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Painting Prayers: The Calligraphic Art of Salma Arastu at MOCRA combined the traditions and points of views from differing, and sometimes conflicting religions, ethnicities, and artistic styles in a show of two series of works, Celebration of Calligraphy and Unity of Sacred Symbols and Texts. Large colorful paintings filled the main space of the museum, a spacious nave-esque room. Canvases hung on the walls, unframed, flowing like drapery, a few curling at the bottom. Bold calligraphy of Arabic text in black, white, or any of a rainbow of bright colors sit in front of backgrounds filled with red and green, gold, or, as in My Destiny, hues of purple and blue reminiscent of the impressionistic tranquility of Monet’s water lily paintings. If You Remember Me, I Will Remember You, incorporates thick gold paint, with stamps of patterns along the right side. These backgrounds of varying color fields, patterns, smudges or dripping of paint, create texture and provide an ethereal foundation for the calligraphy. Along the aisles, in side chapels, smaller paintings of calligraphy and figural elements hung in intimate settings. A long wall displayed a row of 15-inch circular mandalas. The disks fit within an Indian traditional of circular geometric paintings of balance. With text circling the edges, they are also reminiscent of Kufic inscriptions found on Islamic pottery.

The large size of Arastu’s calligraphic forms have a fluidity to them on a scale not usually associated with the delicate art of writing. The movement of her text invokes the action and drama of its creation, with large sweeping strokes that feel natural and almost guided by a hand outside of our own. The calligraphy is at once in front of the background, and at the same time working its way into the distance, merging with the color and becoming part of abstract patterns. Using text from the Quran, Arastu has given the viewer a look into the emotion she feels from these prayers. The paintings relay energy and feelings even if one does not read the words depicted. While her large calligraphy paintings feature verses from the Quran, others on view, including those in a series, Unity of Sacred Symbols and Texts, incorporate Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu texts. Painting Prayers is a confluence of thoughts and traditions. Arastu, born in India, raised Hindu and through marriage embracing Islam, now lives in San Francisco. She, herself, is a definition of multiculturalism, and her paintings are a reflection of her experiences. Arastu celebrates the lyrical quality of the verses found in the Quran with the flowing calligraphic text. Likely foreign to many observers, the Arabic text can be appreciated for the beauty of

its form as much as its meaning. The historically common use of non-figural patterns within Islamic art meshes well with the abstract and expressionist traditions of the west, providing another layer of Painting Prayers cultural fusion. Arastu communicates a general sense of unity and blending of ideas as well as specificity. There is an inherent juxtaposition of the precise and purposeful nature of the Quranic verses with the very painterly and apparent spontaneity of the backgrounds. The holy text is the core of a belief system and is celebrated for being stable and unchanging; whereas, the paint is sometimes dripping down the canvas, at the will of gravity as much as anything else. Indeed, Painting Prayers combines traditions and influences, and the very setting of the show, a renovated Jesuit chapel, further drives the point home. Salma Arastu shows the viewer how humanity should be: a convergence of ideas, and a thirst for knowledge and understanding of worlds outside our own - or worlds misunderstood as separate from our own. As one of the paintings, Increase me in knowledge says “...O my Lord! Advance me in knowledge.”    -Rich Vagen

Salma Arastu, My Destiny, Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (courtesy of the artist) IN REVIEW


All the Art, Winter 2015  

The Visual Art Quarterly of St. Louis

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