Introductory Essay to “Transformative Art”

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For a PDF version of my Introductory Essay to Transformative Art, please click on the following: Introductory Essay to Transformative Art.

As a junior at Harvard College, I am joint concentrating in Government and the Comparative Study of Religion with a specific focus on Islam and Politics. I have always been interested in the religious tradition given my own “situatedness” or epistemology: I had grown up during a time in which Islam and politics has been at the forefront of many current events, such as 9/11 or the Arab Spring. Consequently, the focus of my Islamic studies has been on legal dimensions of the religious tradition rather than the tradition’s earlier elements, such as the artistic elements. I had been like one of the individuals that Professor Asani describes in his book, Infidel of Love: in Islamic studies, individuals tend to study the Quran and the legal dimensions of Islam (Asani 21-22). Though I have participated in many artistic extracurricular activities, I have never taken a class that employs the cultural studies approach, which emphasizes using culture, whether it is the arts or literature, when studying a phenomena, until taking Professor Asani’s class. As Diane Moore notes, religion is a phenomenon that is deeply embedded in all dimension and contexts of human experience, whether it be historical, political, economic, artistic, literary, etc. (Asani 9). Therefore, it is critical to study religious tradition through this cultural studies approach. Through the art pieces, and my analyses of them in this portfolio, then, I hope to have creatively and successfully employed the cultural studies approach to reflect on the themes that we have studied in this course and make art as transformative for others as it has been for me throughout my life.

One of the first themes I explored through the cultural studies approach is that of the communities of interpretation. In his piece, Daftery argues that instead of using the terms “heterodox,” “orthodox,” “sects,” or other terms used to describe Islam or Christianity, individuals should use the term “communities of interpretation,” which does not valorize one sect over another (Daftery 163). In the Islamic religious tradition, there are various communities of interpretation, such as the Sunnis and Shias, which further subdivide through their various beliefs including who they think the proper successor of the Prophet Muhammad is and how they think believers should practice the religion (Daftery 163). As Professor Asani notes in his book, the cultural studies approach reinforces the communities of interpretation (Asani 13). Therefore, I employed art to manifest these communities of interpretation. For example, in my week three response, a music composition, I utilize different instruments to provide voices to the different communities of interpretation within the religious tradition. Additionally, in my week six response, a design of a portion of a black and white Mihrab, I present various designs and layers of the Mihrab to reflect yet again on the various communities of interpretation within the religious tradition. As Asani noted in our last lecture, one of the goals of this class is to give voice to those that do not normally get a voice (Lecture 4.28.16). Ultimately, I hope to provide a voice to the communities of interpretation that may not usually get a voice.

Secondly, I tried to explore the interaction between gender and Islam. In week three, we had learned how in certain countries, such as Indonesia, women can recite the Quran publicly (Rasmussen 30). In order to reflect on this idea that women can have a voice within the religious tradition, and further, to give women who may be marginalized the ability to have a voice, I used two pianos in the aforementioned week three music composition to represent a male and female voice in the piece. Therefore, through the cultural studies approach, I hoped to showcase the ability of women to have a voice in the religious tradition.

Thirdly, I explored the theme of “self” through my artistic responses. One of the beliefs within the religious tradition that we had discussed was fana, or “Die before you die.” Fana is annihilation, or getting rid of one’s egotism so that one can become spiritually closer to God (Lecture 3.24.16). To represent this fana, I used colored pencils and a photograph to symbolize the birds in Attar’s Conference of the Birds who Hoopoe guides to overcome their selfish desires, whether it is a desire for control, material wealth, or immortality, in order to reach spiritual awareness (Attar 46-48). Therefore, through utilizing the cultural studies approach, I hoped to not only reflect on the various types of identity, whether it was a group identity as a community of interpretation, or a personal identity as the “self,” within the religious tradition.

The fourth theme I explored further through the cultural studies approach was the unity that art as a whole provides for the different communities of interpretation. As Nasr states in his piece, “Islamic art is the result of the manifestation of Unity upon the plane of multiplicity” (Nasr 7). In my artistic pieces, then, I tried to show the unity that the different communities of interpretation have through the larger beliefs they may share and the art that they produce. For example, in my week four artistic response to the stories of the Mi’rāj, I used the colors of the rainbow to represent the communities of interpretation and the way in which they may interpret the Mi’rāj. In class, we had even viewed different manifestations of the Mi’rāj by different communities of interpretation, which I tried to reflect in my piece (Lecture 3.1.16). Thus, though the communities of interpretations differed in their interpretations and presentations of the Mi’rāj, they were similar in their belief in the story of the Mi’rāj and the Prophet’s ascendance to meet with God (Asani 128). Therefore, I hoped to show that the various communities of interpretation, though they may be different in certain beliefs, are similar in other beliefs, their devotion to their larger religious tradition, and the art forms that they may use to feel a connection with the sacred, whether it is music, designing a Mihrab, or some other art form.

Subsequently, I hoped to show how art is not only a tool for studying and unifying the religious tradition, but also can serve as a tool for peace. If art can represent the diverse communities of interpretation, then art, I would argue, can accordingly be a medium for peace. For example, if the various instruments within the week three and week 12 music compositions can play together in harmony, then I truly believe that these communities of interpretation can similarly work together to mitigate the tensions that they may hold in society. If Sufi rock, which in itself, per Salman Ahmad, combines musical traditions that strive to foster notions of peace in society, then my rendition of the Sufi rock strives to do the same as well, and so does it more generally to those who compose or listen to these pieces as well (Lecture 4.21.16). Further, the fact that these various art forms are something that these different communities of interpretation share suggests that through art they may be better able to sympathize with each other, and thereby mitigate any tensions among them as well. For example, if Muslim women and men in the world all sympathize in the way that they create a certain form of art, such as Baklava, which, I argue in my week 11 response is a form of art, then this suggests that art is something that they can relate to each other with, and thereby mitigate tensions. Therefore art can serve as a tool to foment sympathy, empathy, and peace not only among those within the religious tradition, but also among those that do not practice the particular religious tradition but who practice those art forms as well.

Consequently, as these themes overlap throughout all six of my blog posts, I organize my blog posts by the week to which I am responding. For week three, I respond to “God’s Word as Sacred Sound and the Concept of Prophethood” with a music composition in which I address the themes of the communities of interpretation, gender in Islam, and religion as a tool for peace. For week four, I respond to “Prophet Muhammad as Paradigm, the Mi’rāj, and Poetry in Praise of the Prophet” with a “Scratch Magic Note” in which I address the themes of the communities of interpretation and the unity that art provides for the religious tradition. For week six, I respond to “The Art, Architecture, Symbolism and Décor of Mosques” with a black and white design of a Mihrab in which I address the communities of interpretation and the unity that art provides for the religious tradition. For week 10, I respond to “Reform, Revival, and Muslim Women Defining Identity” with a colored pencil drawings of two birds and a photograph of my own bird in which I address the notion of “self.” For week 11, I respond to “ Sir Muhammad Iqbal and the Creation of Pakistan; the Iranian Revolution” with photographs of baklava that I had specifically baked in response to this week, in which I address the communities of interpretation, the unity that art provides for the religious tradition, gender in Islam, and religion as a tool for peace. For week 12, I respond to “Literature and Arts as Critique and Resistance; Sufi Rock” with another music composition, though this time a rock music piece, in which I address communities of interpretation and religion as a tool for peace. Therefore, through employing the cultural studies approach in studying the Islamic tradition, I hope that the spectators of my art with also engage with the religious tradition through the cultural studies approach and the themes that I try to depict.

Ultimately, through this blog, I hope to address what Professor Asani noted were some of the key goals of this class: firstly, giving voice to those that do not normally get a voice within the religious tradition (Lecture 4.28.16). I try to provide these individuals with a voice through representing them and the diverse communities of interpretation to which they belong through my art pieces. Secondly, I try to humanize a tradition that often gets dehumanized in politics and popular culture today (Lecture 4.28.16). Given my own epistemology, I am admittedly aware of how many times popular culture criticizes the religious tradition for the actions of individuals within the religious tradition. Consequently, individuals who view the religious tradition often overlook, or are not as aware, of the many beautiful aspects of the religious tradition, such as the art that has been a part of the tradition since its inception. Through my art, I hope to bring to light some of the beauty that lies within the religious tradition.

In conclusion, there is much more to the religious tradition than meets the eye in media, and I hope that my blog, Transformative Art, will make individuals more aware about it. Further, I hope that my spectators will consider taking the cultural studies approach into account when evaluating any phenomena in the future. The process of creating this art has undoubtedly been transformative for me, given my reflection, and I truly believe it can do the same for the viewer. Therefore, I truly believe that art, in whatever shape or form, is transformative, and often cathartic, for both the artist and the spectator.

Thank you, Professor Asani, Ceyhun, and John for making this class not only transformative for me in terms of cultural literacy, but also for the rest of the class and those who read our blogs!

Week 12: Literature and Arts as Critique and Resistance; Sufi Rock

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For this week of class, I decided to compose a second musical piece to reflect the Sufi rock we had listened to in the class. In his piece on Sufi rock, Professor Asani notes that Sufi rock challenges the political and religious authority’s hegemony against the West (Asani 10). However, he adds that the Sufi rock often includes elements of western music, in addition to Muslim and local heritage, and Sufi imagery and poetry (Asani 3, 10). In class, we particularly discussed how John Lennon, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Bulleh Shah, who, respectively, foster notions of peace, spirituality, and looking beyond the narrow interpretations of Islam in their artistic mediums, inspired Salman Ahmad, one of the key founders of Sufi rock (Lecture 4.21.16). Thus, Sufi rock combines all of these different traditions together to show that the divine loves various traditions, and diversity more generally (Lecture 4.21.16).

Consequently, in my music piece, I decided to create the instrumental music to a Sufi rock song. I included a variety of instruments, both Western and from other traditions, including two pianos, one bass, and different kinds of drums to reflect on the varieties of influences that Sufi rock may have – I specifically tried to use the same drums I had heard in Salman Ahmad’s pieces during class (Lecture 4.21.16). As Asani notes in his piece on Sufi rock, musicians often use Sufi rock a way to have peace in society (Asani 3). Subsequently, my hope is that my piece helps Westerners and Muslims understand the similarities in their music and use music as a way to have peace within the diversity in society.

Week 11: Sir Muhammad Iqbal and the Creation of Pakistan; the Iranian Revolution

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During week 11 of class, we discussed how over the course of its history, the geographic area of present-day Iran once held the Safavid Dynasty, the Qajar Dynasty, Pahlavi Dynasty, and now the Islamic Republic of Iran (Lecture 4.14.16; Buchman 84). The changing political climate made me wonder about what may stay constant during that time, and I thought about food.

Food, to me, is like art. Just like a painting, the act and process of making food is cathartic. Consequently, I decided to make my artistic response to this particular class on Iran entail food. As Ram notes in his piece, “social upheavals and revolutionary struggles often give rise to innovative forms of political artistic expression,” and Chelkowski agrees, though he focuses on graphic arts (Ram 90; Chelkowski 132). Analyzing and understanding the upheavals that occurred in Iran’s history made me think of an innovative artistic response: food.

Baklava

Therefore, for this week, I decided to make baklava, a traditional Iranian pastry that has been present in Iran despite the change in political climate. The process of making the baklava for me was quite cathartic: after placing each layer of filo dough, I brushed each pastry with butter, like paint on a canvas, until I completed that process with 40 layers. While I immersed myself in this pastry-making process, I thought about the women and men in Iran who make these pastries, and across diverse communities of interpretation in the Middle East, and what it may feel like for them to do so. Perhaps the act of creating the pastry was a way to relax from the tensions that existed in society. When the baklava had baked and came out of the oven, I poured the warm sugar water over it, after which the baklava made a sizzling noise in the sound scape of my kitchen. Despite using a different canvas, filo dough, this act of making baklava to me was truly cathartic and like art.

Baklava 3

The process of creating this baklava made me wonder how sweetness brings the pastry together — and perhaps how this sweetness could have mitigated tensions in society and brought individuals together, despite the bitterness of the political climate in Iran. Further, it made me wonder how food, and art more generally, can be used as a tool for unity and peace across the world.
Baklava 4

Week 10: Reform, Revival, and Muslim Women Defining Identity

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During section in week 10 of class, we had discussed Attar’s Conference of the Birds. Inspired by the symbolism of the birds in the Conference of the Birds, I decided to draw two of the birds on paper with colored pencils. Heron

Firstly, I drew the Heron. The Heron lives his life in rage and sorrow because he thinks that things are beyond his control. The Hoopoe, the wise bird, tells the Heron that he cannot have control over everything and must follow the path towards spiritual realization (Attar 46-48). The Heron thus symbolizes a human being whose fault is a desire for control.

Owl

Secondly, I drew a picture of the owl who is always on a quest for more gold. The Hoopoe calls this search for gold as blasphemous and advises the owl to pursue spiritual realization rather than material wealth (Attar 48). The owl thus symbolizes a human being whose fault is a desire for material wealth.

Sweetu

Further, I decided to take a photograph of my own bird, Sweetu, who is a cockatoo from the parrot family. In the poem the parrot desires immortality, which impedes his ability to go on the path towards God. As we discussed in class, the bird needs to undergo fana, or annihilation, and “Die before you die” or get rid of his egotistical desire in his pursuit of God. (Attar 38). The parrot thus symbolizes a human being whose fault is a desire for immortality. Therefore, I drew two images and took one photograph of the birds in the poem in order to represent the human faults of a desire for control, material wealth, and immortality, all of which impede human’s ability to achieve spiritual realization.

Week 6: The Art, Architecture, Symbolism and Décor of Mosques

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Week 4 Response

During week six of class, we had discussed three types of mosque designs, including the arabesque, calligraphic, and geometric designs, and how these styles can be combined in various shapes and forms in mosque architecture (Necipoglu 62, 222). I had been particularly fascinated by the photos we had see in class of the Mihrab, specifically of one that we had seen that was black and white (Lecture 3.1.16; Frishmann & Khan 33). As the Mihrab is such a key component of prayer within the mosque, I decided to create my own artistic piece of a portion of a black and white Mihrab. I created this piece using sketchpad paper and a black pen and sharpie. In the image, I tried to utilize both the arabesque and geometric designs (Necipoglu 62). As Muslims view God as “the light of the heavens and the earth,” the white portions of this design represent where God manifests his light in the Mihrab (Renard 7).

In her piece, Necipoglu argues that in order to understand Islamic art, individuals need to employ a semiotic framework and thereby take context into account (Necipoglu 83). The repetition of the various arabesque and geometric designs and its many layers represent the different communities of interpretation that are present within the religious tradition (Daftery 163). In the Frishmann and Khan piece, Graber mentions that the local community affects the design of mosques (Frishmann & Khan 245). Subsequently, depending on the local context, the black and white could represent the interaction between yin and yang. In other words, I would imagine such a white and black colored Mihrab in a mosque in China, where the mosque architecture adapts to the local belief in yin and yang.

To conclude, this artistic response represents the unifying principle that is involved in all Islamic art despite all of the variations you find within different communities of interpretations or within different local contexts (Nasr 3). Perhaps Nasr states what I am trying to express with my artistic response with greater clarity, “Islamic art is the result of the manifestation of Unity upon the plane of multiplicity” (Nasr 7).

Week 4: Prophet Muhammad as Paradigm, the Mi’rāj, and Poetry in Praise of the Prophet

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According to Asani, one of the four ways in which Muslims portray the Prophet Muhammad in devotional life is as God’s beloved and mystic. Artists often portray this role of Muhammad through miniature paintings, such as those of Muhammad’s “ascension to the highest heaven and his subsequent meeting with God” or the Mi’rāj (Asani 128). In response to the illustrations of this celestial journey that we have seen during week four of class, I have created my version of such a miniature painting (Lecture 3.1.16). In the Mi’rāj, or his celestial journey, Muhammad meets prophets on different steps of the ladder until he comes face to face with God (Asani 129). Subsequently, in my miniature painting, I have represented the prophet in his ascension by showing a figure beside a ladder. Along the sides of the ladder, there are other prophets, which I have represented through lamps because lamps are associated with prophetic light (Asani 132). At the very top of the ladder, there is a light, or the light of God, to represent God. In the black background, you will find stars that represent the celestial journey. I have thus drawn the prophet as the only individual with a figure in order to distinguish him from the rest of those involved in his celestial journey.

Instead of using canvas and paint, I have made my artwork on a “Scratch Magic Note” because the various colors, or colors of the rainbow, allow me to represent the different communities of interpretations and the various racial, historical, and local contexts of those who practice Islam and may interpret the Mi’rāj in different ways (Daftery 163; Necipoglu 83). Therefore, by including these communities of interpretation in my Mi’rāj, I hope to represent the unity that Islam, and Muhammad, provides for the diversity within the religious tradition.

Week 6 Response

Week 3: God’s Word as Sacred Sound and the Concept of Prophethood

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During week three of class, we focused on the Quran as sacred sound: the Quran is the word of God as God transmitted the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad (Nelson 257). Listening to the Quran then becomes an act of communion with the savior, or, as Nelson puts it, “a testimony to the miracle of human and divine interaction” (Sells 184; Nelson 257). Consequently, when the Quran becomes a part of the soundscape, whether it is on the radio or at a mosque, sound becomes something powerful (Nelson 260-261).

While it has been a long time since I have taken classes in music theory, I have chosen to compose a music piece in response to week three. As I do not understand the chord progression of the Ayat in the Quran, I have attempted to compose music phrases, or verses, that reflect what I think the Ayat we have heard in class sound like. I have specifically used the lower voices of the instruments – the two pianos, guitar, and base – to reflect the voices of the typical human being in Islam: one who is suffering due to his or her forgetfulness of God (Lecture 1.28.16). I have also chosen three instruments to reflect the different communities of interpretation involved in the religious tradition. Consequently, each instrument that I use repeats the same verse but sounds different due to the different communities of interpretations’ interpretations of the verses (Daftery 163). I have also used two pianos in order to represent male and female voices within communities of interpretation because in countries like Indonesia, individuals can even hear women reciting the Quran publicly (Rasmussen 30).

Ultimately, my goal is that through this artistic piece, both the listeners and myself will experience something somewhat sacred and powerful: if these voices are able to work together in producing a coherent music piece, then the different communities of interpretation and men and women can work together in harmony in society as well.

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