Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Calligraphy in Painting by Muslim Women at Berkeley Art Center

Letterforms have character. You might notice this when you choose a font. Or if you receive a handwritten letter. Writing is part of something larger than each of us, a part of culture, an acknowledgement of communication we agree on and value. Beautiful writing, generally thought of as calligraphy, can also have different meanings in different cultures. Islamic calligraphy, for example, arose as artwork in Muslim cultures, where depictions of God were forbidden, and pictures of animals or objects were viewed as idolatrous. While some created artworks featuring Arabic calligraphy were not religious, many works related in some way to the Qur'an.

The recent exhibition at the Berkeley Art Center, Universal Messages: New Vistas, Contemporary Muslim Women Artists in the Bay Area curated by Salma Arts, show how words combined with color, form, and materials can reflect a modern spirituality while still connecting to past works. Here are some of the paintings that spoke to me, beautifully and simply.

Rubina Kazi: Peace Be Upon You (2018)
mixed media on canvas
30 in. x 40 in.

As with many of the paintings in the show, the words are the clear focal point. Here, a banner reaches completely across the layered patterning, the sharp, straight edges in contrast to the soft focus in each of the openings. From her website, Rubina Kazi writes that she loves "Sufi music and the message of peace, love and tranquility across all religions and cultures." Between the links, the variegated textures contain both tranquility and mystery, a view unknowable.

Nabeela Sajjad: To God We Return (2018)
24 in. x 36 in.

Metallics, particularly gold, are traditional embellishments in Arabic calligraphy. Here, Nabeela Sajjad uses the curving gold lettering to balance the bold block words that become both the statement and the pattern. The diacritical marks are almost playfully painted in turquoise: accented accents. Nabeela Sajjad, according to her blog, is the founder of Islamic Art Exhibit, which promotes traditional and contemporary Islamic art, hoping to "build bridges between various faith groups through the tradition of visual arts." The bold swooping gold letterform asks us to keep returning to it and directs our eyes up.

Rabea Chaudhry: Fajr (2018)
acrylic on canvas
36 in. by 48 in.

I was drawn to Rabea Chaudhry's work particularly, perhaps for the complex layering and the exploration of many textures. The block lettering provides a sharp edge and contrast to the lacy patterns. Because of the colors and layered textures, these reminded me, in a way, of Miriam Schapiro's works, and the writing and mosque shape, below, add a spiritual layer. Her statement highlights the benefits of "selfless empathy and generosity." The masking technique she uses allows the textures to show through the letterforms, like a curtain opening.

Rabea Chaudhry: Jugni (2017)
acrylic on canvas
36 in. x 48 in.

Bassamat Fayoumi Bahnasy: The Truth (2012)
16 in. x 20 in.

In Bassamat Fayoumi Bahnasy's painting, the words take on the organic forms of birds, delicate hands, or angels, or currents of air or swirling water. The shine emanating from the top right is a gentle metallic gold, like a beam of light. Since the paint is applied so smoothly we focus on the shapes of the letters and feel that beam. The layering and movement combined with the colors allow the viewer to be part of this world.

I think what makes each of these painting sing is the combination of the careful and sensitive handling of the materials, colors, and calligraphy with a deep sense of how the world is available to each of us, yet larger than each of us. Spirituality can mean different things to different people but feel similar. Words, whether we can read them or not, stand for human beings. These works show how we can connect and communicate, across boundaries, through visual art.

I've posted these previously, but here are a couple examples of traditional Islamic calligraphy again (from a visit to The Met, spring 2018).

Panel of Nasta'liq Calligraphy
Calligrapher: Sayyid Amir 'Ali
mid-17th c.

Folio from the "Tashkent Qur'an"
Syria or North Africa
late 8th-early 9th c.
"based on early form of kufic script with no diacritical marks to distinguish the letters, and with very little illumination"

Friday, November 23, 2018

Folding, Squash Triangles, and Food Banks

I was looking for a recipe that combined squash and phyllo dough. Ultimately, the method I found for rolling them up was exactly the technique we used in grade school to make paper footballs (and for folding up a flag). The footballs began with a strip of paper, often old homework, that was folded first on a diagonal, then rolled up as triangles to the end; any leftover piece was tucked back into the main body of the ball. To play, one kid would hold his index fingers and thumbs out to form the goal, another would flick the ball and try to make it fly between the posts. 

I began wondering if kids are passing notes in school, are making paper footballs, and are folding up fortune tellers and paper airplanes now that they do everything on their phones. And what does this mean for problem solving and hand skills and cooking?

We can pause here to contemplate these questions.

It's the season for eating, and the hand work for cooking is no different from that of making books or sculptures, even down to the same repetitive/contemplative steps. Here is a recipe for squash triangles that are made the same way as the footballs, but they are meant to land in your mouth. 

If you have leftover squash, yams, or pumpkin, for example, you can use it here. I roasted chunks of peeled and seeded butternut squash with olive oil, salt, and pepper at 425°F for 30 minutes, stirring and turning every 10 minutes. I then sautéed and carmelized one half of a red onion in olive oil, added a little cumin, sage, and soy sauce, and puréed it with the squash and one egg (optional). You could substitute different spices for sweet or savory.

As a dessert, you might try a purée of brown sugar or honey, butter, cinnamon and ground almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, or pecans, either with the squash or all by itself. (I think we're talking something like baklava or pecan pie, at this point.)

You will need about one half pound of phyllo dough (aka filo or fillo), thawed at room temperature for 4 hours or so if it's straight from the freezer, (or you can plan ahead and follow the package directions). The package I bought contained one pound, with sheets measuring 13" x 18"; I used eight sheets. 

Carefully unfold the stacked sheets horizontally, gently separate out a stack of eight and cut the stack down into six strips, about 2 1/2" wide each. Dampen a linen towel and cover the phyllo dough with the damp towel while you work. Allow at least an hour to fold up all the triangles.

Melt 4 T butter in 4 T olive oil. You may need to warm this up again as you proceed.

Place one strip on your work surface and brush it with the liquid butter/oil mixture.
Put a heaping teaspoon of squash about an inch from the bottom.

Start rolling up by folding the strip diagonally over the squash. You may need to flatten it a bit to continue, or move the filling down a little. You can experiment with the right amount to make it fold up nicely. This example has a tiny bit too much and should be a little lower.

Flip up the diagonal and try to align the right and left edges as you continue.

Eventually, you'll get to the end, where you'll just fold the flap over. It will stick together with the butter/oil.

Brush the tops with the oil/butter mixture and place on a parchment-lined baking pan.
(Note: you can postpone the baking until you are ready: wrap with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator.)

Bake in preheated 350° oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Serve hot, while they are still crispy.

Makes 48.

The gift of food is a meaningful, and I would argue the best, way to help people in difficult times. Food banks across the country accept cans and cash. Monetary donations are particularly encouraged so that the organizations can purchase in bulk and buy exactly what is needed. Consider this.

Two examples in the San Francisco Bay Area (there are hundreds across the country):
Alameda County Community Food Bank works with the goal to end hunger by providing for those displaced by personal or natural disasters, low-income families, children, adults and seniors: https://www.accfb.org

Contra Costa and Solano County Food Bank in addition to the above, is providing some relief for those affected by the Camp Fire, which just destroyed 13,906 homes.https://www.foodbankccs.org

Have a safe holiday.

Monday, November 19, 2018

New Work: Undersea Colonies

In 2016, I saw a color image in the New York Times that caught my eye. The deep blue against the chartreuse compelled me to study the caption, part of this article, "The 40,000 Mile Volcano." 

Reading about it caused me to include it in my project, HOUSEWORK. Undersea volcanoes and the living creatures that thrive deep below the Pacific Ocean in a neighborhood all their own and foreign to us fascinated me. When the call came out for the theme, "Shifting Tides," quilts pertaining to the Pacific Ocean, the Juan de Fuca ridge, which is where this life exists, was what I wanted to work with.

I started in June with the painted and crinkled silk cloth I had made and written about later here. I liked the pieces in a grid and tried making some oceany piecings around the grid. The project stalled.

Until November, when I did more reading and writing about the Juan de Fuca Ridge.
I printed wood type via letterpress on cotton scraps and the eco-dyed cloth I had made here.

I also had experimented with clamping a metal circle (some people use coins) to a folded cloth and dyeing it, making moons or X-rays, and that resulting cloth wanted a role in the quilt as well. When I was in the quilt store New Pieces to get a little fabric for patching a bed quilt I found this swirly smoky blue cloth that was better than anything I could dye or print. I could definitely use this for the undersea volcanic "black smokers." The materials were finalized.

The form was not.

And then, after a few days of rearranging, it was.

Fragmenting the printed cloth, like reading in an earthquake, appealed to me.
The moons or X-rays or albino animals at the bottom of the sea became the border.
The metallic painted and crinkled silk became accents to help organize it.

Then there was the stitching. Like topography.

Red was calling me. The giant deep-sea tube worms are red.

I tie-dyed/tea-dyed some red cloth and made the binding.

And stitched a little red volcanic activity top and bottom.

The back used up the scraps.


Deep in the Pacific Ocean, where plates collide below the cold, earth’s kitchen builds lava chimneys, black smokers, and a hot hearth hosting life that lived before us and hopefully ever after. That is, unless we pack probing tools and take a wrong turn—intent on dredging and stealing minerals, claiming magnesium, cobalt, and maybe a little gold for our own. While humans are just dots on a timeline, we can still impact what happens to our collective home.

Quilt text:

We will not
be planting
a flag on
Juan de Fuca ridge.

The plates rattled
before dinosaurs.
The volcano will spew
after robots.

Tick tock.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Little Relief at the Oakland Museum: Ray and Charles Eames

This was what our northern California sunrise looked like last Saturday. 

We are not near the terrible fires, but our air quality is so bad it is recommended we stay indoors with the windows tightly sealed, or if we have to go out, wear a mask. It feels like the Apocalypse. We're eyeing all of our belongings wondering what we would take if we had to leave. My heart and thoughts go out to all those who are suffering from the loss of their homes, family, friends, or pets.

Sunday, we were going stir crazy (this phrase gives an interesting image of walking around in circles in a confined space, which is what I was doing), so we headed over to the Oakland Museum. Which is, to get out of their own confined circle-walking spaces, what many other people did as well, particularly those with young children. We found a long line to get in as if a blockbuster movie was playing. Kinda neat, in a way.

One of the special exhibitions is the work of Charles and Ray Eames. There were a few objects that interested me. Decorated envelopes drawn by Ray.

Birthday card and envelope for Charles; enameled sign birthday gift, June 17, 1969

I was moved by Ray's Hermés 1980 diary. The signage says she "used this Hermés pocket diary for 20 years and kept each removable 'trimester' calendar in its original box. Charles Eames passed away on August 21, 1978. Ray marked this day in her diary with his initials, dates, or other inscriptions until she passed away the same day ten years later."

I also liked the hands-on area where you were invited to staple cones of paper together and clip them to a wire behind a light source. This was a way to turn a two-dimensional piece of paper into a three-dimension shape and then back to a two-dimensional shadow.

Eerie, but mesmerizing.

If you like shadows and dance, check out the video and works by Pilobolus here. In their newest incarnation, they turn their collective bodies into an elephant or a little dog, Medusa, and other intriguing creatures. I like shadows. They have potential: potent. Mysterious and intriguing. So many possibilities for imagination. A little relief.