THE YEAR 1992 marked the release of a film that challenged all conventional notions of filmmaking—and that nevertheless received nearly universal critical acclaim, much to the surprise of its makers. That film was Baraka. Filmed at 152 locations in twenty-four countries on six continents with no narrative or dialogue, Baraka was described as “a guided meditation on humanity” by the film’s cinematographer Ron Frick and “a meditation on the planet” by Roger Ebert. Frick claims that making it was like “doing a prayer.” The film’s distinctive use of time-lapse photography has the effect of both speeding up and slowing down our experience of things, simultaneously compressing and expanding our sense of time and space, relentlessly tracking the frenetic activity of human beings before stopping to linger like a gentle caress on a person, place, or thing of remarkable beauty or awful import. As Ebert put it, Baraka “makes the earth and its inhabitants seem touchingly fragile.” But it also captures the wonder of the creation and its creatures. The stated intent of the project was to “exalt the human spirit by emphasizing the flow of energy between people from around the world and by revealing the often unrecognized phenomenon of the interconnectedness of all beings as a living, breathing whole.” The title comes from an ancient Sufi word translated variously as “blessing” and “the thread that weaves life together.” As such, the film reveals not only diversity among peoples and within the earth itself, but the startling (and sometimes disturbing) sameness of human practices and proclivities—seen not only in the shared patterns of joyful communal worship and dance but also in the death camps of Auschwitz and Cambodia. It casts both the particularity and the commonality of human beings in poignant and sharply painful relief. In spite of its aesthetic power and apocalyptic implications, Ebert concludes that instead of effecting change in the people who see it, the film is akin to “a dream, from which we awaken, instead of a warning, to which we respond.”
Decades earlier, C.S. Lewis remarked that: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” In this postmodern, post-Christian, and what is increasingly being referred to as a post-human age, where the systems and technologies within which human beings must operate take primacy over consideration of the human being itself—we are now situated in a context surprisingly like that of the ancient pagan world, with a multiplicity of belief systems competing for our allegiance, and where the definition and consequent value of what it means to be human are very much in debate. For people of faith, this is perhaps the fundamental issue of our time, for it determines how we perceive the complex tapestry of the world we now inhabit and our responsibilities and responses to it. It may be that Ebert’s remark about the fragility of life is more prescient about the state of human beings than reflective of Baraka the film.
Charis: Boundary Crossings—Neighbors Strangers Family Friends
In June 2008, a group of artists and scholars from North America and Asia gathered in Indonesia to participate in an experiment in trans-cultural engagement, a two-week immersive seminar in Java and Bali focused on the topic of Christianity, the visual arts, and contextualization. (Contextualization is a term that gained currency in missions circles in the twentieth century. It refers to the adoption and adaptation of local cultural forms for the outworking of a foreign ideal or concept—in this case, Christianity.) Cosponsored by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the Indonesia seminar was part of a new initiative intended to bring North American educators and scholars together with their counterparts in another part of the world in order to better understand the shift from the West to the global East and South that is occurring economically, culturally, and in the church. Participants followed a rigorous schedule, discussing their art, learning about Indonesian peacemaking efforts and theology in the Asian churches, and visiting sites and attending events that introduced them to the rich artistic and cultural heritage and complex social, political, economic, and religious realities of contemporary Indonesia. It soon became evident that Indonesia, with every challenge and potentiality it affords, embodies the contemporary world in microcosm.
The result of this trans-cultural enterprise is the exhibition Charis—Boundary Crossings: Neighbors Strangers Family Friends. The title comes from the ancient Greek word for “favor” or “grace,” but is perhaps most accurately rendered as “goodwill.” It was a term employed by several of the Asian artists to describe the way they try to live in communities where people of widely divergent beliefs and values must coexist. The word also recalls the participants’ shared heritage as Christians and their unity in the body of Christ—it is a word that belongs no more or less to any one member or group.
The exhibit includes the work of seven Asian and seven North American artists and explores the implications of Christian faith and artistic practice in a visually oriented world where the convergence of cultures is increasingly the norm. Charis represents the artists’ ongoing dialogue about the challenges of cross-cultural communication and understanding, the need for people of faith to address real-world issues of social justice, peace, and reconciliation, and the effects of globalization. And it grapples with the role of the artist in this complex contemporary context. Emphasizing interaction and experience, the Charis exhibition is composed of forty works in a wide range of media, including paintings, sculptures, assemblage, fiber constructions, installation, and video projections. It will travel to ten to twelve venues across North America through 2012 before heading to Asia. Through their collaboration on many of these pieces, the artists were practicing the very spirit of grace and cross-cultural understanding reflected by the theme.
The Edge Effect
The Charis exhibit is the result not just of artistic interaction but of the personal bonds that were forged during the gathering. These relationships continue to generate new ideas, approaches, and collaborations. Prior to the trip, Erland Sibuea of Bali had developed a distinctive visual style inspired by traditional Balinese paintings of narrative scenes characterized by intricate design, dense foliate patterning, and lavish color. Intrigued by Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk’s equally intricate fiber vessels that explore concepts like suffering, humility, and peace, Sibuea translated what he saw in her work into Balinese-style painting to investigate more conceptual subjects. His new painting Complexity captures not only the multifarious nature of human existence and society but hints at the knotty web we must untangle to understand one another, using the formal and largely abstract approaches he identified in Van Reeuwyk’s work [see Plate 1]. Conversely, Van Reeuwyk’s vessels took on a more literal function as containers after she observed the common Indonesian use of baskets and fiber sacks as storage for foodstuffs and receptacles for offerings to the gods. Her vessels lost none of their conceptual power in this translation, but embody ideas of lavish outpouring and devotion with perhaps even greater weight—both through the contents that spill from them and through the painstaking labor involved in their making [see Plate 2]. Many music critics have observed that some of the most engaging music produced in recent years brings together instruments, compositional structures, and traditions from a variety of sources. The same can be said of art like this, that merges distinctively different aesthetic approaches to create something vital and new.
The virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma calls this phenomenon the “edge effect.” It describes the peculiar alchemy of ancient cultural exchange he hoped to recreate in his Silk Road Project, which brought together over sixty musicians from remote outposts along that ancient trade route to make new music in collaboration with westerners. Ma borrows the idea of the edge effect from ecology: “When two ecosystems meet…you have the least density but the greatest variety. This pertains to culture exactly, whether we are talking about Brooklyn or Paris, Istanbul or Xi’an,” says Ma. “Why do so many immigrant populations do so well in the invention field? Because they are on the edge, part of the edge effect.” Australian art historian Rod Pattenden writes, “There are no longer centers surrounded by artistic mystique like that of Paris or New York. Art is a global phenomenon with artists crossing over these divides and creating new hybrid identities, bringing the margin into the center.”
The movement of peoples and the cross-pollination that results call into question claims of cultural hegemony and creative ownership. “Whatever we might think the present is, it has come from deep interconnections among people,” says Ma. “This continuum, as a historical view, is a metaphor. In the life of creativity and invention, purity doesn’t really exist.” Take West African cloth, for example. The bold colors and patterns that we think of as distinctively African actually evolved from batik designs brought from Java by Dutch colonists who milled the cloth in West Africa. Is the cloth truly West African, or is it Javanese or Dutch? And is Sibuea’s Complexity truly Balinese, or is it western? The answer is both yes and no. Each is a fusion of elements, the magnificent result of individuals and cultures rubbing shoulders. Such encounters inevitably leave a residue that begets something new. This process of transfer and transformation can be seen throughout the Charis exhibit in the work of every artist.
Identity and Cultural Hybridity
The Asian contingent included members from Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia (Java and Bali), and New Zealand—so it comes as no surprise that they represent a diversity of cultures and experience, perspectives and values. Well-traveled, knowledgeable about world affairs, and savvy about contemporary art and culture, they reflect a cosmopolitanism that is increasingly common in this globalized century. The North American contingent was also remarkably diverse, reflecting another effect of globalization and the movement of peoples: cultural hybridity; that is, people whose identity is an amalgam of affiliations. The so-called “Americans,” though they all reside in the US, actually included a Canadian, a naturalized Jamaican immigrant, a Hispanic-American, a Peruvian, and a woman who grew up in Pakistan and Mexico. Digging deeper, you would find that the cultural heritage of each is even more complex than these simple descriptions suggest; all would say that their sense of identity is both multiple and one. The issue of identity and its sources became a central one for many of the artists, Asian and American.
Mexican-American artist Rondall Reynoso became intrigued with Balinese masks. Reynoso has written poignantly about the mistaken notions many people had about his identity as he was growing up in Sacramento, and about his struggle to embrace his entire heritage, despite affiliating more strongly with mainstream America than with the Hispanic community. For Reynoso, a casual remark made by Javanese artist Timur Poerwowidagdo—that her time in the West had freed her from the oppressive constraints of what it meant to be an Indonesian woman but subsequently distanced her from her own culture—cast into sharp relief the complexities of identity and how we attribute value. What is the balance between our demographic particularities and our membership in the human race?
In his installation It Made Her Sad, Reynoso juxtaposes Balinese masks with Mardi Gras masks from Louisiana, where he now lives, after realizing that Louisiana’s culture is as foreign to him as Indonesia’s [see Plate 3]. Mardi Gras is an extension of the celebration of carnevale in medieval Europe. Literally “the farewell to meat,” carnevale is the last fling before the fasting and penance of Lent. With their identities safely hidden behind masks, revelers were free to indulge in behavior typically censured by society and the church. A mask allows one to hide or, ironically, to reveal one’s true self. Stripped of their garish paint and decorations, Reynoso’s chalky white Balinese and Mardi Gras masks each bear a single, wavering colored line, like a solitary tear. The masks seem to lay bare the truth of the human condition: that we are broken and alienated from God, others, and even ourselves. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed as far back as the fifth century BC that “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar”—that is, from himself—“and he must continuously seek to discover it.”
Wisnu Sasongko is also interested in, as he puts it, what “lies inside” a person, underneath the face we present to the world. He hopes and even expects that in each “face impression,” as his series is entitled, he will catch a glimpse of the divine which resides within each individual. His work embodies a tension between being made in the image of God and separation from God. This tension is resolved in the work of Soichi Watanabe. His faceless figures might seem at first to suggest masks behind which we can hide, but Watanabe chooses to eliminate facial features for a different reason: by minimizing the particulars that can separate us from others—age, race, even sex—he can show that we are all one people, regardless of where we come from [see Plate 4]. For both artists, a key component of their self-understanding is their Christianity. Their faith has formed in them a consciousness of a common humanity that transcends cultural and experiential differences and binds people to one another.
Mindsets, Perceptions, and Sensibilities
“Cultures are not tightly bounded entities, essentially unaffected by relations with one another,” writes theologian Kathryn Tanner. “They instead come to be themselves in and through processes of exchange.” Today this process of exchange has become the one constant in the midst of increasingly rapid change. State of Mind by Timur Poerwowidagdo captures the effect of this stream of information and experience [see Plate 5]. Like Duchamp’s The Large Glass (also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even), Poerwowidagdo’s drawing diagrams the inescapable daily influx of information, ideas, images, and impressions. The condition that often results is one of overload and dysfunction. Barry Krammes also reflects on the challenge of making sense of new experiences as we encounter “the other” in his assemblage Of Cracks and Crossings [see Plate 6]. Conjuring up images of a Baroque curiosity cabinet that enshrines a hodgepodge of peculiar and exotic objects, or a musty old trunk found in the attic filled with broken and forgotten things, this piece probes our conflicting feelings about how we respond to what we do not know, to what is unfamiliar and alien, to what is willfully misunderstood or misused. When one holds oneself at a distance from people or places or anything new, it is difficult to apprehend their meaning and significance. One runs the risk of valuing the wrong things and dismissing what should be prized.
David JP Hooker illustrates this issue particularly well in Karamat (the word for “mercy” in Indonesia) a series of commercially produced throws with photographs printed on them [see Plate 7]. The photos show Hooker’s sandaled feet and what he saw on the ground during his time in Indonesia: Hindu offerings that could be mistaken for decaying refuse, drying kelp cultivated for high-end pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies, packages of cheese crackers printed with English words, and curious shadows and sculptures. The images raise the question of whether we can recognize the significance of what we see. Roughly the size and proportion of Muslim prayer rugs, but clearly commercial, the throws blur our capacity to determine whether an object—and what is depicted on it—is sacred or profane. Knowing where these images came from and seeing them installed in an art gallery makes that determination even less clear. But that is just the point.
Daniel García’s Viewfinder Machine offers a direct experience of this disorientation. By positioning the viewfinder at a height of 45 inches, García requires us to kneel to look inside, as we might do in church to pray. This bodily gesture of humility is essential if we are to begin to connect with what is alien to us—and it establishes an analogy between God, who is beyond our apprehension, and another culture, which may challenge our comprehension. The physical discomfort of kneeling is soon dispelled by the magic within. As we peer into the viewfinder, colorful kaleidoscopic patterns shift and change, accompanied by unfamiliar music [see front cover]. Captivated, the mind works to make sense of the unfolding narrative: two young Balinese girls are preparing themselves to dance. García manages alternately to entice and frustrate us, conjuring a desire to understand what we’re seeing, but never providing the satisfaction of a clear and certain view. Glimpses of what appears familiar are intermixed with images that confound us—simulating the experience of being a stranger in a strange land, and perhaps stirring in us the openness and vulnerability required to sojourn there. And as the piece concludes and the young girls run off to the beach to play, we realize that despite all the cultural overlays, children are the same the world over.
Conflicts, Convergences, and Cosmopolitanism
In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Kwame Anthony Appiah argues for the necessity of cultivating a renewed embrace of our shared humanity—without ignoring the realities of genuine difference—if we seek to live together well in this increasingly interdependent world. The central question he poses is this: “What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?” A Ghanaian-born Princeton philosophy professor, Appiah bridges many national, geographical, and demographic identities himself and knows what it is to be a stranger. He defines cosmopolitan literally, as “a citizen of the cosmos”: someone who sees himself or herself first and foremost as a member of the human race, prior to any narrower allegiances. As such, Appiah comes to this seemingly simple conclusion: “Every human being has obligations to every other. Everybody matters.” The essential challenge Charis presents is that of living with a spirit of grace toward one’s neighbor—and all that might entail—whether that neighbor is next door or on the other side of the globe. This is what Kofi Annan has referred to as “the great human project of trying to live together.”
What does this mean in real terms? Roger Feldman investigates the tensions that arise in this global context as beliefs, values, and needs so frequently come into conflict. Pivots, his series of maquettes, addresses the particular situation he encountered in Indonesia—but also represents issues we face around the world, where attempts to address economic or public health needs can often generate new social, religious, or even environmental problems. In Import/Export, a pallet of sacks of coffee or rice hangs suspended from one end of a pole, balanced on the opposite side of the structure by a large flat-screen TV broadcasting scenes of luxury cruise-liners [see Plate 8]. Between the sacks and the TV stand several walls, hiding each commodity from the other. In Indonesia, the developed world’s demand for coffee has redirected farming away from the rice the local population needs for food. The higher prices brought by the export of coffee in turn allow for the import of electronic media, which brings with it an infusion of ideas and values from other parts of the world—and these may transform the local culture for good or for ill. This is the reality of a globalized world: when you touch one thing, you cause a domino effect with far-reaching and unexpected consequences.
Justice, Mercy, and Oblation
A number of the Charis artists, Asian and American, have direct experience living in contexts where political and religious tensions make it nearly impossible for people to live out their daily lives with any measure of stability—and several have used their work to address the suffering that results. In his painting The Passenger, Emmanuel Garibay issues a powerful indictment of religious and political leaders who fail to attend to the needs of the people and institutions under their care. The crucified figure riding the bus could be Christ, or any of the victims of their failure. He is voiceless, with no mouth to speak. Garibay’s palpable concern for justice and accountability reflects his first-hand knowledge of the corruption that runs rampant in his native Philippines. Many of the masked figures seated in the bus sport clerical collars and have Pinocchio noses, indicating the church’s complicity in the abuse of power, both through active participation and through silence in the face of wrongdoing. But Garibay is also concerned about how political, social, and economic inequities are played out around the world. His work reveals the multiplicity of factors that drive both individual hearts and institutions to allow injustices to continue; he challenges our complacency and reveals the hypocrisy of looking the other way.
Ni Ketut Ayu Sri Wardani and Wisnu Sasongko of Indonesia both address another cause of widespread and local suffering: natural disasters. For many Americans, the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 brought home the heartache and travail of natural destruction for the first time. Yet in many places around the world, this is a frequent occurrence. In God Help Me! Sri Wardani offers a riveting rendering of a woman who lost everything in the tsunami that hit Aceh province in 2004, an event that compounded the affliction of a region long affected by social and political conflict [see Plate 9]. A thick impasto of splattered paint stands in high relief on the surface of the canvas. Skeins of paint pelt the grieving figure who, overwhelmed by her circumstances, dissolves into weeping drips at the bottom of the frame. The vision is wrenching. Wisnu Sasongko responds to a devastating 2006 earthquake in the Bantul region of central Java in his painting Reborn from Burial into the Present [see Plate 10]. Cocoon-like forms surround the skeletal representations of a man and a woman, suggesting a kind of X-ray vision. Words and phrases in several languages are inscribed on the canvas, including sin, love, and no doubt. It is a poignant vision of physical and spiritual entrapment and death. Yet both Wardani and Sasongko claim that theirs is a message of hope. As Sasongko indicates in his title, the possibility of rebirth can draw us back to life in the present. These two paintings each use instances of natural devastation that are both particular and universal to call up the compassion we should exhibit toward others in such circumstances.
Mercy Seat by Edgar Talusan Fernández merges allusions to earthly and divine authorities [see Plate 11]. On the curved teak bench sits a gold-tasseled cushion upholstered with the batik pattern reserved for royalty—a reference to the historic rulers of Indonesia—but the title comes from the seat of atonement that sat atop the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies described in Jewish scripture. On the cushion rests a stone. Here, the mercy seat, a symbol of God’s presence, in combination with the rock, an allusion to Christ, suggests a complex relationship between humanity’s responsibility for the brokenness of the world and the expectation that authorities are to dispense mercy in balance with justice. By conflating the earthly and divine, Mercy Seat blurs distinctions between the temporal and eternal.
The equally important theme of offering—the outpouring of a free and generous gift—appears in several works. Characterized by an attitude of humility, an offering completes the notion of mercy in distinctive ways. Significantly, two of the artists chose the same title for one of their works: Oblation—an ancient term for something given over and dedicated to God. A person preparing to enter religious life as a monk or nun is referred to as an “oblate,” because religious dedicate their entire selves to God. Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk’s vessels—brimming with coffee, tea, and rice, the foodstuffs of commerce and daily sustenance—are reflections on the labor involved in bringing these offerings to the local and global marketplace, as well as reminders to be thankful for the small things that sustain us. The rose petals spilling out of a cornucopia-like vessel borrow from Hindu offerings of flowers—usually given along with all manner of everyday goods, including cookies, cigarettes, and money. Is this kind of offering sacred or profane? Does it address the temporal or the eternal? Or are the two part and parcel of one another?
The figure in Emmanuel Garibay’s painting The Oblation stretches out his arms over the earth [see Plate 13]. The image is a silent cry that calls us to our stewardship of this world, a cosmic vision of the responsibility we have to God and to each other. The pierced hands and side challenge us to see God’s ultimate offering to his beloved creation, Jesus Christ, as the model of how we too should live, offering up our lives in service to others. Living out the dual roles of steward and sojourner in relation to this world requires the artist of faith to focus on identifying and pursuing his or her particular calling and letting the issues of recognition and acceptance take care of themselves.
Faith’s Reverse Imagination and Human Flourishing.
In his series of paintings titled The Five Fingers of Bali, Chris Segre-Lewis alludes to the five attributes that the Balinese assign to the fingers of the right hand: wisdom, power, knowledge, beauty, and loyalty [see Plate 12]. Together they represent the character necessary for a life well lived in intimate relationship with others. But living this out is no easy task. Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf is convinced that Christians must practice the “differentiated acceptance or rejection of the surrounding culture” if we are to effectively negotiate the difficulties of cultivating ways of life that are hospitable for human flourishing. This requires vigilance and discernment. We must live with “permeable boundaries” that allow us to move from seeing one another as strangers to living as neighbors, family, and friends. As a useful metaphor for cultural exchange, painter Makoto Fujimura suggests the image of an estuary, that often murky, turbulent, and impure passageway between ocean and river where salt water meets fresh. Native Americans referred to an estuary as “a river that flows both ways.” If Yo-Yo Ma is right, if invention is fostered by the interactions of individuals and cultures, then Fujimura’s metaphor is especially fitting: the flow must move both ways.
No one would claim that living in the archipelago of our contemporary world should be easy. We live in local communities but are inextricably linked to neighbors down the road or on the other side of the globe. To pursue this great human project of living together well, we must be willing to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, to set aside our differences and do what is required of us as members of the human family. To do this, we need to live by what Jeremy Begbie calls faith’s “reverse imagination.” The writers of the New Testament, Begbie explains, hope from the future that is already secured by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and bring that reality into the present now instead of living for a future that has not yet arrived. We tend to hope “the wrong way around,” says Begbie. The future is “teeming with difference” and marked by the excessive outpouring of divine love, spontaneous and exuberant creativity, not by reasoned temperance and predictable sameness. God does not operate by man’s rules but supersedes them and turns them upside-down in the “insane inversion” that is the gospel, where the poor shall inherit the earth and death brings about everlasting life. The thread that weaves all of life together is this spirit of grace that brings the deep and profound goodwill of that promised future into the present through the reverse imagination. Charis challenges us to do just that as we sojourn together.
For more information on the Charis exhibit or to purchase a catalogue, go to www.calvin.edu/go/charis or contact Rachel Smith, Charis curator and project director, at email@example.com. Parts of this article are adapted from her catalogue essay.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.