Peace Wall Inauguration at ICCNC
Coinciding with ICCNC’s Ramadan Open House, the Center will be unveiling its first permanent installation. The inaugural Peace Wall is the result of years of collaboration and coordination between two Bay Area artists, calligrapher Arash Shirinbab and ceramicist Forrest Lesch-Middelton. This ceramic mural is the final result of the Creative Work Fund grant that the artists received in partnership with ICCNC. It marks the culmination of careful study and practice of the centuries-old traditions of Islamic calligraphy and ceramics, bringing them into a dialogue, between the lifeworlds of the Islamic Golden Age (8th-14th Century AD) and our present times, and between the value systems that they both inspire.
Much like the verses of the Qur’an, ceramic patterns and inscriptions, many of which are traditionally culled from the Qur’an itself, contain meaning that is polyvalent: they may be mystical, poetic, political, amorous, or all the above. So too is signification abundant in the patterns and inscriptions of Shirinbab and Lesch-Middelton’s unique collaboration. Their Peace Wall starts from a familiar place, with the central word Islam, repeated and spliced with the Arabic/Persian inscription, salam/solh (peace), both words sharing the same etymological Arabic root (SA-LI-MA), denoting safety from harm. How could peace, the word emphatically displayed in Kufic style script on the tiling, be something so obvious and appealing to virtually everyone, yet so seemingly elusive and difficult to achieve? Or is it? Often the simplest of principles, of mercy and peace, are occluded by the clouds of politics and the innumerable distractions of modern life. Arash suggests that part of how art can help give way to peaceful action and conduct is through refocusing our attention back to universal principles.
“We aim as artists to bring hope and bring attention back to what’s most important. We get pegged, as Iranians and Muslims, as something threatening. We are bringing attention back to the fact that we are part of society and humanity. (Peace) seems out of reach, but maybe it’s actually easy if we learn to put our biases aside, then we can achieve it. Sometimes the answer is right in front of us.”
As evidence of this dynamic, Arash spotlights several of the social media posts from civilian sufferers of the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East, whose messages are inscribed and transferred onto the duo’s ceramic pieces. One tweet from Afghanistan beseeched, ‘Why not send your novelists instead of your soldiers to us?’ As Arash reminds, messages like these “are often short and immediate, but we forget their illuminating power and how it shows to us our responsibility.”
These messages go deep beneath the temporal and topical and toward the more universal and eternal values, common to humanity. As is often the case in artistic expression, a message might appear simple, but contain powerful expository prose and dialogical layers. The Syrian war involves many international and regional actors, its fires fed by the confluence of historical, political, and sectarian influences. And though it might appear byzantine in complexity, the pain and suffering of human souls should unite our outrage as a clarion call for peace.
Arash and Forrest’s collaboration not only animates the stories behind the inscriptions, but also offers unique insight into the nature, character and values of Islam itself. Emphasizing the “interplay of hospitality, morality and justice,” their designs’ detailed layers of visual content and components refer to the transformative effect of sculpting physical material as well as the spiritual self, the former impacting the latter. Aside from the ten principles of Islamic calligraphy concerning tools and composition key to the tradition’s mastery, Arash details the constitutive aspects of the practice:
“One is internal, referring back to the artist, trained in an Islamic tradition, and there’s a common thread: artists are a medium rather than self centered. They become fluid, a medium between this world and the transcendent world, and the artist should reflect this. It’s always a journey and practice toward that principle. Part of it also is reflected in the artwork itself, coming from Omar Khayyam, Rumi, Hafez, and the mystical tradition, those who are nowadays being labeled ‘secular mystics,’ but this is very deliberate. God, the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an are deeply reflected in all their works.”
The Peace Wall sees two epochs communicating across time and the physical ceramic spaces, making the pleas and wishes of a bygone era contemporaneous with those of today. Nishapur and the Silk Road, the two settings paid homage by Arash and Forrest, historically represent a nexus of intellectual development, culture, art, and the elevated expression of Islamic aesthetics. For Arash, originally from Kerman, Iran, the Bay Area is a contemporary example of the crossroads typifying the progress of these former civilizations.
“Nishapur was a golden age of thinkers and philosophers, and seemed to be a very open society. They would welcome traders and from all different cultures, which would add to the equation, with little outside interference. In terms of intellectual production, there are remarkable creative people today that continue in these traditions. But in terms of the crossroads of the multicultural aspects, we had in mind the Bay Area, a crossroads of different cultures coming together, liberal and open more than other places in the US. Many are also able to successfully preserve their own culture and preserve its essence.”
Numerous also are the parallels between the development and progress of Nishapur and Silicon Valley, forever impacting people’s lives.
“Ceramics were the computer of that era. There have been two commodities of utmost importance: computers and ceramics. Ceramics involve a lot of science and technology; They have many components, in terms of material, glazes, and firing, especially with regards to the secrets behind the porcelain and the firing, first in China and recreated in the Islamic world. It’s one of the most advanced sciences that has benefited people in their daily lives. Functionally, the computer and ceramics are different of course, but comparing the development and market demand at different points of time, those aspects correspond. At that time, everyone felt they needed this object in their lives, and it was traded across the whole Silk Road. Also, ceramics were one of the mediums for conveying thoughts and ideas directly, reaching everyone…Ceramics have a greater reach for their patterns and messages, with their moral, historical, and mystical content, set in the home of a regular person.”
Urban walls today become the repositories for the hopes and dreams of generations. They display the mosaic of life, from the everyday mundane to the voices of social change and protest. Their details and accretions are those of history, both lived and imagined. As instances the urban setting, the effect of aesthetic appreciation is naturally modulated by context, with spaces in which art is displayed influencing the relation between art experience and viewing appreciation. The Peace Wall plays a key factor in creating a unique and vibrant space at ICCNC. The work expresses an interactive process involving artists, designers, community members, and support teams. It truly takes a village to make it happen, one which Arash and Forrest wish to honor. For Arash, ICCNC holds a special significance:
“I’ve been coming to this space since 2010, and the community is very supportive. I feel I owe this community. In terms of the building, it’s a historical space, originally built as a Masonic temple and contains hidden symbols and visual aspects of that practice which also have interfaith elements reflected in the building. We wanted to give the building more of an Islamic feeling, while honoring the architecture and adding to the beauty.”
The Peace Wall will be viewable starting Saturday, May 26th 2018, at ICCNC, located on the 2nd floor, leading to the prayer hall. All are welcome and encouraged to see Arash and Forrest’s marvelous achievement. For more info and background on the artists and their projects, please visit their website: https://www.containandserve.com
This project is among the many artistic projects and initiatives that ICCNC is supporting through its Art & Culture program and the new IC3 incubator. 'IC3: Incubating Creativity, Community and Civic Engagement' is a pilot program at ICCNC that provides local Muslim-American artists event- and community-building opportunities as they develop new work and build new audiences.