Salaam Shalom exhibition Introduction and Forward:
Shared Space: A Muslim and Jewish Art Exhibition Produced by Salaam Shalom
21st-24th May 2015 at The Old Foyer, Colston Hall, Bristol.
Curated by Rebecca Bellamy & Karan Sahota
On what is The World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue, we launch Salaam Shalom’s
first Muslim and Jewish Art exhibition and what is the first British Muslim and Jewish Art
exhibition of its kind in the UK. Salaam Shalom is a small but strong and passionate team,
supported by its network of local communities and the dedication of volunteers; many who
have shown exceptional commitment, from producing radio shows to supporting our work with
schools and other creative projects, since it began in 2006.
Salaam Shalom was founded to bring about dialogue between Muslims and Jews in Bristol.
Since then it has expanded its remit to include bringing about dialogue between these
communities as well as the wider communities that they are a part of and equipping young
people with the skills to counter prejudice and discrimination. Salaam Shalom’s projects
utilize Education, Media and the Arts to foster dialogue between communities.
Salaam Shalom is not a campaign group, as an organisation we do not make statements
on political situations, because we are a collective network of people with widely varying
views. Our role is to foster dialogue and understanding. And we champion creative
approaches to achieving this. Shared Space is not an illustration on commonalities, nor a
politically laden examination on conflict. It’s much more subtle and personal. It showcases
the work of contemporary British Muslim and Jewish artists. Some clearly link to Artists’ faith
and cultural identities and some are more ambiguous and open to interpretation.
We hope that the art exhibition will provoke and inspire conversations that raise awareness
and understanding, of the cultural connections between Muslims and Jews, which go beyond
the current politics of the middle east. With our accompanying programme of workshops,
talks and performances to facilitate dialogue, cooperation and learning.
This is now my fifth year working for Salaam Shalom and as an independent freelance
curator, as well as Manager of Salaam Shalom, it has been a particularly exciting
opportunity for me to be able to combine two of my greatest passions- humanity and art.
I believe that art can be a powerful tool for building community. It can bring us together, to
share spaces, experiences and conversations. You glimpse into someone’s inner world. And
you find connections with your own. This is the beginning of dialogue.
We want to make new contacts and expand our network, so please join our mailing list and
look out for future opportunities, including to build on this dialogue further.
Rebecca Bellamy, Programme & Development Manager
We are grateful for any donations (Charity #1121252) , you can donate here:
www.thebiggive.org.uk/donation/to/10247 www.salaamshalom.org.uk firstname.lastname@example.org
Tracing Differences: Jewish-Muslim Art and Dialogue
A Foreword written for Shared Space by Dr. Aaron Rosen
Calls for interfaith dialogue usually begin with the claim that what binds together Jews,
Christians, and Muslims is their common identity as ‘people of the book.’ Yet practitioners
of these faiths are also people of the image. While Jews and Muslims in particular are
often typecast as fierce opponents of ‘graven images,’ they share a much more complicated,
and in many cases much more positive, relation to visual art than frequently assumed.
Both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an do display anxiety over the misuse of figurative
images, especially when it comes to the practice of idolatry. Yet neither sacred text
condemns art in toto. And while there have certainly been periods of iconoclasm in both
faiths, both Jewish and Islamic culture have also experienced great flowerings of art, both
figurative and abstract.
Not only have Jewish and Muslim artists faced similar theological dilemmas, they have also
shared themes, styles, and even artisans. In medieval Persian manuscripts, Jews and
Muslims sometimes borrowed motifs from one another, or rendered the same stories—
whether of Abraham, Joseph, or Esther—in strikingly similar ways. In medieval Spain, Jews
and Muslims enjoyed a period of such productive cross-pollination that one thirteenth century
Toledo synagogue is almost indistinguishable from mosques of that period (in a further
twist, it later became a church). In the modern period, Jewish and Muslim artists have
participated in an ever more international art world, sharing in the avant-garde trends of
their times, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism.
Despite these frequent and fruitful crossovers, little has been done to investigate what roles
visual art might play in inter-religious dialogue. There have been exciting efforts over the
past couple decades, especially in Britain, to use texts as a device to bring Jews and
Muslims to the same table. Today, groups throughout Britain join together for ‘Scriptural
Reasoning’ sessions where Jews, Christians, and Muslims discuss related selections from the
Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an. It is high time we begin to use images in a
similar fashion, as Salaam Shalom have adroitly recognized in this timely exhibition. In fact,
it is possible that art might open up conversations that Scripture cannot. Whereas Scripture
comes freighted with a host of traditional interpretations and preconceptions, art can
sometimes provide a more neutral terrain, where Jews and Muslims can feel free to
extemporize, and find fresh meanings together.
A brief look at some of the marvelous pieces in this exhibition reveals exciting possibilities
for conversation between faiths. An essential, yet often ignored element of dialogue is
ambiguity, which runs as a refreshing undercurrent through this show. In Effie Romain’s
Tabernacle, for example, it is unclear whether the entry to the building is itself a tabernacle,
or whether the entire edifice might be a tabernacle. Is the home itself sacred, she seems
to ask? Or is this little crimson cottage in fact a church or a synagogue? Perhaps we
are peering into a neglected corner of the Vermont woods, or maybe a Russian forest
(there is more than a touch of Chagall here). In another twist on the theme of ambiguity,
Louise Block crafts amorphous ceramic forms which hover between figuration and abstraction,
never quite becoming ‘graven images.’ This is creation in motion, on the very verge of
existence. We might recall that in the Bible, God compares himself to a potter, shaping
the course of life (Jeremiah 18.6).
Creation also announces itself in the various patterned works in this exhibition. In Hasret
Brown’s intricate geometry, perhaps most powerfully in The Complete Journey, we sense a
map of the unfolding cosmos. In fact, while her main reference points are clearly the
arabesques of Islamic art, Jewish viewers might also find parallels with diagrams of cosmic
energy in kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism.
Maryam Golubeva’s magnificent paper-cut, Flying Carpet, is a feat of assiduous
craftsmanship, recalling such famous precursors as the Ardabil Carpet from Iran (1539/40)
at the Victoria & Albert Museum. And yet, as much as one might marvel at Golubeva’s
stunning, labyrinthine forms, even her slight imperfections might bear an important message.
Historically, Muslim weavers intentionally created imperfections in their carpets as a reminder
that only Allah was capable of conjuring true perfection. In the patterns of Peter Brill, we
have an equally important reminder about the nature of creation: not only can it be glorious,
it can also be joyful, even whimsical. In one of his signature glass etchings he riffs on the
apotropaic tradition of the ‘evil eye,’ common across the Middle East. We can safely
assume, as he puns in the title, The Eyes Have It! There’s no room for evil spirits or
bad luck with all these eyeballs on patrol.
In addition to geometry, several artists also take up calligraphy, another important strand in
Jewish, and especially Islamic art. Ayesha Gamiet channels a long Muslim tradition of
accentuating the organic qualities of Arabic script, presenting a Flower Bismallah, in which
the words “in the name of Allah” bloom outwards. In Ya Rabb, Rizwan Ahmed continues
the highly successful Hurufiyyah movement, in which modern Muslim artists have used the
formal properties of Arabic calligraphy to address both their Islamic heritage and modern art,
especially the gestural school of Abstract Expressionism (often closely associated with
Jewish artists from New York). The Repenter is a particularly compelling image, which
combines the expressive power of text with a figurative image. The words on the figure’s
spine—“There is no God but Allah”—literally bend the penitent to God’s will. I cannot help
but wonder what Kafka—in whose “Penal Colony” perpetrators suffer the tattooing of their
crimes onto their flesh—might have made of this work. Was their any room in his
dystopian vision for the kind of redemptive transformation pictured by Ahmed?
In So You Think You Can Tell, Rachel Garfield introduces questions that resonate through
the works of many artists in this exhibition, and beyond. She interviews a black woman
who grew up in a white middle-class environment and had a daughter with a Jewish man,
as well as the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, who describes parting ways with the strict
religious traditions of her upbringing. At one point, the first interviewee declares that after
years of people, both black and white, urging her to find her roots, she realized, “I’m never
going to belong. What does it matter.” Where in the mouths of some people these words
might feel hopeless or dejected, when Garfield’s protagonist pronounces them, they possess
a certain power. Jews and Muslims in this country know the experience of un-belonging all
too well, of feeling disconnected from non-Jews and non-Muslims, but at times also from
their ‘own’ communities. Rather than becoming a source of tension, perhaps these shared
sensations of difference might instead become a wellspring of mutual creativity. This
exhibition is a start.
Dr. Aaron Rosen is the Lecturer in Sacred Traditions and the Arts at King’s College
London. He is the author of Imagining Jewish Art (Legenda, 2009) and Art and Religion
in the 21st Century (Thames and Hudson, 2015). He is also the curator of a series of
inter-cultural exhibitions at the Jewish Museum London, entitled Your Jewish Museum.
Special thanks to our Trustees, staff and volunteers past and present. And for the tremendous
support of The Tudor Trust towards organisational costs since 2010.
Many thanks to participating Artists: Effie Romain, Ayesha Gamiet, Louise Block, Rizwan Ahmed,
Rachel Garfield, Peter Brill, Hasret Brown and Maryam Gobuleva. As well as performers Mark
Smulian and Shagufta Iqbal.