Birds of Longing: Exile and Memory
Artist Laurie Wohl reflects on the inspiration/aspiration for her project "Birds of Longing: Exile and Memory"
I am an unweaver. My Unweavings® fiber art pieces – using unwoven canvas, textured papers, and other materials as a foundation – serve as my medium for integrating visual and tactile elements with spiritual texts. The calligraphy and my own iconography – raised from the surface of the textile - serve as conveyors of meaning and as part of the abstract patterning of each piece.
The catalyst for my current project - "Birds of Longing: Exile and Memory" - was the shocking events of September 11, 2001. Living in New York City - seeing the ash-covered window displays in the shops near Ground Zero, witnessing daily the pictures of those lost, I thought of this passage from Ezekiel (and Revelation):
"The hand of the Lord was upon me. . .and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones. . and, lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, Son of man, can these bones live?. . . Thus says the Lord God to these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. . ."
It's an image of complete desolation, but then a message of hope and resurrection.
Between 2001 and 2010, as I completed various interfaith church projects, as Islam surfaced in our political and cultural consciousness, and many Muslims were demonised, I felt increasingly the urgency of expanding my interfaith explorations to include Islam. I began to think about how I, as an artist, could contribute to a better understanding among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
In 2010, I created "Ezekiel" - my first response to September 11, incorporating the text from Ezekiel and Revelation in Hebrew, English, and Greek calligraphy.
"Ezekiel" became the beginning of the "Birds of Longing" project,
in which I explore the relationship of the three Abrahamic religions, in place and through time, with text, calligraphy, colour and form. I began by investigating poetry and spiritual texts from the Spanish medieval period - the Convivencia - when these religions coexisted, influencing each other architecturally, culturally, and linguistically. I then delved into powerful contemporary Middle Eastern poetry, particularly Palestinian and Israeli.
A personal development grant from the Surface Design Association enabled me to travel to Toledo, Cordoba, and Granada, to view the calligraphic art incorporated into the architecture of the Convivencia, and to immerse myself in its architectural forms – the horseshoe-shaped arches,
the prayer niche or mihrab,
the stalactite-like ceiling decorations, called muqarnas. I experienced this interweaving of the cultures at the El Transito Synagogue in Toledo, the synagogue and Mezquita in Cordoba, the Alhambra in Granada (see here).
Grants from the Center for the Arts, Religion and Education (CARE) enabled me to hire native speakers of Arabic and Hebrew for word-for-word text translations, to have them participate with the composer Daniel Wohl in the creation of a soundscape for the project. The soundscape consists of poems and spiritual texts read in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Exhibit viewers, using prepared iPods, are able to activate tracks relating to specific pieces as they move around the exhibit.
The CARE grants also enabled my collaboration with the liturgical choreographer Carla De Sola and Omega Dance in the creation of a dance response to pieces in the exhibit.
So, through research into this medieval period, and into the wealth of contemporary Middle Eastern poetry, I found common themes of spiritual love, exile, memory, nostalgia for Andalusia, poetry referencing Old and New Testament texts and the Qu'ran,
poetry speaking of mistrust of enemies,
yearning for reconciliation.
I construct visual narratives from these themes, in combination with my own iconography, indicating guardians, messengers, journeying, dancing, praying and processional figures, plant and animal forms.
As with my earlier interfaith work, the emphasis is on the threads that bind us and the commonality of the themes, but I also came to appreciate the particularity of the experience of each community.
The 18 pieces constituting the project, in form and text, incorporate the wonderful shared imagery of the poetry: olive trees, birds, exile in the image of abandoned campsites, God as gazelle. Islam shares the Protestant and Jewish traditions of privileging text over image. I address these traditions by visually interweaving texts, using Arabic and Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English calligraphy, as well as by incorporating Islamic architectural forms and colour references, and the iconography of the veil.
As the situation in the Middle East continues in a downward spiral, as the people of Europe encounter the massive movement of refugees, and xenophobia and intolerance gain a foothold there and in my own country, I believe it is all the more important to encourage continuing interfaith/intercultural conversations.
I hope that the visual and auditory impact of "Birds of Longing" will make vivid the connections among the Abrahamic religions and stimulate reflection on their shared emotional, aesthetic and thematic content. I hope to suggest a different way of seeing, and to offer healing.
Since the inaugural exhibit of "Birds of Longing" in 2013, its travels through Fall 2018 include interfaith and educational venues in California, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Minnesota.
This article is written by Laurie Wohl, a fiber artist based in New York City.
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