by JANET McKENZIE
Geometric Aljamía: a Cultural Transliteration, a collaborative project between Virginia Commonwealth University colleagues Reni Gower, Jorge Benitez and Susan Schüld, began in 2013 when faculty from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Arts in Richmond, Virginia, were invited to submit proposals for Tasmeem, an international design conference held every two years on the university’s branch campus in Doha, Qatar. Following conversations with the artists at Crossing the Line 2 in August 2014, at the American University Dubai, this interview is with Reni Gower and Jorge Benitez.
Janet McKenzie: You initially developed a workshop proposal based on paper-cutting and perspectival drawing, with panel discussions and an exhibition that would incorporate and examine the impact of Islamic patterning and sacred geometry across cultures. What did you expect might unfold?
Jorge Benitez: When we made our initial proposal, we had no idea that the ensuing workshop would be as successful and moving as it proved to be. The news is full of stories about the cultural clashes and seemingly irreconcilable differences that exist in the Middle East; and, sadly, the region’s problems are real enough. But the story is also one of rich cultural cross-fertilisation. While it is thousands of years old, it still has unseen repercussions in our everyday American lives. That was the spirit of aljamía that we tried to capture, and hope to continue expressing as the project evolves.
Reni Gower: Since the theme of the conference was “hybrid-making”, it seemed perfectly natural to combine our interests in geometry. As such, we developed a proposal centred on the medieval Spanish concept of aljamía as an expression of east-west hybridisation. Aljamía is the transliteration of Iberian Romance languages with Arabic letters. Since we both already worked with geometry, albeit in very different ways, the idea of a visual transliteration of one culture’s forms into those of another became the basis of what we called “geometric aljamía”.
JB: Reni’s research with roots in non-representational painting extended a series of cut-paper pieces based on sacred geometry: patterns whose mathematical foundations were universal and had variants across many cultures. While her initial inspiration came from Celtic patterns, she quickly discovered Islamic analogues that addressed similar formal concerns.
RG: In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, Jorge wondered how two interrelated civilisations could have taken such divergent paths. Christianity and Islam share common religious roots and a Mediterranean heritage centred on ancient Greece, the Middle East and North Africa. Furthermore, their science, mathematics, languages, philosophy, religion and art were intertwined. These historical and cultural facts led him to develop a series of perspectival drawings built on the shared language of geometry and optics. The depiction of Islamic visual motifs through western perspective spoke to the tragedy of “a divided family within a very large single civilisation”.
JMcK: Who attended the workshop in Doha, and how did the respective participants inform the process and the outcome?
RG: Geometric Aljamía started with three professional artist-designers from the region (Hanane Korchi, Doha; Julia Townsend, Dubai; and Ghadeer Alawadhi, Kuwait) and expanded to include two additional artists from Afghanistan (Tamin Sahebzada and Mohammed Saleh Amin) when our workshop unexpectedly merged with the workshop conducted by Susan. We also collaborated with art historian Jochen Sokoly, physicist Khaled Saoud, writer Jean Ann Hodges and poet Diana Woodcock, who were all affiliated with VCU Qatar.
JB: We were delighted to absorb the diverse perspectives of our participants into our workshop. Each artist brought an aesthetic that was rooted in their culture yet spoke universally. A rich exchange of ideas unfolded over the course of the conference. The teacher-student relationship of the start quickly switched to one where all became equal partners in a collaboration that exponentially broadened our anticipated outcomes. The exhibition expanded to include an amazing poetry / guitar performance.
JMcK: Were the organisation and logistics complex: language barriers, cultural protocol and practical matters, such as supplies and suitable studio spaces?
RG: What is interesting to note about the overall development of our project is that the parameters kept changing. Once our projects were accepted, they grew from two separate workshops that could have had as few as two and up to 20 participants each to a combined workshop / exhibition / performance / panel with, ultimately, 12 contributors. At one point, we even thought we would have a member of the royal family in our group. Needless to say, there were a lot of moving parts, making arrangements for supplies, shipping paper, adjusting to cultural differences, and communication challenges caused by language barriers. While we conscientiously planned, we also needed to remain open and ready for whatever situation we would encounter once we got there. It was, and continues to be, “a work in progress”.
JMcK: Each of you three [Gower, Benitez and Schüld] brought significant specific talents and expertise to Geometric Aljamía. How did the project draw on the respective talents?
JB: Ultimately, our individual temperaments are as important as our intellectual and aesthetic understanding. Reni’s work speaks to a spiritual strength that embraces possibilities and invites all sides to an open aesthetic experience. My work, in spite of its superficial classicism, reveals a darker temperament that questions possibilities even as it appears to accept them. We complement one another by letting our artistic experiences, interests and personalities overlap to address complexities and nuances that can be overlooked working alone. We gently goad each other into questioning things we may miss individually. Susan, for her part, contributes another dimension that reflects the performing arts and, without being overt, their links to ritual. Her “sacred geometry” emerges through the patterns of poetry and voice – the interwoven inflections that reveal meanings beyond the words themselves. The rhythms and cadences of her recitations echo Southern American storytellers and singers. They share a universal beat that rings through Muslim prayers and Catholic litanies. We tend to forget that ancient Greek theatre emerged from religious ritual. Susan’s performances, no matter how secular they may be, remind us that those spiritual links remain.
RG: To add to this, I think we each bring something unique to the table that supports each other and the project. For instance, I always learn something new and interesting through Jorge’s ability to clarify the overlapping historical and cultural connections. I also enjoy working behind the scenes to make things happen.
JMcK: Can you explain how the various individuals (from different countries) who attended the workshops contributed to the final exhibition of works?
RG: For the exhibition in Doha, the pieces created in the workshop by our participants were added to the drawings and paper-cuts Jorge and I had prepared in advance. Once the exhibition began to travel, all the artists were invited to contribute new drawings, cut-paper pieces or stencils for additional wall tracings. With the exception of Alawadhi who withdrew from the project after Tasmeem, the artists are now represented by multiple works.
JB: Julia Townsend is an American artist and teacher at the American University Dubai. She focused her designs on Turkish arabesque patterns that she had studied previously. She developed a motif that was both a paper-cut and stencil for tracing directly on to the wall. The wall tracings were an unexpected but beautiful addition to the exhibition. Through Julia’s efforts, we were introduced to the gallerist Irene Barberis, who invited us to show Geometric Aljamía at the Langford 120 Gallery in Melbourne, Australia in September 2013. Irene and Julia were also the co-organisers of the Crossing the Line 2. As part of this conference, Julia invited us to the American University Dubai for a pre-conference workshop based on what we had done at Tasmeem. She was also instrumental in booking another showing of the exhibition and performance at The Total Arts Gallery in Dubai.
RG: Hanane Korchi is a Canadian-born Moroccan graphic designer, who was living in Doha at the time of the Tasmeem workshop. Although she wears a traditional headscarf and is proud of her Muslim traditions, she is a very an independent woman who defies our western stereotypes. She was instrumental in correcting an innocent mistake when we had hung a poem in Kufic script, a form of Arabic script, upside down. The ease with which she moves between cultures rescued what could have been an embarrassing moment. For her paper-cut, Hanane worked mathematically by plotting points for a pattern that changed as it progressed down a long, rectangular form. Her stencil was also used as a wall tracing in subsequent installations.
JB: Ghadeer Alawadhi is a young professional woman whose career started in the oil industry, but who was now shifting her focus to the fine arts. By being chaperoned by her father, she was able to attend Tasmeem. She adopted the Japanese Kirigami process of folding the paper multiple times and cutting into the folds to create a symmetrical design that could be tiled together.
RG: When the Afghan artists joined us, they each created stencils based on traditional Afghan calligraphy and designs. One stencil was cut into a large papercut and one was traced as a wall drawing. Tamin Sahebzada is a master calligrapher and teacher from the Turquoise Mountain in Kabul, Afghanistan. The school’s mission is to sustain the Afghan culture through the arts. Tamin comes from a family of well-known calligraphers who are specialists preserving the Behzad School’s style of illumination. His goal is to free the voice of Afghan people through the arts. However, he lives in fear and has been personally beaten by the Taliban for simply trying to enter his studio with a portfolio of drawings. Mohammed Saleh Amin is currently a student studying at Turquoise Mountain. His expertise is woodcarving. He has also experienced first-hand the difficulties of making art during war.
JB: All these encounters led to a collaborative performance in which Susan recited three poems written by her workshop students while standing in front of Reni’s large paper-cuts. I accompanied her on a classical guitar, which, as an aside, is an instrument derived from Arab stringed instruments. With the help and encouragement of participants from Morocco and Kuwait, Susan performed while dressed in an abaya and hijab, respectively the overgarment and headscarf that many Muslim women wear as a sign of their faith. Although the performance, especially in Muslim dress, could have degenerated into an offensive form of cultural pastiche and orientalisation, Susan brought to bear a level of sensitivity and professionalism that moved both Middle Eastern and western audience members. She demonstrated through her art the combined power of voice, physical expression and costume as a means of crossing boundaries and reflecting the same universality as the cut-paper pieces in front of which she performed. She never ceased being a westerner and an American, but she was, above all, an artist who brought forth the ritual power of the theatre arts as something analogous to religion in its ability to approach the mysteries of existence.
JMcK: Had you made paper-cuts prior to this, or was this your first experience of the technique?
RG: For some time, my research has focused on the universality of sacred geometry and the intertwined motifs of Celtic knots and Islamic tiling patterns. I began cutting unique patterns derived from these sources as large paper-cuts in 2009.
JMcK: How do the paper-cuts relate to other aspects of your art practice?
RG: In all of my work, I strive to create a private space within a public one. Using visually complex systems is a way to counter visual skimming and to slow the viewing process down. Whether painted or cut, my art quiets the mind and encourages contemplation.
JMcK: What did you discover about western and Middle Eastern visual systems, their similarities and their differences? And what do you believe the focus of Geometric Aljamía achieved for the individuals involved?
RG: By understanding the arts as a transliteration of one form of thinking to another and by addressing the fundamental patterns and geometry embedded in visual art and poetry, we examined the ongoing impact of Islamic art, science and philosophy throughout the world today. Whether it was manifested through the voice or the hand, Geometric Aljamía: a Cultural Transliterationintersected multiple cultures and drew new relationships across disciplines.
Geometric Aljamía: a Cultural Transliterationcaptures the spirit of two traditions that are sometimes viewed as incompatible. In truth, the west has always had its roots in the Middle East. Our two civilisations are two facets of a single, complex civilisation with a shared cultural and scientific history. The project not only encapsulates that fact, but more importantly, it was clear and evident to our Middle Eastern hosts and colleagues.
JB: As artistic partners, albeit each with a different vision and means of expression, we showed that form and culture cannot be separated any more than the concept of sacred geometry can be split from the underlying mathematics of the universe. Our work makes real and accessible what appear to be abstractions without simplifying or denying the inherent richness and complexity of their themes. Whatever contradictions they hold remind the viewer that, like the richness and paradoxical challenges that haunt the west and the Middle East, nothing can be reduced to black and white. A region and a people may give birth to a specific culture, but the results belong to humanity. We forget that the elements of design are universal. The language of form needs no translation. It’s a concept with which Susan and I are also closely involved through our respective disciplines. Perhaps it’s also one of the reasons we love to perform in front of Reni’s work.
Seeing Reni’s pieces illuminated by the late afternoon desert light was a spiritual experience that was not lost on Muslim observers accustomed to the richness of mosque interiors. Her pieces quietly activated the space where they were hung and encouraged the viewer to slow down and be contemplative. As ecumenical works, they transcended the particulars of any given artistic or religious tradition while reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable. By addressing universal themes that highlight a common humanity that knows neither physical nor cultural boundaries, she goes beyond the limits of history. Reni’s work provides an uplifting counterpoint to the real and manufactured divisions of the 21st century.
JMcK: The exhibition in Doha has travelled and evolved; it has shown in Melbourne (Langford 120), in Dubai (The Total Arts Gallery) and in the US, as a travelling exhibition, opened at the Bernard A Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University. You have published an impressive catalogue. What has the response been to this visually beautiful show, steeped in cross-cultural meaning?
RG: The response has far exceeded our wildest expectations. Despite language barriers or cultural differences, we have forged many new and lasting friendships around the world. As the project continues to generate interest, it is our hope to add new showings, workshops, and performances in the future.
JMcK: What will your next project be?
RG & JB: While we are still developing future opportunities for this project, it is always fun to think about new ways to work together. Since we are both painters of highly chromatic works, it would be gratifying to extend the underlying concepts of Geometric Aljamíainto a collaboration that highlights the universality of colour – colour as transliteration.
JMcK: Thank you very much.