Still life with donkey, copper vase, and Christmas greens. Pen on paper, 9" x 6".
It's a moment, in a particular season, a particular life. My father-in-law's terracotta donkey from Damascus; an Egyptian copper tray and vase that was a gift from my sister-in-law; greens and holly brought from my mother's garden in central New York, where my own family has lived for two centuries.
Our marriage brought together two cultures. When my parents-in-law were young people in the Middle East, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all lived together in the ancient cities -- Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem, and so many others -- in relative harmony. They came here after World War II because they could see what was starting to happen. Over the time of our own marriage, we've seen the last bits of that harmony disintegrate. Yes, there are individuals and organizations that are still trying, and some places that are less war-torn than others, but as I drew this picture last night I felt the sadness of that little mute donkey, worn smooth by the touch of hands, as well as gratitude that in my own life I've been able to experience some of the richness that intercultural living imparts -- a richness that I think is meant to be our cherished heritage as human beings on a shared planet.
May it be so, someday, not too far away.
Along with several other writers, my friend Teju Cole was asked by Aperture, "What kind of pressure does photography place on the written word today?" His answer addresses, in part, my own question: what is the point of trying to make beautiful images -- images which reference the past in their reliance on paper, ink, old techniques, and use as their subject everyday objects -- in a world so torn by violence and the pressure of the exterior on our interior lives?
If my work and my life were completely consumed with that interiority, or with the preservation of some sort of peace and the continuation of comfort, that would be problematic for me. But it's precisely in everyday objects and scenes that I find echoes of the political, and I am trying to find ways to explore that without co-opting the grimness or violence or fear of the exterior world. To me, making dark and violent art is too obvious an answer, and often veers off into the cynical. During this past year, I've been feeling my way toward other ways of expressing this predicament in which I find myself.
Family Coffeepot and Fossil: Thinking of Gaza. Acrylic on paper, 2014.
Most of us, in this hemisphere anyway, live our lives in relative comfort but in an atmosphere of anxiety and awareness - though that is a relative term - of the tenuousness of life, freedom, and peace for a great majority of others. More and more of us are aware of the ways in which our lifestyles impact the lives of that majority, and how we are complicit. By the same token, our participation in these systems of suffering and oppression is not, for the most part, chosen: we and our tax dollars are being used by the systems of power, and our governments are involved in actions we would never willingly condone.
How does art intersect with that reality, and that knowledge? How do we, as artists and writers, move forward with integrity, with hope, but also acknowledging and honoring the long tail of the past in which the search for beauty and meaning has been vital to human life and culture?
Teju writes (he's talking about photography, but we can say the same for the other arts:)
I want images that address the predicaments of the present moment, in a political sense, but that also allow for poetry and lyricism. In any case, those things may not be necessarily divorced from each other: paper has to come from somewhere; the equipment used to make a camera is made from materials that are traded on the world market, including materials that come from conflict zones. Machines have lyricism (once we learn to see it) and poetry comes at a cost (if we are willing to admit it). The connection this has to my writing? I try to apply those same goals (of politics and poetry) to the written word, too. So, we may be awash in images and words these days, but poetry still matters. It is still as elusive as it ever was, and, just as ever, it is still worth chasing down.