[The Listserve] Alone / Together

Arielle
03/26/2018
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Both a Muslim prayer rug and a Jewish prayer shawl are essentially rectangles of cloth. It is this material connection that first piqued my interest. How does a cloth rectangle become a ritual object? At which moment in the arc from being made to being used for a specific practice do these cloths become vessels for magic or ‘the sacred’? What makes a rug a rug and a shawl a shawl? Could one cloth rectangle be activated for both purposes? When would it need to break apart in order to retain its ritual integrity?

In the months leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election, and into 2018, I began weaving, performing, and exhibiting a “hybrid ritual object,” an ethereal sixteen-foot cloth that I display partially on the ground and partially suspended. One end is a "shawl", and the other end is a "rug", and the midsection is about five feet of unwoven warp threads. When you picture what I lovingly call my absurd interfaith ritual object, imagine two similar yet distinct cloth rectangles connected by a billowing mass of loose strings. Or, imagine one long cloth that is solid at either end, with a long suspended portion in the middle. This section is the “no-cloth,” the ritual yet unwoven, the breathing room in between our two traditions to do our own thing, to act or to rest, alone or together.

Why did I need to make this hybrid ritual object after Standing Rock, and the election, and the anti-Muslim travel ban? Growing up in New York State following 9/11, starting an afterschool Muslim-Jewish dialogue group was a (limited, at times superficial, at times connective) way to push against the Islamophobic propaganda on the news and the murmurs in the halls. Fifteen years later, collaborating with artists, scholars, and community members through the Muslim Jewish Arts Fellowship (google us and check out our wordpress blog!) around Biblical and Qur’anic texts, poetics, and art, the shared practice is specific, and the relationships feel clearer. Amid the acrid escalation of anti-refugee, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim oppression, celebrating and maintaining our distinct practices on the one hand and coming together to create new shard rituals on the other feels like calisthenics for just citizenship.

My painting practice regularly teaches me about limits. A canvas is limited both in its capacity to absorb and hold paint, as well as in its ability to convey meaning. My teacher Michelle Grabner says: “Painting cannot hold everything. How far can you push painting until it breaks?” Her question cues me to pay attention to thresholds: how much force can I apply to this linen thread in my weaving before it breaks? How much weight can it bear? How can I learn about its strength in this way? A big part of both interfaith text study and art practice, as in other relationships committed to lovingly building something, is in finding the boundaries and breaking points and vicissitudes. The place where the thread breaks and “I” and “Thou” remain separate, conversant entities, is, for me, what Anna Deveare Smith calls “…the place where the self can make the broad jump to meeting the other.”

I am distinctly myself, in my body, with my rituals and my practices, and you are you, with yours: full stop. We are actors in broken systems, with different kinds of access to privilege and power. My hybrid ritual object doesn't replace the prayer rug or the prayer shawl; it proposes a playful, provisional structure with clear boundaries through which we can practice in proximity without erasing each other.

I am currently working on funding to create and install architectural-scale hybrid ritual weavings in airports in the U.S. and internationally, to function as sculptural portals and interfaith spaces – I’d love your feedback and your help!

Arielle
Berkeley, CA and Chicago, IL
atonki@saic.edu

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