February saw the second Synkroniciti event, themed Walk in My Shoes. It was a great time to recharge batteries and share new creations.
We began a wide ranging conversation touching on, among other things, art, family, ghosts, spirituality and work. The expression of selfhood and its impact on relationships was the center of our musings. This eventually lead us to speaking of teenagers and our own teenage years, and we continued with a reading of Sister Godzilla, a chapter from Louise Erdrich’s masterful novel, A Plague of Doves.
Evelina has a new teacher. Sister Mary Anita has a large toothy jaw and Evelina, lost in a daydream in class, makes a drawing of “Sister Godzilla”, not realizing that the Sister is looking over her shoulder. Erdrich’s honesty, matched by her riotous and impish sense of humor, are disarming and inviting as Evelina’s cruelty is changed into empathy. Here is the moment of transformation, which comes after a humorous and yet serious exchange between the two women. The evasive humor drops away, replaced by naked awareness.
“Can I go now?”
“Of course not,” said Mary Anita.
I was confounded. The magical two words, an apology, had dropped from my lips. Yet more was expected. What?
“I want you to understand something,” said the nun. “I’ve told you how I feel. And I expect you will never hurt me again.”
Again the nun waited and waited, until our eyes met. My mouth fell wide. My eyes spilled over again. I knew that the strange feelings that had come upon me and transfixed me were the same feelings that Mary Anita felt. I had never felt another person’s feelings, never in my life.
“I won’t do anything to hurt you,” I babbled in a fit of startled agony. “I’ll kill myself first.”
“I’m sure that will not be necessary,” said Sister Mary Anita.
After the reading, Kelly showed some beautiful prints she had made recently using the soles of old shoes. The prints were inspired by a fascinating pendant made by her son when he was in third grade. You can see that the first one is light and tentative; the second, rather like a flower’s corona, is aggressive and darker; and the third, which may evoke snakes, coffee beans, or strings of beads, is a play between the two. You can’t tell this from the pictures, but the prints also had a lovely texture. We don’t think about the patterns on the bottoms of shoes and the surprising variety and beauty in their design.
I was very excited to present two pairs of my old shoes converted into art objects. One pair of high heels that became uncomfortable over time is now a pair of Party Shoes. I like to think of them as Shoe Drag Queens, beautiful and flashy with glitter, flowers, feathers and ribbon. A pair of boots, lightly worn because the arch was in the wrong place for my foot, became Nesting Shoes, earthy representations of nests with wings. They were so much fun to make that I had to force myself to stop (I have a couple more pairs of old shoes). You can read more about my process and my interpretation here. They are somewhat kitschy and very striking. I would love to make more of these for people…it can be an interesting way of preserving a favorite shoe. I am fairly sure this is the only time I’ve ever felt good about “putting my shoes on the table”.
It was a lovely evening. Yuri came out to claim his position as official Synkroniciti Mas-cat. Those who attended our earlier Open Mics before the second and third floods in our old home will remember that his sister Lisa Sasabuki used to preside in meetings, taking an interest in art and performance. She was one of us, and she was always an encouraging and attentive critic. She passed over the rainbow bridge between the second and third flood. We miss her but still feel her big presence (especially for such a small kitty). Yuri’s specialty is performance art, especially rolling over for tummy rubs. Younger sister Keiko Buki spent the evening in the office closet, reminiscent of Yuri in his younger days.
Our next gathering, which is our first Playdate (these are more active than Soirées) is March 30th and we will be building faerie houses. We made faerie houses in 2016, right before the flood came and washed them away. We are confident and hopeful that things will last longer this time. If you are in the Houston area, please come and be a part of this delightful event. It is my absolute favorite!
When you look through a window you gasp at the beautiful tree in the backyard or the magical sunrise coming over the horizon. No one looks at a window and is taken away by the complexity of the transparency of millions of atoms joined together to form.. a crystal clear yet structural opening to the exterior. The same (it) is with life, if you spend your whole life being a medium to enable others, then you will be nothing but a sheet of glass, overused, underappreciated, and fragile to opportunity.
Muslim women are frequently shortchanged by stereotypes. How do artists help to change minds and destroy prejudice?
I have selected the work of two female photographers, Boushra Almutawakel and Yumna Al-Arashi, and two male painters, Hakim Alakel and Mazher Nizar, to show us the face of Muslim women. All of these artists are of Yemeni blood and wrap up synkroniciti’s series on Yemen.
Recently I posted about the difficulty of being female in Yemen today and how current attitudes toward women do not square with the history of the nation, a place ruled in the past by Muslim Queens. You can read that post by clicking here. This post explores how those ultra conservative attitudes make their mark on the Yemeni soul and how they impact the way Yemeni artists, male and female, seek to portray the female form.
No exploration of the feminine in Yemen is complete without acknowledging and unpacking the hijab, the head covering worn by many, but not all, Muslim women around the world. The graphic below illustrates just a small portion of the diversity in female coverings in the Muslim world. There is a great deal of variety and opportunity for self-expression.
Boushra Almutawakel was born in 1969 in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She earned a BSBA in International Business at American University in Washington, DC, where she also fell in love with photography and worked as a photojournalist for the university paper and yearbook. Returning to Yemen in 1994, she became an educational adviser, but kept taking pictures and participating in exhibitions until embarking on a career in photography in 1998. Professional female photographers were unheard of in Yemen at the time. She balances her own projects with photography for magazines, charitable and cultural organizations and has garnered an international reputation for her insightful work. Boushra served as a cultural advisor for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington and later worked at the Ministry for Human Rights in Sana’a, specializing in women’s rights. She moved to France with her husband and children in 2013.
Her Hijab Series employs feminine humor and dignity to take aim at prejudice against Muslim women in both Eastern and Western culture. You can see more of this series as well as other works on Boushra’s website.
“I first started the series on the hijab/veil while attending photography school, where I attended a lecture by the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi. At that lecture she said that she felt that women who wore the hijab/veil or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup, in the sense that they all hid their true identities. I thought that was a fascinating perspective, and so decided to interpret this photographically.”
“In this ongoing project on the hijab/veil I want to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, as well as the beauty, mystery, and protection. The hijab/veil as a form of self-expression; the veil as not solely an Arab Middle Eastern phenomenon, the trends, the history and politics of the hijab/veil, as well as differing interpretations, and the fear in regards to the hijab/veil.”
“Mother, Daughter, Doll”
“A lot of people think that covered women are oppressed, backwards and uneducated. That is far from the truth. But at the same time I can’t hear very well if I am veiled and I can’t see the lips of women wearing the niqab. The biggest problem I have is with children being covered—there is nothing Islamic about that. I prefer our traditional veils which are colourful and more open. The black we’ve imported from the Gulf and the Wahhabis—with gloves and the rest of it—is too much.”-Boushra Almutawakel
Hakim Alakel was born in the artistic city of Ta’izz in 1965. He studied first in Yemen under the famous master artist Ali Hashim, following up at Moscow State Academy in Russia, where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree cum laude, specializing in frescoes, art history and conceptual art. There is a marked Art Nouveau influence in his lush and colorful paintings, which are on display all over the world. Learn more about Hakim and his paintings here. A large figure on the Yemeni cultural scene who has worked as a Professor of Art, a magazine contributor and critic, a consultant for the restoration of Yemeni architecture, a coordinator for children’s art and theater projects and much more, Hakim now lives in Jordan. The irony is that the elimination of his duties with the Yemeni Ministry of Culture, which is unable to operate in a country torn by war, has freed him to return to painting, imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia.
Hakim’s paintings recall city life in Yemen before the civil war, when communities functioned and family life was not dogged by death and warfare. There is a palpable longing for the emotional stability and simplicity of that time. Sleeping or awake, pensive or free-spirited, regal or humorous, the women he paints have personalities which are only rivaled by his vivid use of color. He must have had great affection for the women in his life to render them with such humanity and honesty.
“In my work, I depend on a range of aesthetic references, especially Yemeni ones, which form the basis of my artistic language. These include architecture, clothing, and other aspects of Yemen’s huge cultural inheritance, which goes back to 5000 B.C. and continues to the present day. This cultural heritage, especially its urban aspects, influences me greatly, and I feel that the Yemeni city lives inside me.”
“These cities, and their inhabitants, whether in Sana’a, the capital, or other cities, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature, and the environment. You’ll find the Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my art work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols and representations of the larger environment in which they live.”-Hakim Alakel
Traditionally, Yemeni women have dressed in bright colors and patterns. Most favored a bright cotton hijab rather than the burka or niqab, but those days have faded in the cities, where women are arrested for being on the street without permission and bullied for not being “properly covered”. Women in smaller villages, such as those picturesque towns in the Haraz Mountains that I have spoken about in an earlier post, still tend to dress in this fashion. It is good to have artists remembering and witnessing to better times. Maybe one day those good things can be restored and even bettered.
Born of a Yemeni family in Mumbai, India in 1958, Mazher Nizar came home to Yemen in 1985 after receiving his Diploma in Graphic Art from the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. He lives in Sana’a and is frequently inspired by the Old City. Mazher’s paintings hearken back to the Queen of Sheba, blending Arabic and Yemeni motifs and elements with a romantic Indian painting style. He has exhibited his work across Europe and Asia, as well as Canada. His decision to remain in Sana’a through the Civil War and share his art online through his Facebook account have inspired many Yemeni to hold on to hope. You can see more of his work on his website.
The feminine “inspired me a lot because it was hidden, and something hidden creates imagination, and imagination is good for the artist to go on and on with.”
“It was very good for me to paint on the Queen of Sheba, and I started painting ordinary woman as a Queen. It became fact that all my women became very spiritual and they were very out of this world. They are not portraits of any particular women, they are just women of my expressions, how I feel them.”
Mazher is inspired by women and believes them to be more spiritual in nature than men. Rather than seeing the covered woman as a victim, he sees her as an exalted mystery. If she is not completely human it is because she is superhuman- a mythological force which nurtures hope, symbolized by flowers and birds- not because she is in any way inferior. Veiling her stokes her desirability and spirituality, heightening romance. This is lovely, although there is a certain loneliness in being mythical.
Born in Washington, DC in 1988, the child of a diplomat, Yumna Al-Arashi was in middle school when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck. Overnight, she became subject to intense intimidation and bullying stemming from misguided hatred in the wake of tragedy. I recommend you read her moving experience here. Yumna holds a Bachelors Degree in International Politics with an emphasis on the Middle East from the New School in New York City and is now a documentary photographer who has lived and worked in many places around the world. She has worked with prestigious cultural organizations and magazines and has exhibited her own projects in the United States, the Middle East and London. You can see her credentials and more of her beautiful work on her website. Her work does a fantastic job of unifying the mythological feminine with the human.
from Northern Yemen
from Northern Yemen
“There’s this prevalent idea of a woman who is covering her hair or her body as totally oppressed, and that’s never a viewpoint I’ve agreed with,” explains Al-Arashi, who is Muslim and grew up in Washington, D.C. “My whole life I’ve been surrounded by Muslim women who cover themselves, and they’re such badasses and have such incredible depth—as much as any of the uncovered women I’ve met. As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.”
from Northern Yemen
“I wanted people to see that there is a Muslim woman that exists that can be comfortable with her body and who still supports other women who are covered, who thinks that’s okay.”
“I believe that controlling sexuality is the root of controlling all power in a society. To be able to openly bring a woman’s sexuality to light is an incredibly important step in expressing a woman’s freedom and humanity. Discussions of sexuality shouldn’t be taboo, and my hope is to be able to open the forum for further thought on the issue.”-Yumna Al-Arashi
Our most important thoughts and feelings are those that are hard to put into words. Can art give them voices?
Tuba Sozudogru presented her devastatingly beautiful and profound self portrait, This is how I get to you, at synkroniciti‘s Open Mic, Broken Pieces, on January 9th, 2016. In writing the overview for that evening, which you can read here, I found that I had too many thoughts about this remarkable painting struggling through my mind to put down in that post.
She dreams that she is drowning, sinking beneath the surface never to rise again and yet, surprisingly, at peace and surrendered. Smiling, she listens as all voices are silenced and the water hugs and cradles her to its breast. Light streams about her and she rejoices that she will never have to hide again. Here at last she can be her genuine self and trace the connections between the living and the dead, the seen and unseen. There is a noise, a motion from the outside world. As she wakes she feels both relief to experience another earthly day and sorrow to be separated from that wondrous light and water.
Being underwater requires a different mode of sensation and communication, something primal that eschews words. This is why it has so often been used as a metaphor for the subconscious mind. There is so much that we experience as human beings that evades description. Could it be that these are the very experiences that connect us with one another and with the creative spirit most tightly?
This is how I get to you is painted in bright, glowing colors upon a piece of scrap cardboard. The cardboard was damaged, the top layer removed over a portion of the surface to reveal a corrugated texture. Once painted, this texture recalls both an architectural quality of fresco painting, in which the building surface sometimes shows through the artwork, either from age or design, and the natural texture of reeds growing next to a pond. The entire piece is permeated by a sensual atmosphere of decay and transformation.
Our heroine lies exposed, cradled by bright blue water, surrounded by a brilliant yellow light that suggests an illuminated emotional state more than a sense of place. Her body is aroused and yet at peace, a contented smile upon her lips which reassures us that nothing is wrong here. A school of fish swim about her legs. These are a particular species of carp that eat away old, dead skin. The dead parts of herself are being eaten away, a disturbing and yet pleasurable experience. The cells of the human body are constantly dying and being renewed; the human self image is constantly being torn down and rebuilt. Death and life are the same process.
Not far from her body lies a figure, a totem which hints at personal tension and evolution. A human body is stretched, dancing, between a large birdlike skeleton and a transparent, winged creature that seems to be a fusion of bird and fish, perhaps even a dragon or mermaid. Birds, fish, mermaids and winged dragons are all beings that have spiritual connotations through their form of movement: flying through the air or swimming through the water. They are not earthbound beings and Tuba makes a strong case that we are not truly earthbound either.
During the death/life process, part of us decays, leaving behind only skeletal remnants, while another part, ethereal, is released, an energy that flies or swims away. It is a constant dance between that which will decay and that which will escape. There is also a profound tension between these two realms, the physical which is so obvious and yet short lived and the spiritual which is hard to define and yet enduring. We can fully describe the remnants of our past because we have lived them, but it is the future that contains our hope.
Even as we age, change and ultimately die, there is a part of us that escapes, remaining unique throughout this transformation. It is that part that we cannot fully describe in words or paint with our brush. Despite all our efforts we can only trace its outline as it moves into a place we have not yet visited. We can long for that homecoming even as we enjoy or endure our physical life.
Tuba has given us one more clue, an inscription which reads “I am what I am Written in the skies Once was love Always light”. Everything we see here is Tuba, from the brilliant yellow light to the pool, from the woman lying before us to the strange evolutionary figure. Her words remind us that the blueness of the water can also be interpreted as sky. After we leave the womb, the protective power of water still surrounds us, now as vapor. In a sense, we are all water spirits. We never leave water, but the element is diminished to a level that our consciousness and physical body can handle. Once the physical body is left behind, we do not know where the light of our existence will take us. Tuba has great hope for that journey and she is ready to share it.
Artists are often highly intuitive and expressive people who experience life in unique and individual ways. While many of us push away thoughts and images that make us explore our own death, Tuba has the gifts to explore these dark places. More than that, her art is able to reassure us when words and consciousness fail. It really does get to us.
One of the secrets to my sound is almost beyond explanation. My battered old Martin guitar, Trigger, has the greatest tone I’ve ever heard from a guitar. … If I picked up the finest guitar made this year and tried to play my solos exactly the way you heard them on the radio or even at last night’s show, I’d always be a copy of myself and we’d all end up bored. But if I play an instrument that is now a part of me, and do it according to the way that feels right for me … I’ll always be an original.
―Willie Nelson,“Watch Willie Nelson Tell the Story of His Legendary Guitar, Trigger”, Rolling Stone, February 11, 2015
We, who are so schooled in the art of listening to the voices of others, can often hear our own voice only when we are alone. . . For many women, the first choice, then, is to give ourselves the necessary time and space in which to renew our acquaintance with our lost voice, to learn to recognize it, and to rejoice as we hear it express our truth. ―Florence Falk, On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone
Besides, I’d seen a really nice pair of shoes yesterday in the mall and I wanted them for my own. I can’t describe the feeling of immediate familiarity that rushed between us. The moment I clapped eyes on them I felt like I already owned them. I could only suppose that we were together in a former life. That they were my shoes when I was a serving maid in medieval Britain or when I was a princess in ancient Egypt. Or perhaps they were the princess and I was the shoes. Who’s to know? Either way I knew that we were meant to be together.
When we focus on the song of our soul and heart, then others will be touched similarly. Sometimes people wonder or worry whether people will like or approve of their creative expression. It’s none of your business. It’s your business to stay present and focused for the work of your deepest dreams. It might look crooked or strange, or be very odd-but if it delights you, then it is yours, and will find its way into other hearts.
My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.
― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Fifty years ago today, a brilliant young poet sealed her kitchen off from her sleeping children with towels, placed her head in the oven and turned on the gas. Unable to reconcile the red passion of her existence with the blue of her depression, Sylvia Plath took her life before her thirty-first birthday. Today she remains an enigma that continues to dialogue with us about creativity, feminism, and depression.
This is a lovely, touching choreographed performance of Tulips from Plath’s famous collection, Ariel, by Taffety Punk Theatre Company in Washington, DC.
Rest in Peace, Sylvia.
Directed by Joel David Santner, Concept & Narration by Lise Bruneau, Choreography & Performance by Erin F. Mitchell, Narration Recorded by Paul Boehmer, Music & Sound by Marcus Kyd. TPUNK004