From Life-Art to Hijab
Complete essay with images is available at Stretcher: visual culture in the Bay Area and Beyond.
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.
You may find yourself living in another part of the world
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
You may say to yourself, my God, what have I done?
- The Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
What happens when life is art? Artists active in the Life-Art movement of the early 1970s influenced me, both as a person and an artist. I’m interested in a handful of pioneering artists committed to eliminating the boundaries between art and life such as Alan Kaprow, who describes an artistic practice that blurs into everyday activity; the question is to see where art stops and life begins. Linda Montano, especially, is an artist who exemplifies that life can be art, and that art is about a state of focused intention and presence. She consistently explores performance as a spiritual endeavor. Her piece 7 Years of Living Art + Another 7 Years of Living Art = 14 Years of Living Art, lasted from 1984 to 1998. During this time she developed an elaborate, durational, concentrated piece based on the yogic chakra system. Her desire is to live more consciously and in a state of constant awareness. Inspired by these artists, my exploration of the boundaries between life, art, and spirituality grew into an association, from 1992-2007, with a traditional Sufi-Islamic religious order from Istanbul, Turkey that has a branch in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This religious order is characterized by a strict program of training and attaches a great importance to dreams, which are considered a form of guidance along the mystic path. For me, this spiritual path mirrored the focus of self-transformative art; it supported conscious intentionality as a potentially beautifying and aesthetic project, particularly in its liturgical rituals. I fell in love with the Sufi notion of adab, an Arabic word meaning something like a combination of chivalry, right action at the right time, manners, and sensitivity. I wanted to apply this ideal to myself and saw its manifestation everywhere. The group I was associated with has a distinct, organized, and choreographed dhikr (or zhikr, which means remembrance) ceremony that involves chanting, music, and movement. Qur’anic recitation is part of this ritual and, in addition, because Muslims pray in Arabic five times a day, Qur’anic memorization is required and mastery is valued. So, by 1998, I decided to improve my reading and recitation of the Qur’an, and for the next six years I took classes in Modern Standard Arabic and in Qur’anic Arabic. I entered the world of Qur’anic recitation, an art form highly revered by Muslims. Learning Arabic to understand the Qur’an became my art, in contrast to my Western avant-garde art education and exhibition record. I memorized surahs (Qur’anic chapters) by copying them over and over. These memorization sheets became similar to calligraphic drawings and improved my Arabic writing. The writing itself allowed me to see and pronounce the letters and words more clearly and made the memorization process more interesting. The drawings were like prayers or meditations because I would say the ayat (verse from the surah) and write it at the same time in order to memorize it. My plan was to study the Qur’an with love.
© 2011 The Author, Janet Silk.
Image Credit: Silk, The Arabic text on the drawings says "Eid Mubarek," which means blessed Eid. Eid is one of the major Islamic Holidays.
The image is 5” x 7” on watercolor paper, pen and ink, metallic markers, glitter and was created in 2002. .