by | Sep 23, 2016 | Art as a Universal Language, Blog | 0 comments
Kara Walker‘s “Testimony” reveals the injustice in African American history
In previous editions of this blog, I’ve written about the universal symbolic language of art, and visual art as a mode of communication. One of my greatest interests is how art can be used to instigate social change. In the 1980s, I was awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Scholarship to study the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Once I arrived to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I realized I wanted to focus my research on how art can direct attention to major social, political, and environmental urgencies.
Destroyed Buddha of Bamiyan, Afghanistan
The Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Isis’s
obliteration of great artifacts in Nimrud–these acts of
annihilation are acknowledgements of the ability of
visual images to communicate messages of cultural
significance to humanity. Destroying them is like wiping
out an entire society’s visual language or history. It is only
due to their fear of the power of those spiritual images, that
the Taliban and Isis chose to destroy them. Perhaps it is the
power Buddhism gives to the individual for his own self
guidance, rather than reliance on an external God, that is so
threatening to their oppressive rule.
What if, instead of destroying works of art because we fear
their ability to convey important cultural truths, we embrace
the power of art to help unite turbulent societies?
In our current environment of incredibly oppressive,
xenophobic rhetoric, art can--literally--show us a different
way. It can present concept and leave the creativity of
solution to each individual viewer.
Israeli artist Drew Tal grew up in Israel in the 1960s, when the
country was a mixture of many diverse cultures. Rather than
narrowing his perspective due to religious or political differences,
Tal is fascinated by different customs and beliefs. He uses his
photographs to mirror human realities in a neutral manner.
In his “Revelation”, Tal gives the brave words “I Am” to a
Muslim woman who could be considered voiceless. He allows us
to perceive her individuality in a sea of imposed homogeneity.
In presenting this unidentifiable woman to us, Tal reminds us that
while we are so often inclined to define people by their larger group,
every single human being is an individual, with the same mother,
father, sister, brother, relationships we use to define ourselves.
The symbolism in Tal’s “Revelation” is dense. He “reveals” to
viewers not only this woman’s individual worth, but he also
poetically bridges the abyss of misunderstanding between Muslim
and non-Muslim cultures. “I Am” is a significant statement,
appearing in Exodus 3:13–15, when Moses says to God, “If I
come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your
fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’
what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”
And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me
to you.’” God
In Tal’s “Revelation”, the “I” singles out an individual from the
group; the "Am" refers to the universal, shared divinity in every
human being, regardless of political, religious, cultural belief.
Tal’s art is the kind of imagery that can effect change in the world.
French street artist/photographer, JR, is one of today’s most
engaging artists, using his art to help people all over the world
make change. Rather than just creating images for people to
ponder, he makes the people themselves into their own art.
JR takes photographs of people in their communities, or has
locals photograph themselves, all over the world. This helps
people see that they can literally create their own reality, by
rendering themselves as friend or foe within their respective
community. JR won the TED prize. He asked Israeli and
Palestinian people to make funny faces, printed monumental
images of them, and mixed them together on each side of the
wall separating the two areas. He uses his art to magnify our
similarities, rather than our differences. His art opens our
eyes to the idea that we can share humor, rather than
animosity, even in the face of major differences.