Looking beyond the ecstasy of dervishes; African artists via their books
The dervish ethos goes way beyond whirling.
That’s likely to be one takeaway from “Dervishes and Their Belongings,” an exhibition of about 300 historical artifacts at the Turkish American Community Center in Lanham, Md. The exhibition, which was brought to the United States by the New East Foundation (NEF), a nonprofit group with offices in Istanbul and Rome, includes talismans, prayer beads, instruments, beggar bowls, ceramics, headgear and a turban-adjustment tool that resembles an enormous pair of tweezers.
These and other items are said to have been used by dervishes, members of Sufi religious orders, in Turkey and elsewhere. Sufism is a mystical strain of Islam: Its adherents have included the celebrated whirling dervishes, who traditionally practiced ecstatic movement as a way of communing with the divine.
“The dervish way of Islam is a more liberal and philosophic way,” says Atılgan Bayar, NEF president and sometime Turkish political strategist. “Dervishes live like a philosopher. At the same time, all objects that they use in life — religious or nonreligious objects— are produced in a very aesthetic way.”
The objects, says Anna Caridi, the exhibition’s Italian curator, are not only beautiful, but they also speak to the soul.
Bayar, Caridi and Turkish painter Zeynep Cilek were in Lanham recently before the official opening of the exhibition, which occupies a gallery downstairs from a domed mosque complex. The artifacts testify to the spiritual life and the daily practical needs of dervishes. Prayer rugs, looping lines of prayer beads and works of calligraphy hang on the walls near display cases with such items as small inscribed metal talismans, sheiks’ turbans, axes (used by wandering dervishes for fruit gathering and self- defense), an oversized fork painted with an image of a flute player, a ceramic tile inscribed with the 99 names of Allah and a wooden jug with four spouts ( for four drinkers).
Newer items include seven fantasias on calligraphy by Cilek, who took inspiration from calligraphic works produced in dervish communities. The exhibition, Cilek says, bears out her belief that “beauty is one of the most important principles of Islam.”
Bayar suggests that “Dervishes and Their Belongings” plays a valuable cultural-diplomacy role, demonstrating that the Islamic tradition extends way beyond the political and radical manifestations on which Americans have often focused since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The dervish interpretation of Islam, he says, is “nonpolitical and more sophisticated.”
Dervishes— the whirling kind— dance ecstatically in the 10 blackand-white lithographs that Toufik Berramdane created for his 1992 book-meets-artwork “Nadimé: approche du derviche-tourneur en dix lithographies.” An accompanying passage from a French-language poem by Frédéric Brandon evokes whirling dervishes with words that can be translated as “Sentience, ecstasy, body’s gold/ Spirit freed in discipline’s hold.”
The work by Berramdane, who has roots in France and North Africa, is just one of the paperbased feats on display in “Artists’ Books and Africa” at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, which is presenting the exhibition with the Smithsonian Libraries. Drawn from the permanent collections of the museum and the Warren M. Robbins Library (which is at the museum), the exhibition reveals the possibilities of the book as aesthetic object.
The category of the artist’s book “is a flourishing genre in many parts of the world, but it’s not often associated with Africa,” says Robbins librarian Janet Stanley, who curated the exhibition.
Some of the 25 books hew to a relatively traditional paper-and-binding format. Stanley noted the topicality of the refugee theme in “The Ultimate Safari,” a Nadine Gordimer story about people fleeing violence in Mozambique, illustrated with hand-printed lithographs by women who had survived that experience.
Some of the books are adventurous — even oddball — in construction. “Grace Kwami Sculpture,” by Ghana’s Atta Kwami, features pages that connect like the legs of Ananse, the trickster spider from West African folklore. Luan Nel’s “Paper: An Installation,” dreamed up to accompany a 1997 exhibition in Cape Town, is a collection of tiny prints, like a three-inch-high deck of cards.
“Bits and Pieces,” by South Africa’s Peter Clarke, is a paper collage creased into 138 accordion folds no broader than amatchbox. “It’s so beautiful and fun,” Stanley says. “You want to play with it.”