AVODA arrives at SLU

The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) is currently
featuring the work of Tobi Kahn, an internationally acclaimed
painter and sculptor. Kahn’s collection, “Avoda: Objects of the
Spirit,” is a series of ceremonial art consisting of 42 Jewish
ceremonial objects that are commonly used in Jewish rituals. He
originally created them for personal use within his family and they
are now on display to help others become more aware of their own
faith traditions.

“Avoda” has two meanings in the Jewish tradition: work and
worship. Some of the artifacts include a beautiful huppah that Kahn
and his wife were married under and a circumcision chair that was
used for his son.

“They are much more powerful if made and not bought,” Kahn said.
“How they are made is very personal.”

Kahn began creating the objects in the early 1980s using various
materials including wood and bronze. Acrylic paint glorifies many
of the artifacts, bringing out deep reds and greens.

“Clearly, Tobi’s faith is something that he takes seriously, and
he integrates his evocative artistic style with the ceremonial
objects known to Jewish families to create deeply personal works
that connect his own family to the long and rich tradition of his
faith,” said Terry Dempsey, S.J., director of MOCRA.

One of the pieces commemorates the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
In Judaism, the use of light celebrates the life of someone who has
died. Therefore, Kahn created a candleholder that allows the melted
wax to leak out, forming a pool around it. The flame from the
24-hour candle slowly drops deeper until it finally goes out.In
addition to the physical creations that make up the exhibition,
Kahn also travels throughout the country leading workshops that are
designed to get people to probe deeper into their own faith
traditions and create their own objects that reflect their sacred
practices, Dempsey said.

Kahn led such a workshop last weekend at Washington University.
Kahn brought of materials from both area markets and New York City,
such as glitter, paper and even test tubes.

Dempsey attended and explained what a wonderful experience it
was. According to Kahn, he will be returning to Saint Louis
University to conduct a similar workshop.

“I hope that people begin to think more about their own
beliefs–why we practice what we practice, thinking more about why
we do things–that to me is very important,” Kahn said.

While the objects that Kahn makes are religious, he stresses
that a ceremonial object does not have to be faith-based. Many
people have rituals that are important to them that do not relate
to religion.

Dempsey also commented on the courage that an artist like Kahn
has to have to be able to present their art as religious. As few as
ten years ago, it was considered risky to consider oneself a
religious artist.

“For quite some time there has been great discomfort within the
mainstream art community regarding artists who reflect a faith
tradition in their art that is characterized by belief or genuine
engagement,” Dempsey said.

“In many ways, Tobi and a number of other artists at work in the
1980s and 1990s have been pioneers as they create work that is
imbued with a deep spirituality.”

In fact, even The New York Times commented on the issue
in the Jan. 7, 2001 edition, saying, “There is nothing new about
art as spiritual practice except how hot the topic is becoming as
the art world wakes up to its significance.”

This resistance has not stopped Kahn from doing what he loves to

“I do believe it makes a difference, leaves an impact, gets
people to think about what is important in their lives,” Kahn said.
“The reason I make art is to make a difference.”