Look­ing be­yond the ec­stasy of dervishes; African artists via their books

The Washington Post Sunday - - THIS WEEK - BY CELIA WREN style@wash­post.com Wren is a free­lance writer. Dervishes and Their Be­long­ings Through Oct. 21 at the Turk­ish Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Cen­ter, 9704 Good Luck Rd., Lan­ham, Md. Free. www.diyane­tamer­ica.org. Artists’ Books and Africa Through Sept.

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.”

Pa­per-based feats

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.”

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