While Islamic Arts have a glorious and illustrious history prior to present times, in the U.S., currently there is a growing attention to and vibrant movement of Muslim artists and Islamic Art. Part of this is the work being done at the Center for Religion and the Arts in Berkeley, California, where there is an art exhibit opening on September 10th at the Doug Adams Gallery at the Graduate Theological Union. Entitled “Drawing the Soul Towards Truth: Muslim and Hindu Sacred Geometry” at drawingthesoul.com, the show exhibits 14 artists from around the world. Curator Rachelle Syed agreed to speak with Muslim Girl about the exhibit.
Muslim Girl: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Interfaith dialogue and interreligious work have been a part of my world and study most of my life. I am originally from Wisconsin, where I earned my BA in sociology with concentrations in religion and anthropology, and did work around cultural competency, anti-Islamophobia, and interreligious dialogue and activism. I then went on to earn my MA in Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations at Hartford Seminary. There, my focus centered around how theology evolves to meet changing needs, especially in Muslim spaces, but also as a greater project of dialogue, since the changes and shifts we’re experiencing are part of a shared experience. I eventually found my way to California, where I was admitted to the GTU for my doctorate. At GTU, I am a scholar-practitioner crafting a Śakta eco-praxis and theology of suffering informed by the intersection of constructive theology and decolonial theory and deep ecology. (Śakta refers to a Hindu sampradaya, denomination, that conceives of the Ultimate Divine as Śakti, the Divine Mother.)
Utilizing my background in Islamic studies, one of the things I study in addition to the above are the historical and theological intersections of Islam and Hinduism, of which there are many. My hope is that uncovering and sharing such research will contribute to a deeper understanding of our connections, and thereby eliminate, or at least disrupt, simplistic narratives that harm communities.
Muslim Girl: How did you get involved in this show in particular?
This show was originally the idea of Dr. Rita Sherma, the Directer of the Center for Dharma Studies and my advisor, and Dr. Munir Jiwa, the Director of the Center for Islamic Studies, which sits directly across the hall of the CDS. At the time, neither of them had the bandwidth to pursue it. I have experience in organizing events and conferences, so when Dr. Sherma mentioned this idea to me, I offered to pursue it for the purpose of interreligious dialogue between these two communities. I then approached Dr. Elizabeth Peña, the Director of the Center for the Arts and Religion (CARe), which houses the Doug Adams Gallery, who agreed to add it to their schedule. Since then, I have been working with Dr. Peña, and the Assistant Director, Lydia Webster, to make it happen.
This project has, therefore, been in the works for two years, as I started in Fall 2018.
Muslim Girl: Can you tell us about the exhibit, and why this, why now?
This project was not started in direct response to any world event. It began purely because Dr. Sherma and Dr. Jiwa noticed that they had something in common, and yet the ways in which that something (sacred geometry) were understood and interpreted in their respective traditions was vastly different. What could be learned from this difference? The dialogue began around the idea of art, and art as a means to communicate what cannot always be put into words – a poignant message for scholars. In both traditions, art carries theology and doesn’t exist simply as an expression of it, but they do so very differently. We tend to think of dialogue as a project between professors or activists, so what could a dialogue amongst artists teach us? Not just artists, but the people who come to view and interact with the art, especially when art isn’t just art, but when it is a means of communing with the Divine?
In my life so far, I have spent time in both communities, and both have shaped me into who I am now. I wanted to undertake this project because I saw it as an opportunity to share that beauty, and I see the knowledge that it creates as the projection of that beauty. Wonderfully, two other artists, Kinnari Saraiya and Salma Arastu, also approached this exhibition with a similar spirit. For this reason, their work is highlighted in a section called “Art in Dialogue.”
This is not to say we are ignorant of the realities of Muslim-Hindu relationships in some parts of the world. Indeed, such realities make this dialogue all the more necessary. This project includes voices from around the world, but its epicenter is here in California, in Berkeley. Adherents of both traditions have been asked to speak to the actions of people in other countries, on other continents, and governments they have little or nothing to do with. Likewise, members of both traditions have experienced hate crimes, bigotry, stereotypes, and other forms of violence. On several occasions, Dr. Sherma has reminded us that such efforts diminish the American identity of Muslims and Hindus in this country, and the most important dialogue is the one in front of us – this is the context that we create, and I firmly believe that the only way to create it in favor of human, and ecological, flourishing, is together. Not as an amalgamated, amorphous whole, but in all our complexity, nuance, and myriad differences.
For this reason, only Muslim and Hindu artists are in this show. Both Muslims and Hindus have struggled, to put it lightly, for appropriate representation in Western contexts. Often, our interfaith spaces do not adequately allow for the complexity of the world’s traditions, with a single Muslim or Hindu sometimes being asked to represent the entire, and wildly diverse, world of their faith. This time, there would be no struggle. The voices of Hindu and Muslim artists are prioritized, as is their work and experiences. We destabilized a center that needs to grow and can, through efforts like this and other projects of dialogue and mutual growth.
So, why this? Because its overdue, because we need to stop thinking of the world’s religions as mere expressions of a socio-cultural reality, and because we can. A better question might be, why not?
Why now? Like I said, I’ve been working on this for two years. Were it not for COVID, the exhibition would have been very different, but we will persevere. I am thankful that while we did lose some things due to sheltering and other restrictions, we can now welcome the whole world into this project. I’d count that as a substantial blessing.
Muslim Girl: What do you look forward to most as part of this exhibition?
Most of all, I look forward to the artists’ panel. I am excited for the moment that the people I have been working with for months can finally see and experience each other’s work, albeit in a digital form. Because of the online platform we were able to bring a total of 14 artists together, instead of just the four to six we would have otherwise been limited to. This exhibition includes both traditional and contemporary expressions of sacred geometry, and within each tradition, different denominations, cultures, and perspectives demonstrate the diversity within faiths as much as between them. The Artists’ Panel is the program wherein the artists will share their reactions and questions with each other as part of their own dialogue, before opening it up to community.
So thanks so much to Rachelle Syed for this interview, and please take the time to check out the exhibit at drawingthesoul.com
Sarah is a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area with at-risk and homeless youth. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God in her free time. She is currently working on a book on Sufism, mindfulness and recovery from co-occurring disorders and on an album with her band EYETestify.