Exhibit shows Islamic art

Amid gray days, and even grayer slush, Yale plays host to a Muslim artist’s colorful reflections on Islamic spirituality.

This week, the Davenport Art Gallery hosts “Tempered Stillness,” an exhibit by Pakistani artist Ayesha Shariff. Her work, on display for Islamic Awareness Week, delves into Islamic mysticism and its significance in the Muslim world.

The artwork itself is a mixture of vibrant and powerful colors that at times blend seamlessly and at other times starkly contrast with each other. But the artist’s work overall holds together cohesively and uses this juxtaposition of styles to highlight a sweeping spirituality and otherworldly qualities. While much of her art does not immediately suggest a scene or plot at first glance, the paintings clearly share common subject matter. Shariff creates very stylized but mystical representations of Islamic spiritual themes and their manifestations in the lives of Muslims today.

“The paintings on display reflect my curiosity about the mystical dimensions of Islam,” Shariff said.

Woodbridge Fellow Yusuf Samara ’05 said the exhibit highlights certain aspects of Muslim spirituality and acts as way for non-Muslims to experience Islamic mysticism. One recurring image is the ka’aba, Samara said, a cubic structure that is the focus of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

“Her use of this image in particular is very powerful because she removes the ka’aba from its normal context and gives it very unusual or surprising surroundings: floating on a lily pad, for example, or entwined within a net of human veins,” Samara said. “This was especially moving and thought-provoking to me as a Muslim because it forced me to re-examine this symbol in new ways.”

An example of Shariff’s work that features the ka’aba is the piece titled ‘Show us the Straight Way” (1:5).’ This piece embodies the spiritual journey and challenge expected of a Muslim. Through a juxtaposition of contrasting colors and blended tones, Shariff deepens the dimension of the piece and creates distance between the viewer and the small cube-shape structure that has traveled down a windy river. This exaggerated distance between the ka’aba and the art appreciator brings new meaning to the call for divine assistance.

While the artist explores Islam’s mystical past and its manifestations in the present, the exhibit works within a greater context — Islamic Awareness Week. Some Yalies, including Samara, expressed their excitement that Islamic culture — especially in its visual forms — is building a greater presence on Yale’s campus.

“The Islamic Awareness Week is a wonderful chance for everyone on campus and the community to get a better sense of the diverse and rich nature of Islamic contributions, historically speaking, and which are continuing today,” Samara said.

Alice Drain ’10 said the exhibit is an important visual complement to the other activities of Islamic Awareness Week.

“It presents another aspect of what the Islamic community has to offer, and it enhances diversity and awareness at Yale,” she said.

But this exhibit is not just an investigation of the relationship between Islam and today’s society. It also acts as an outlet for the artist’s own commentary on her experiences as a part of that relationship.

“The imagery is derived from selected verses of the Holy Quran and interspersed with my personal stories and discoveries,” Shariff said.

In conjunction with Islamic Awareness Week, there will be a reception for the exhibit “Tempered Stillness,” hosted in part by the Muslim Student Association, on Feb. 21 at 4:30 p.m.; the exhibit will be open until Feb. 24.

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