When you think of art, you rarely think of language. But, what Salma Arastu, a Hindu-born Muslim woman from Rajasthan, India has done is combine the two effortlessly to create work that is moving both creatively and linguistically. Arastu’s work, above all, speaks volumes about her background – her religious roots, and her diverse exposure to regions and relationships that blend two of the most prominent eastern religions into one artistic amalgamation.
Bold colors and even bolder writing emphasize Arastu’s main goal — to show the unity within her religion, Islam, as well as the unity that lies across faiths. One of her works, Unity Equality VII, is particularly striking as it incorporates the religious symbols of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism into one. All of the symbols appear to float around each other in equilibrium, and hover over a pink lotus, which represents cosmic divinity in many eastern hemisphere cultures.
What is most appreciable about Arastu’s work, however, is that on top of its deep religious context, it also is a beautiful at sight. Her colors, layers, sometimes up to fifty layers, and eastern designs make her work so evidently cultured and South Asian. On top of representing South Asians in the art realm, Arastu also says a lot about the concept of religion within the South Asian region.
In a place where Muslims and Hindus tend to have heated disputes, stems Arastu’s inspiration for most of her works which not only incorporate Hindu and Muslim calligraphy and historical figures, but also have a lot to say about post 9/11 America. Arastu’s work hangs without framing at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), and when the air conditioning blows particularly strongly, you can feel the energy that moves with her canvasses in the wind, almost as if her writing is speaking to you. And when you are surrounded by interfaith art in what used to be a chapel, you begin to wonder if the poetic language, primarily from the Quran, is in fact speaking to you.
It doesn’t help that regardless of whether you follow Arabic (which is what most of her work is written in) or Hindi, you can still use the striking work titles and the small amounts of English present in the works to decipher their value. For those interested in making a visit to MOCRA, it is worth noting that the museum provides a pamphlet, which very generously deciphers not only the writing Arastu paints, but also explains its Islamic and worldly context.
Arastu’s exhibit at MOCRA is divided into two sections. The first, Celebration of Calligraphy, is displayed in the Jesuit chapel that was turned into the museum’s nave gallery.
The second, Unity of sacred symbols and texts, is displayed in the side chapels. Father Terry, director and founder of MOCRA and Art History professor at SLU said: “She uses her art to build bridges of understanding [which is] especially important today, where many of the major conflicts…are based on religious differences.” This also explains why Arastu had no problem displaying her work in the side chapels of the museum, despite Father Terry pointing out to her that the Islamic religion does not have side chapels at all – Arastu doesn’t just make art advocating interfaith understanding; she lives by it too.
Most importantly, it is intriguing to see such a unique message being told by an Islamic woman of color who happens to have been born with only one finger on her left hand. While this is not the primary focus of her work, it is admirable that Arastu has escaped the destiny society may have enforced upon her to literally create a world of her own.
According to Father Terry, many visitors have spent hours sitting in the chairs in MOCRA’s nave gallery, captivated by Arastu’s creations, and one trip to the exhibit confirms that it’s not surprising they do so.