as the “bride,” awaiting the arrival of Muhammad, who is portrayed as a “bridegroom.” In anticipation of the union between the Prophet and the metaphorical bride, cushions have been adorned with roses.
Secondly, the rose may serve as an example of the beautiful possibility of creation, which God has made manifest for the prophet:
Whatever pleases you is pleasing to God as well,
You are the ruler of God’s kingdom, O Prophet!
Without doubt you are the cause of the creation of possibilities,
For you, God created the entire universe, O Prophet! (Madahun ain Munajatun 231, Asani 169).
Furthermore, the rose overwhelms the senses—sight, scent, touch—in much the same way that love for the prophet may overwhelm the soul. The beauty of the rose may be employed not only in honor of the prophet but as a representation of the beauty of the Prophet, himself. The following stanza praises the prophet as beautiful, saying,
The entire universe shines from the radiance of Muhammad’s light;
God created him unique, for nowhere has such a handsome being been seen
Even the angels and the virgins of paradise are dazzled by his sparkling beauty. (Armaghan-i na’t 292, Asani 177)
Here I have chosen to portray the rose in its various states, from bud to full bloom, in vivid color, in order to draw upon its various significances in relation to the Prophet Muhammad. The blooming of the rose is itself a simple miracle of creation and helps to suggest the miraculous occurrences of the Prophet’s life.