Uniting Sacred and Secular: Two Green Cathedrals of Europe

Cathedral construction was a major engine of medieval Europe. Does a new approach to this historical architecture hold new possibilities?

Giuliano Mauri, La Cattedrale Vegetale, Bergamo, Italy

Giuliano Mauri, La Cattedrale Vegetale, Bergamo, Italy

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.

John Muir

Giuliano-Mauri-cattedrale-vegetale-cathedrale-vegetale-8 Giuliano-Mauri-cattedrale-vegetale-cathedrale-vegetale-7

The Cattedrale Vegetale, or Cathedral of Vegetation, stands at the foot of Mount Arera, near the Italian city of Bergamo. Designed by land artist Giuliano Mauri and completed by his son after the master’s death in 2009, the structure is composed of 42 beech trees. For now, the young trees are supported by columns constructed from fir trunks and chestnut and hazelnut branches. This frame is slowly rotting away as the trees grow. Much like the vaulted stone ceilings of a medieval cathedral, a canopy is slowly forming as the treetops bow toward one another. Five aisles lie between the rows of beech, which are staggered in height.


The Cathedral of Vegetation serves as a memorial to the work of an artist who created things that were usually short lived and subject to decay. Like any cathedral, it stands as a testament to its builder and his devotion, but this one enlists the aid of nature rather than merely subjugating and copying it. It returns to nature as a place close to creative energy and God. Mauri chose to allow people to share that energy by making the cathedral a place open to the community and visitors for worship, prayer and meditation.



Over 90 feet long and almost 80 feet wide, the grove of trees will reach into the skies for many seasons and years to come.





Very different from the old city of Bergamo, the master planned city of Almere is the newest city in the Netherlands, sitting on a tract of land reclaimed from Lake IJsselmeer between 1959 and 1968. This piece of land is referred to as a polder, a low lying area surrounded by manually operated dikes. In 1976, the first house was completed. The community was looking for an artistic concept that would make Almere unique. Marinus Boezem created De Groene Kathedraal, or The Green Cathedral.

De Groene Kathedraal

De Groene Kathedraal

Boezem will tell you that his Green Cathedral has nothing to do with religion and that viewing it in such a fashion is one-sided. That being said, it can hardly be separated from echoes of medieval Christianity. You can read more about his vision in this fascinating interview from the Museum de Paviljoens in Almere.

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral

Rheims Floorplan with aerial view of De Groene Kathedraal

Rheims Floorplan with aerial view of De Groene Cathedral

The structure is made of 178 Italian Poplars planted in a design that mimics the architecture of Reims Cathedral in France, open to the sky rather than enclosed with a stone vault. Whereas the original design was inspired by tree trunks and natural structures, Boezem’s creation seeks to return that stone design to nature. Boezem took hold of the cathedral as a logo, the starting point of the new city. The image has roots in both sacred and secular space. Like Mauri’s structure, people of various faiths and walks of life do come to the cathedral to pray, meditate and worship, but that wasn’t the reason Boezem built it.

Medieval cities cultivated cathedrals not only as places of worship, but as community projects that brought people together to work for a common goal, providing employment and fellowship. It took time to build one, sometimes centuries, and being a part of the process was to be part of something bigger than yourself. Today, there aren’t many things that take so much time and attention. The Green Cathedral may not take centuries to finish, but the poplars do mature over decades. It is estimated that the trees will reach their peak this year, reaching the height of thirty meters, just shy of 100 feet, after which they will begin to die. Italian Poplars are short lived trees, and barring the planting of new ones, this cathedral will begin to decay in little more than thirty years from its original planting.


In the forest nearby, you will see a second cathedral, this one a negative space made by the deliberate lack of trees, looking startlingly similar to a large keyhole. This structure will remain much longer, as if to do homage to the symbol of the cathedral and the open space it creates for the future. It may also be interpreted as the continuing influence of Christianity, an impression left on modern culture and on the hearts and minds of humans.


What strike me about Boezem and Mauri’s cathedrals are the permeability and sustainability of their structures. Modern man and modern religion suffer from a rigidity and adherence to habit which threatens the world around us and the core of life itself. We can choose a different way. We can make space and embrace possibility.


The Earth’s health is the only standard that is all-encompassing enough to overcome the ethnic, cultural, religious, and national tensions that are rending the world asunder. Only the Earth can become the central axis around which which world peace can be spun, for no religion is more compelling, no single nation larger, and no peoples older than the Earth itself. For that to happen, the collective human consciousness must expand enough so that our highest identification is as Earth-Humans.

―Ilchi Lee, Magos Dream: Meeting with the Soul of the Earth
All photos are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational purposes.

Animal Images, Inspiration from Nature, Part Two

Human beings have strong identifications, both positive and negative, with animals. What do our natural responses tell us about ourselves?

What follows is a gallery of art selected from the output of three outstanding artists, Sue Coccia, Athena Jahantigh and Rex Homan. I selected them not only because of their imaginative artwork, but because these artists also have great connections to native traditions. Clicking on the name of the artist will take you to their website. An internet search will turn up plenty of sites that explain what certain animals mean, but they can’t always interpret what they hold for you. If you are interested in the archetypal significance an image has held over time, which is fascinating, this website on totems and animal symbolism provides good content without being too definitive.

All images are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for analytical and educational purposes. The links in the captions below the pictures may lead to the artist’s description of the work and places where the art may be purchased.


© Sue Coccia

Sue Coccia

Washington state native Sue Coccia’s work is particularly rich because of the number of small images which come together to form the picture as a whole. No animal exists in a vacuum, but is part of an ecosystem that includes predators, prey, competitors and environment. Elements of that ecosystem find their way into the picture, as well as spiritual connotations and associations. The Dragonfly above is emblazoned with two eyes, symbolic of wisdom and vision. You will also find at least one lucky ladybug in each design. Whimsy and good nature radiate from these composite figures. It is as if each one blesses the viewer by accentuating the good in wildness.

Her drawings are crafted painstakingly by hand in pen and ink on watercolor paper, then painted with vibrant acrylic colors. She also makes objects for the home based on those drawings and designs the Animal Spirits series for Robert Kaufman Fabrics. The delightful Ladybug below is a kitchen trivet.

These fantastic images with their meticulous detail combine Coccia’s Indian heritage, her study of indigenous art, her formal art training and her love for animals to produce something that celebrates life and speaks eloquently of its complexities and interconnectedness. She’s a generous artist, who donates a portion of her income to wildlife preservation and her backyard has been designated a Backyards Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.

Athena Jahantigh

Ceramic artist Athena Jahantigh hails from Iran and holds an MFA and a Doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris. Her sculptures recall ancient works from the cradle of civilization, fused with modern forms through a lovely sense of imagination and artistic license.

one of The Poetic Gazelles © Athena Jahantigh

one of The Poetic Gazelles
© Athena Jahantigh

The Poetic Gazelles are inspired by artifacts found in the ruins of Shahr-e Sukhté, a Bronze Age settlement in southeastern Iran. The Gazelles are made in black faience, the clay being applied in strips from the legs up to the antlers.


one of The Poetic Gazelles
© Athena Jahantigh

Jahantigh uses the pottery, sculpture and art of her homeland to inspire her animals, but expresses what those forms evoke in her mind’s eye rather than reproducing them.

one of the Four Legs Without Leg

one of the Four Legs Without Leg
© Athena Jahantigh

Sometimes her works are quirky and amusing, such as the series The Four Legs Without Leg. In repeating the image of four legged beasts, she one day eliminated the legs, creating a shape that differed from what she was used to making. Take a look at the long haired sheep below, recognizable by the texture of its fur and its horns. The sheep is made of white faience, most of which is glazed to create silky locks of hair.

one of The Four Legs Without Leg © Athena Jahantigh

one of The Four Legs Without Leg
© Athena Jahantigh

One of Jahantigh’s strengths is her marvelous gift for texturing, honed by working in faience, which requires it due to the limited color palette. More recent experiments have led her to the medium of sandstone clay. More color variations are available, but she has grown attached to the process of texturing.

one of The Sandstone Animals © Athena Jahantigh

one of The Sandstone Animals
© Athena Jahantigh

You can read a wonderful interview with Athena Jahantigh here.


one of The Sandstone Animals
© Athena Jahantigh


one of The Sandstone Animals
© Athena Jahantigh

Rex Homan

Te ika a Maui © Rex Homan

Te ika a Maui
© Rex Homan

Te ika a Maui © Rex Homan

Te ika a Maui
© Rex Homan

The work above is a mythological representation of New Zealand, which is called by the indigenous Maori people Te ika a Maui, or Maui’s Big Fish. The enchanting story relates that Maui was fishing one day when he pulled the island from the sea.

Rex Homan, a native New Zealander with Scottish, Irish and Maori blood, is an internationally renowned  woodworker who has also worked in bronze. His sculptures, which are predominantly made of New Zealand Kauri, are enlivened by a dramatic sense of line that is able to capture figures in motion and makes even resting figures look as if they have been surprised during their usual routine. Like Jahantigh and Coccia, his works combine elements of realism with flights of fantasy, expressing the sublime and the vulnerable in the natural world.

Kaka, New Zealand Bush Parrot © Rex Homan

Kaka, New Zealand Bush Parrot
© Rex Homan

Homan’s sculptures are so dynamic that they look completely different from different angles. You really need to walk around them to get the full impact. For that reason I have included more than one image of each piece.

Kaka, New Zealand Bush Parrot © Rex Homan

Kaka, New Zealand Bush Parrot
© Rex Homan

Kaka, New Zealand Bush Parrot © Rex Homan

Kaka, New Zealand Bush Parrot
© Rex Homan

Kaka is a bush parrot that was once common but is now an endangered species. The Kotuku, known in other countries as the Great White Heron or Egret, is now scarce in New Zealand. This seems even more tragic when you understand that, in Maori myth, Kotuku are the guardians that guide the dead Maori home to the world of their ancestors.

Kotaku © Rex Homan

© Rex Homan

Punga is a figure in Maori mythology. He is the father of rays, sharks, lizards and all ugly, nasty or strange animals. If a person is deemed ugly, nasty or strange, he or she may be called Te aitanga a Punga, the child of Punga. Homan’s sculpture of him is a reinterpretation of this character, one that tells us to look deeper. There is beauty in him, even if we fail to see it because of fear or prejudice. It’s human nature to malign what we do not understand.

Punga, the Father of Nasty Creatures in the Guise of a Whai © Rex Homan

Punga, the Father of Nasty Creatures in the Guise of a Whai
© Rex Homan

Punga, the Father of Nasty Creatures in the Guise of a Whai © Rex Homan

Punga, the Father of Nasty Creatures in the Guise of a Whai
© Rex Homan

Homan’s uncle bequeathed him this beautiful piece of kauri wood. It was too flat to become a bird, so it became a Whai, or Stingray. In keeping with the spirit of the piece, Homan made something beautiful from a piece of wood that was deemed useless.

Punga, the Father of Nasty Creatures in the Guise of a Whai © Rex Homan

Punga, the Father of Nasty Creatures in the Guise of a Whai
© Rex Homan

Simplifying and smoothing the image into a fluid combination of lines, angles and curves creates figures of striking power. It is as if Homan recognized the craftsmanship already present both in the animal being represented and the block of wood being used and honored them with his own creative stroke.

The Kiwi, an icon of New Zealand, evolved alongside dinosaurs, but some people predict it will be extinct in thirty years. In the tradition of artists such as John James Audubon, Homan is a splendid advocate for the species he records in his marvelous work. Art can be a great force for conservation and empathy with our animal brethren.

Animal Images: Inspiration from Nature, Part One

From adorable kittens and puppies to majestic lions and wolves, we love pictures of animals. What need do they fulfill?

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

When I am attracted to the image of animal, be it a painting, a sculpture, a photo or any other representation, it is usually because I’m identifying with the creature’s attributes or abilities. That kitten is so cute, mischievous and lazy; that bird soars through the air, feathers agleam with beauty in the sun. Much of the time the quality or talent I’m attracted to is either something I prize and wish I possessed in greater quantity or something I identify with much to my chagrin. Yes, I’m probably anthropomorphizing more than is logical. Am I alone? I expect not.

My cat, Yuri

My cat, Yuri

Native American and other indigenous peoples live in much closer proximity to wild animals than most city dwellers, although we have our companion pets. These pets are all the more precious to us because they provide a link, however tenuous, to the Earth and Creation outside of ourselves. They make us feel less lonely. But indigenous man is wise about wildness, and usually recognizes the inspirational nature that exists between humans and animals. Sometimes these figures are called totems or spirit animals, creatures that reveal to us what certain traits look like. These can be valuable to city dwellers, too. If you doubt that, go to any social media site and look at the large numbers of posts that share videos and photos of animals we will never meet in our own backyards. At least I hope not!

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

If you are a creative person, check your artwork for animals that crop up. If you investigate these animals, both from a personal perspective and from the perspective of various cultural traditions, including those unfamiliar to you, you will find themes and attributes running through your work, some of which may be surprising to you because they are completely subconscious. Birds and snakes are all over my poetry and my art, as are insects.

All earthlings, human, animal, even plant, have positive and negative attributes and behaviors, and most of the time that value judgement has more to do with circumstances. When you need to stand up for yourself in a business meeting, the image above may not be the image you need; the image below may be more appropriate. Should you need to make peace with your significant other after an argument, the opposite may be true. If you are drawn to an image or repelled by it, take time to ask yourself why.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at art by artists that have made animals their specialty.

Sharing a Difficult Journey: The Art Installations of Serge Alain Nitegeka

How do we break cycles of violence? Art helps us share painful personal stories and build empathy across cultural lines.

Serge Alain Nitegeka

Serge Alain Nitegeka

Serge Alain Nitegeka was born in 1983 in the African nation of Burundi. When he was eleven years old his homeland erupted into open conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, violence that devastated Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. The two countries had been a single nation, Ruanda-Urundi, until 1962, and the longstanding animosity between peoples recognized no boundary.

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, and the President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down. These were not the first assassinations in the region and the backlash was fierce. The Hutu led governments began to execute Tutsis and moderate Hutus in an attempt to secure peace by killing all possible dissenters. Those who did not perish began a shadow existence, unable to move back home or establish a future anywhere else because of the prejudice that dogged them and their lack of legal standing.

Black Subjects, 2013

Black Subjects, 2013
Video available here.

Nitegeka was one of these refugees, fleeing the genocide behind him and trying to eke out a life for himself. As he moved throughout Africa, he constantly had to bow to the conditions set for migrants in different countries, the catch-22 situations that meant he couldn’t relax anywhere. His journey to freedom would take a decade and leave scars and impressions on his internal landscape and imagination. He has found a way to express the darkness and pain of those years of wandering by making art.

Nitegeka's work displayed as part of Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, 2015

Nitegeka’s work displayed as part of Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, 2015

Nitegeka, who now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, makes a living as an installation artist, combining sculpture, design, construction, painting and performance art. Most of his pieces feature beams of black wood arranged in such a way that they impede movement. Visitors must find their way through by stooping and stepping over and through obstacles. This is Nitegeka’s way of creating empathy, sharing the feelings he felt as a refugee, remembering a time when he constantly had to modify or retrace his movements in order to survive and hold on to his sanity and humanity.

Performance means that the body is ‘directed’: this installation directs you in a manner that prompts your body to rehearse and perform certain movements, puts you into my position. I’m sharing my story with you, and you’re completing it as a performer. The installation can be interpreted as a stage.

© Jay Caboz used in accordance with fair use Policy

Black Lines, 2012
image © Jay Caboz

It is an obstacle course, intended to express the idea of liminality. It’s is as if I am saying, ‘That is not how you’re going to walk in here, THIS is how you have to walk here’. Avoiding the lengths of wood as one negotiates the space is like an enforced ritual: one’s movements are, to a large extent, broken up into a set of prescribed parts and paths: that is a ritual process.

–Serge Alain Nitegeka, Interview for Artthrob

You may read the entire interview here.

Obstacle 1, 2012

Obstacle 1, 2012

Nitegeka has won numerous awards and has exhibited his work at the Dakar Biennale in Senegal, numerous galleries in South Africa and the Armory Show and Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City. His work is featured in Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, an exhibition currently showing at The Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, exploring the impact of colonialism upon identity. This week he will be opening a new solo exhibition, Configuration in Black, at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia.

What a tremendous journey and what a brave and noble means of working through one’s past!

 All photos used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.



Traveling by Touch: Experiencing São Paulo in Samparkour

Most of us navigate the world principally by our sense of sight. What if we expanded our sense of touch?

This remarkable video, directed by Wiland Pinsdorf, is an exploration of the Brazilian city of São Paulo, a concrete jungle teeming with people. We see the tall buildings sandwiched together, the cars threading their way between them, people in the maze of public transportation and walking the busy streets. We see the marks of urbanization, graffiti that challenges the status quo and cars mired in traffic. Our eyes tell us that life is cold and hard here and that people are trapped into the rat race of what is expected of them and what they can expect. A blind man walks alone down the street with his stick, picking his way calmly and safely through this metropolis.

Soon we meet our hero, Zico Corrêa, as he takes in the city around him and responds in a way that defies the vision of São Paulo as a maze or a rat trap. He begins to avoid the everyday path and careens off of lamp posts, walls and buildings to get where he is going. Corrêa practices parkour. Parkour is a training discipline that teaches how to get from point A to point B efficiently and quickly, using the body and the surrounding landmarks and structures to move the practitioner across the landscape. Developed from military training on obstacle courses, it seeks to maintain momentum while making intelligent and safe choices. The practitioner must understand his environment and his own body, never underestimating or overtaxing either to the point that he injures himself, which can happen very easily at any time should his concentration or execution waver. He must see and understand what awaits him at every bend, every jump, every alteration in course.

Corrêa must use not only his eyes, which may daunt and deceive him–look at the misleading reflections caused by water and glass and imagine the fear most of us feel when faced with a wall or exposed on heights–but his sense of touch. Like the blind man, he must be sensitive to surfaces and subtle changes that will determine his stride, his grip, and what type of motion he will employ. When negotiating a climb or descent he must break it down into small, manageable steps. He must know how to slow himself down or take advantage of his momentum by tumbling. Failure could easily result in death. Parkour isn’t something to be done on a whim, but requires strength and flexibility that require training as well as a great deal of planning.

Most of us won’t be practicing parkour any time soon, but we can appreciate it and the metaphors it gives us for life. It reminds me not to trust my eyes completely, but to test and feel my world through touch and experience. We are all cowed by the obstacles around us from time to time and can always use the reminder that there is more than one way to do something and that the path of another may not be suited to our combination of strength and flexibility. This journey of life is unique for each one of us and we must each negotiate our own ascents and descents.

Safe travels and happy tumbling!

Obstacles from Within: Mind is a Jungle by BRZZVLL

All over the world, people migrate from rural areas to the city for new opportunities. What is needed for success?

© Dylan Harbour with CCLicense

Johannesburg, South Africa
© Dylan Harbour with CCLicense

People leave family farms and traditional local businesses to venture into the city every day, some excited by new technology and new possibilities, some simply trying to survive and provide for their families. The search for a better life has been one of the engines driving the United States for much of its history, drawing immigrants from all over the world. It is a wonderful thing to be able to start again in a new place, but there are dangers as well. Prejudice stalks from without and within. This video from BRZZVLL, Mind is a Jungle, is a wonderful illustration of the reality of displaced people all over the globe. BRZZVLL is a wonderful band from Antwerp, Belgium, with playful funk and jazz grooves that recall the 1970s. The track also features Anthony Joseph, a poet, musician and novelist from Trinidad. It’s a whimsical look at community life that challenges us to look deeper. Who are these people costumed and camouflaged in a way that hides their individuality? Do you feel threatened by their costuming and their actions?

When we feel homeless, we try to create familiar conditions, clinging to traditional behaviors and cultural norms that may no longer serve us. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor the past and the traditions we came from, but those traditions can make us blind to both the useful and the toxic in our own background, in the ideas of others, and in in progress itself. On the other side of the coin, people who don’t understand our background (and who does?) will make assumptions of us dependent upon their concept of our ethnicity, religion, and culture. As a result, communities become mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually segregated.  How do we build empathy and break down these boundaries? It’s important to realize that this isn’t a third-world problem. All cities have dissatisfied souls, and at any given time we may find ourselves among them. From New York City to Beijing, London to Lagos, Sao Paulo to Sydney, people are finding that there isn’t as much room in the city as they hoped. This is true not only for immigrants, but for any resident. We may find ourselves too old, too young, too unskilled or just in the wrong place to be successful. Moving to a new place can give us a new start, but only if we allow ourselves to think new thoughts and achieve a relationship with our new surroundings.

Main Street, Florin, CA, 1942 Dorothea Lange

Main Street, Florin, CA, 1942
Dorothea Lange

Maybe your mind isn’t a jungle. Maybe it’s a small town, a desert, a cotton farm, or even a busy city. The more you learn how to navigate your own thoughts, the more chance you have to navigate the world around you with empathy and sensitivity. The form that the cities of the future will take is dependent on the projections, dreams and prejudices of those of us who construct and inhabit them.

In Love with a Train: The Fateful Whimsy of Pica Do 7

Sometimes a journey, no matter how mundane, is the most interesting part of our day. How is art like travel?

A train car passing through the Cascade Mountains as part of EXPO 1974.  Public Domain Image via NARA.

A train car passing through the Cascade Mountains as part of EXPO 1974.
Public Domain Image via NARA.

It is a wonderful quality of travel that it puts us in contact with other people. Sometimes these interactions are pleasant, other times challenging or downright disturbing, but they are the source of countless surprises that mark our lives like signposts. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of public transportation. I remember riding the bus during my college years and the time it gave me to unpack my day and to watch others living their lives. The kindnesses and cruelties on a bus or train are many–empathy and prejudice never fail to be passengers.

This beautiful and amusing fado, Pica Do 7, is written by Portuguese songwriter and musician Miguel Araújo and features the velvety voice of António Zambujo. The song is a marriage of whimsy with the underlying sense of fatefulness and melancholy that laces through the entire genre of Portuguese fado.

The words do not lend themselves to a literal English translation, which kills the poetry that makes them so stunning. The singer sings about love for the train, for the electric controller that puts it into motion. He (or is it really the she of the video?) didn’t want to fall in love with it, but his skeptical heart was stolen–he doesn’t even care if it breaks down because that means he can spend more time on the train. Nothing gives him the shock that the Number Seven train does and he can imagine no destination that would be more desirable. We get a momentary glimpse of what might have caused the situation when Zambujo sings, “If I ask if it has the pass to someone’s heart, who knows if I could obliterate that heart.” This traveler is not the first who turned to travel because of a wounded heart. Does he travel to assuage the pain or to nurse it?

Video via António Zambujo on YouTube.

The video itself is beautiful and full of a sweet, winsome longing. I especially enjoy the invasion of the train car by the band, a lovely, and yet only momentary, diversion from the young woman’s solitude amongst the everyday passengers. It emphasizes the difference between external and internal reality and the impossibility of bridging the gap between our perceptions and aspirations and those of people around us. We are never quite where we think we are. The delightful gender confusion between the song and the video add to the disorientation already present. Is the singer perhaps the young lady’s animus–always near, sometimes comforting and sometimes uncomfortable, but never quite in sync with her conscious self?

Art and music come along to complete the journey, but it’s difficult to judge whether they reduce or amplify the pain of life’s heartbreak. At any rate, the silence without them wouldn’t be very exciting, nor would it be as beautiful.

For more information about this talented singer with such a sexy, easy voice, please check out his website.

Transformative Life: The Power of Imagination in Dhafer Youssef’s Whirling Birds Ceremony

The modern world presents opportunities to encounter and assimilate different cultures. Can this expansion of experience expand purpose and faith?

A Muezzin Calling from the Top of a Minaret the Faithful to Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1879

A Muezzin Calling from the Top of a Minaret the Faithful to Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1879

Musician Dhafer Youssef was born in the small fishing village of Teboulba, Tunisia, from a long line of muslim muezzins. It is the job of the muezzin to sing the adhan, or call to prayer, from the mosque whenever it is time for prayer. The community depends on the muezzin to keep accurate schedules that organize their day and help them practice faithfulness. Blessed with a powerful and expressive voice, Dhafer was sure to inherit both the beauty and the responsibility of the muezzin’s vocation. Life had other plans.

His grandfather introduced him to Quranic recitation, chanting of verses from Islam’s Holy Book, and he was schooled in the practice. Away from the discipline of school and grandfather, the six year old Dhafer sang along with the radio in his mother’s kitchen, experimenting with his voice in a different way. Although he still remembers his first chanting of the adhan with fondness, his talent and his interests would not be fulfilled as a muezzin. He attended a conservatory in Tunis briefly before leaving to study music in Vienna. In addition to singing, Dhafer plays the oud, a middle eastern lute and predecessor to the guitar, and composes music, both acoustic and electronic. He has released eight albums and performed all over the world.

Some traditionalists might say that he betrayed his ancestors by rejecting the role of muezzin, but that isn’t the only way to look at it. Yes, his music incorporates influences from Indian ragas, Norwegian music and jazz and is marketed to non-muslims. Despite this, a look at his subject matter and output, with titles such as Birds Requiem, Electric Sufi, Digital Prophecy and Divine Shadows, reveals that, far from abandoning his spirituality, Youssef has used his wanderings to deepen and expand his faith and share it with others, including those from different traditions. Delving deep into Sufi thought, with its desire to experience God intimately and directly, his vocation has become to call not only muslims to prayer and reflection, but all kinds of people.

Video via Dhafer Youssef on YouTube, please check out his wonderful website here.

This video from the album Birds Requiem is called Whirling Birds Ceremony. The title recalls the whirling dervishes, Sufi ascetics who practice a whirling dance in attempt to bring themselves closer to God. The atmospheric and ethereal music, which features Youssef on oud and vocals, Hüsnü Senlendirici on clarinet, Eivind Aarset on electric guitar and electronics, Kristjan Randalu on piano and Phil Donkin on double bass, is enhanced by splendid images from Maksoun Studio. We see and hear an inner world of fantastic and lovely transformations, much in contrast to the dark outer world revealed at the end of the video.  This inner world is constantly changing and moving, ranging through outer space, while the outer world is the human city with its fixed constructions and geography. Devotion and prostration lead to freedom and depth of motion as the soul whirls into the sky when the body bends low. Whirling Birds Ceremony reminds us that those who wish to contain and define other human beings can never contain and define our minds and spirits. More than that, it calls us to dream and let our inner being dance.

What a lovely and enduring vision!

What Lies Between: Exploring the Japanese Tea Garden

Transitioning from busy exterior lives to our private lives is difficult. How do we keep a quiet place for ourselves?

Kingston Lacy Japanese Tea  Garden, Dorset, Great Britain © Ray Beer with CCLicense

Kingston Lacy Japanese Tea Garden, Dorset, Great Britain
© Ray Beer with CCLicense

The Japanese tea ceremony, cha-no-yu, and tea garden, roji, evolved from traditions and tea from China. The Buddhist monk Eichū  was the first person acknowledged to celebrate the ceremony in Japan during the 9th Century, after returning from a trip to the mainland, where tea had been known for many centuries. It was seen as an enlightened and civilized practice and developed deep spiritual significance.

The word roji has its origin in characters that mean “path”, “ground” and “dewiness”. It came to be used as a term for the area that lies between the main house and the chashitsu, the room or house where the tea ceremony is performed. Guests do not only pass through the roji, but use the area to prepare their minds, spirits and bodies before the host invites them inside the tea house. Thus the roji is not only a physical path, but a spiritual one.

Yugao-tei  Chashitsu in Kanazawa, Japan © OpenHistory with CCLicense

Yugao-tei Chashitsu in Kanazawa, Japan
© OpenHistory with CCLicense

Green Gulch Zen Temple, San Francisco, CA, USA © kafka4prez with CCLicense

Green Gulch Zen Temple, San Francisco, CA, USA
© kafka4prez with CCLicense

Over time, the roji became a garden. Ideally, it provides an elegant and yet simple scene, a backdrop to a ceremony of solemnity and beauty. The roji includes a tsukubai, or ablution basin, where visitors wash away the dust of the outside world by performing a ritual hand washing and rinsing of the mouth.

Tsukubai at Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto. The inscription reads, "I only know plenty." © Michael Maggs with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan. The inscription reads, “I only know plenty.”
© Michael Maggs with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Tofukuji (Tofuku Temple), Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan © Totorin with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Tofukuji (Tofuku Temple), Kyoto
© Totorin with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Rengeji, Kyoto

Tsukubai at Rengeji, Kyoto
© KWR with CCLicense

tōrō, or lantern, stands in the garden. Stepping stones, tob-ishi, lead to the tea house, which is often behind a wicket gate. The stones are laid out in a simple and naturalistic manner, sometimes alternating right and left to facilitate walking.

Tōrō at Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima Public Domain Image

Tōrō at Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima
Public Domain Image

Tea House at Roji at the Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi, Japan © Bjoernord with CCLicense

Tea House and Roji at the Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi, Japan, featuring a lovely path of tob-ishi, or floating stones and simple gate.
© Bjoernord with CCLicense

Some roji feature ginshanada, areas of gravel or white sand that, among other things, symbolize openness to experience and the changeable nature of life. These “empty” spaces may be raked into patterns made during contemplation or left pristine. Typically the tob-ishi path will cross through the ginshanada. The raked patterns often recall water ripples, just as the ginshanada are reminiscent of lakes or streams. This style is known as karesansui, or rock gardening, but many westerners refer to it as Zen gardening, pointing to its origins in Buddhist meditative practice.

Harima ankokuji, Kato, Japan  © Jnn with CCLicense

Harima ankokuji, Kato, Japan
© Jnn with CCLicense

Zuiho-in Temple, Kyoto was founded in 1535 by Otomo Sorin (Otomo Yoshishige, 1530-1587), who was later baptized and became one of a few Christian lords in Japan.

Roji at Zuiho-in Temple, Kyoto, founded 1535 by Otomo Sorin, who later converted to Christianity.
Public Domain Image

Garden plantings are simple and emphasize form and texture rather than color, most often eschewing flowers for evergreens, mosses and grasses. Ume, plum trees, and maples may be included and do provide some color. As opposed to many western gardens, where plants are trimmed to produce blooms, plants here are cultivated for healthy foliage and beautiful shape. The goal is to achieve a sculpted and yet natural look that does not draw attention to itself, but encourages the contemplation of good things.

Pureland Japanese Garden, North Clifton, UK © Richard Croft with CCLicense

Pureland Japanese Garden, North Clifton, UK
© Richard Croft with CCLicense

When I enter a space like the roji, my mind rests from “being productive” or flowering. I become aware of the invaluable beauty of health and enjoy simply being present. I can also appreciate the work that must be done to keep the space orderly and functional. We don’t all have space or time for physical gardens, but we do require some open space in ourselves for quietness and preparation in order to keep our inner selves from being suffocated. In that sense we are all gardeners. What is it that you cultivate in your life?

Icons of Irony: The Grinning Faces of Yue Minjun

What remains when our faith in the institutions around us is shattered? Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s work gives an answer.

Yue Minjun, Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Yue Minjun, Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Yue Minjun was born in the town of Daqing, China in 1962. His parents were nomadic oil field workers and he seemed destined to follow in their footsteps, but a brush with art during his high school years planted a seed in his soul. Minjun, like many others of his generation, was working hard to survive. He became an electrician at an oil firm while a teenager and later took a job drilling for oil on deep sea rigs, all the while indulging in his passion for painting. He would go for days without sleep, balancing his career with his calling. It wasn’t an easy time for anyone in China; at least his art gave him a creative outlet for his angst.

In April 1989, the former Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, died. He had been a liberal voice against hardliners controlling the government, a champion of young people fed up with inflation, corruption and limited opportunities. Students gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to mourn him and to call for the freedoms for which he stood. Over the course of the next seven weeks, around a million people assembled, drawing the attention of the international community. Panicked at the prospect of losing control and at smaller protests breaking out across the country, the Chinese government declared martial law. The world watched in horror as 300,000 troops with assault rifles and tanks killed unarmed civilians. Images streamed over western television of young men and women standing bravely before tanks that rolled mercilessly over them, crushing their bodies and the hopes of Chinese youth. But that spirit is far more resilient than anyone expected.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995 Inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, but not a depiction of that horrible day.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995
Inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, but not a depiction of that horrible day.
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Minjun had grown up relying on police and the state for a sense of order and protection, but the Tiananmen Square Massacre and subsequent crackdowns shattered his faith in the government, as well as the idea that he could continue his former lifestyle. In 1990, he quit his job and moved to Hongmiao, an artist’s collective in Beijing, where he began to paint and sculpt with a vengeance. Most of his output consists of images or figures of himself laughing, wide-mouthed, toothy, grinning at the edge of madness. The biting irony of this smiling figure who holds pain in his heart has great resonance in China and beyond, making Minjun an artistic and commercial success.

Amaze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun image © Wee Sen Goh with CCLicense

Part of A-Maze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun, Vancouver
image © Wee Sen Goh
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Cameron Norman with CCLicense

A-Maze-ing Laughter, Vancouver © Cameron Norman with CCLicense

The meaning of his grin is intentionally vague. Is it frivolous escapism or is it a confrontational espousal of emotion from a man trained at a young age to mask his feelings? Minjun has been labelled a leader of the Cynical Realism movement, a group of Chinese artists who mock themselves and society to make a point. He does not accept the label. Doubtless there is an element of ridicule and mockery in his work, and he certainly attacks convention and social norms, but, I think that, rather than depicting insincerity or even cynicism, Minjun’s figures depict a taunting resilience. It’s as if he is saying, “I’m still here and I’m still laughing,” the artistic equivalent of thumbing the nose or flipping the bird. I admire his boldness immensely.

Image via Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery  Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Image via Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Untitled, 2005 via the Saatchi Gallery  Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Untitled, 2005
via the Saatchi Gallery
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Despite his fame, Minjun keeps a relatively low profile, living in the Songzhuang art colony, the most famous and largest artistic community in Beijing. He has shown work all over the globe, from Singapore and China to London, Vancouver and the United States.

He’s still laughing.


Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy