Threatened by secularization in the wake of modernization, members of different religions are joining together to give strength and inspiration to one another, even if their practices, backgrounds, and beliefs differ. Comes to play, Blessed Are the Artists, an exhibit at Caldwell College bringing together 20 artists from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Historically a Catholic college, the institution considered doing an exhibition on Christian art, when curator Yulia Tikhonova decided to make the exhibition theme broader.
Tikhonova explains that the subject of religious identity has recently become stronger, playing a role in politics where religion is used as a political tool versus an inspirational one. She discovered that despite cultural differences, artists of various backgrounds are exploring common goals in the role of religion in our shared contemporary culture. Some common themes include the possibilities of religious visualization through contemporary art, religion and identity, critique of women in religion, art making as “religion”, religion and pop-culture.
Several works in the show deal with books or book art and are exhibited in the Caldwell College Jennings Library. The exhibition states “where once books were the most important transmitter of spiritual knowledge, today’s contemporary book artists explore this medium to address the dynamic relationship between text, history and religion. ”
Book artist Lynne Avadenka presents two works, Root Words and By a Thread. Root Words (top left) is based on similarities between words in Hebrew and Arabic. Avadenka became inspired when she realized the word “compassion” (rachamim) was the same in both languages and teamed up with Mohamed Zakariya, one of the foremost Islamic calligraphers in the world, to produce this book.
Both artists contributed their knowledge of their respective religions and realized the importance of the book, letters, reading, and writing in Judaism and Islam. Root Words contains seven words in Hebrew and Arabic that are similar in pronunciation and share the same meaning. The artists chose to illuminate seven words as the number seven is an auspicious number in both cultures.
The pages contain quotes from Islamic and Jewish sources about letters, writing, reading, with drawings by Avadenka combining Hebrew and Arabic letterforms.
Avadenka relates, “the title ‘Root Words’ comes from the knowledge that both Hebrew and Arabic words are formed from a three letter root system, and that language is the root of the problem and the solution.”
Avadenka’s other work, By A Thread, continues the artist’s exploration of the commonalities in Judaism and Islam by looking at the stories of Queen Esther and Scheherazade. Research shows there are striking similarities between the two heroines: both were part of harem culture, were the second wives of insomniac kings, and both stories revolve around banquets and intrigue. Most importantly, both women used language, the only power they had at their disposal, to speak up and save lives.
The exhibition shows such a variety of approaches to religion in art and does not make one stance or another, allowing for each approach to be right. This idea further compliments the struggle for the religious in the secularized melting pot of the United States.
Tikhonova’s curatorial direction shows how religious themes come with a lot of baggage. “Religion never leans anyone to indifference. All reflect one way or another. Artists are naturally opinionated” says the curator. The show is not a critique of religion, rather it is an exploration of how contemporary life, a life of freedom and abundance, tries to embrace rules. We shall see if this trend of collaboration continues in the near future.Blessed Are the Artists runs from October 11 to November 10th, 2012. Caldwell College is located at 120 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell, N.J. 07006.