Art beyond borders

August 2, 2020

Art becomes bridge between religions, cultures

Friendship knows no boundaries as is the case with Abdullah M I Syed, a Muslim artist based in Australia, and Ben Rak, a Jewish printmaker, who have been working together over the years.

Having met while they were students in Sydney, Rak and Syed became friends. When Syed showed interest in introducing Pakistani art in Australia, the first collaborative project was hosted by VM Art Gallery.

The work titled Suspension of (dis)belief was conceived during debates Rak and Syed used to have about political narratives, religious differences and the horrors of wars.

“We used to discuss a lot of religious and political issues pertaining to Israel, Pakistan, the Middle East and the US. But these were mainly debates not fights,” Syed tells The News on Sunday.

The understating and respect they have for each other’s culture and traditions is visible in their work. Syed says that it would have been impossible for him to continue his artistic work in Australia without Rak’s guidance and help.

“I, as an Israeli, would have never had the opportunity to forge a friendship with people from Pakistan. In Pakistan, Abdullah would not have had the opportunity to be friends with an Israeli citizen. As our friendship progressed, we found ourselves talking about different aspects of Muslim and Jewish cultures - often finding that there are similarities in the cultural history and traditions. We found that while some people view Judaism and Islam as polar opposites, there is an element of brotherhood, if personal judgment is put aside,” Rak says.

“To add complexity and immediacy to our ideas, we studied performances, actions and objects that are used in Islamic and Jewish religious practices. We focused on wearable objects such as the kippah (Jewish cap also called yarmulke in Yiddish – kippah literally means a dome) and the taqiyah (the Muslim skull cap) and explored how these two similar-looking objects connect the past history of our two religions with the present political narrative.” Syed says.

On close inspection, one can notice that the starting point of prayers in both religions is similar.

The faces of the portraits are not shown. The artists depict the notion and practice of facing the wall among Jews and the standard prohibition of image making in Islam. Then there is the practice of reading passages from scriptures in Jewish tradition as well as Islam.

White images floating against a black background highlight the idea of peace between the two faiths.

Rak and Syed have connected the individuals using a cord made out of crocheted fabric which looks like a birth cord that presumably connects the history of Judaism and Islam. It looks straight as it starts with the caps but gets tangled towards the end hinting at confusion, myths and socio-political narratives led by violence that puts human lives at risk.

“Following the Renaissance religious style triptych paintings, Suspension of (dis)belief is a digital triptych that articulates separation, respect, and brotherhood through faith. It is a visual narrative with human interest and a semblance of truth, asking the viewer to suspend their personal judgment and go beyond, to a moment that constitutes poetic faith.” Rak states.

The artists believe that they can be open about their views about their religions and demonstrate the positivity and brotherhood the two faiths share although there is much negativity around. Religion has always been a sensitive issue. The artists have therefore been careful to make portraits only focusing the idea of similarities and comradeship.

Standing opposite the middle of the image a viewer can notice his/her own image reflected in the middle panel. The gap between the figures and the black background is meant to raise questions and let the viewer engage in debate and judge the situation according to their point of view.

“Initially we wanted to perform/announce this connection through various day-to-day performances while wearing our sculpture. These performances ranged from religious practices to playing sports, making art and enjoying a meal together. We ended up improvising many of these. During this time, Blake Religious Prize (2014) was announced and we wanted to include a video documentation of a performance, but due to schedule conflicts we decided to shoot a photographic portrait work. At that moment, Suspension of (dis)belief (2013-14) was conceived,” Syed says.

Rak firmly believes that their work will open new horizons and covey the optimism and the ability to overcome pre-conceived concepts regarding fellow human beings. Suspension of (dis)belief was selected as a finalist for the Blake Prize and later the Moran Photographic Prize.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

Art beyond borders