Encounters

The Art of Interfaith Dialogues

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Aaron Rosen, Nicola Green
Arts and the Sacred
  • Turnhout, Belgium: 
    Brepols Publishers
    , September
     2018.
     176 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9782503580326.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

What does Interfaith Dialogue actually look like?

This is the question to which artist and researcher Nicola Green has applied her creative gifts over the last decade (2008-2018), as shown in Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue. Having inveigled her way into Lambeth Palace and gained the trust of the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (an account of which Green offers in this book), she was invited thereafter to attend twenty-two interfaith encounters. These were of various formats ranging from one-on-one meetings between two religious leaders to a large-scale summit with 289 participants from fourteen different faiths and worldviews.

Green’s intention is to give visual witness to these encounters between the leaders of the worlds’ religions as these meetings frequently happen quietly—away from the attention of the media—yet so vital to good relations in our societies. Her travels to these interfaith encounters brought her out of her north London art studio to locations across the world, including Assisi, Bangalore, Cairo, Doha, Galilee, Jerusalem, the Vatican, the West Bank, and the United States.

She witnessed meetings between the most senior representatives of contemporary Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Baha’i, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Humanism, and indigenous faiths. She photographed and sketched the participants, creating the preliminary material for her finished artworks. A large number of these photographs and some sketches are interspersed throughout the book.

Green met, photographed and drew Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, both Archbishops of Canterbury; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa; the Dalai Lama; Pope Francis, and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, among many others.

Dialogue is the central topic of her artworks, and a further dialogue has been carefully curated by editor Aaron Rosen, who brings together a diverse array of voices of theologians, art historians, social activists and community workers, including some of those who feature in the artworks themselves, to reflect on Green’s art. There is a discernible flow to the structure of the book, and yet each of the ten chapters stands alone perfectly well, offering an insightful approach to the art and the subject of interfaith dialogue as a whole.The book opens with a foreword from Rowan Williams, a preface from Jonathan Sacks, an introduction to her art practice and this project from Nicola Green herself, an introduction by Aaron Rosen and Ben Quash, making a total of fourteen essays throughout.

There are two distinct series of artworks being discussed here; one is the Light Series comprising twelve life-size figures of major religious leaders painted and silkscreened onto clear perspex. The other is the Encounter Series, thirty-two formal portraits of leaders of different world religions. Green has employed visual semiotics to powerful effect in these portraits, as she has blanked out the details of the faces, creating a flat two-dimensional plane of flesh colors instead of depicting the leaders’ faces.

Rather, the material accoutrements of their religious office—be it a saffron robe, a framed icon pendant, a staff, or a gold cross—identify which religious group they represent.

To briefly mention but a few of the approaches: William J. Danaher, Jr., understands bodies as catalysts for dialogue and concentrates on the semiotics of body language that come through some of Green’s photographs. Maryanne Saunders’ fascinating essay delves into the ever-present conundrum at the heart of Green’s work: here is a woman artist witnessing and documenting the almost exclusively male leadership in the world’s largest religious faiths.

Saunders writes: “Is Green working within a biblical trope of woman as witness, observer, and supporter? Or, alternatively, does her role as photographer challenge this assumption by establishing her not only as an active participant but also as the deliverer of the images we see?” (79). Lieke Wijnia discusses the performance and spatial dynamics of interfaith meetings: “Interpersonal and ritual behavior is not only informed by theological traditions, but also by physical and material environments” (94). Chloe Reddaway’s well-conceived essay considers Green’s portraits of religious leaders in relation to the tradition of such portraiture in western art. Reddaway asks, “Might the reflective potential of the blank faces of Green’s portraits allow for a form of female presence among the ranks of men she depicts?” (110). Dua Abbas draws out another interesting observation about the blank faces that many “pictorial depictions of Muhammad and his progeny employ . . . an opaque, white veil” (118).

Ibrahim Mogra, David F. Ford, Jibran Khan, Gabrielle Rifkind, and Skinder Hundal address in diverse styles the many approaches taken in interfaith dialogue and reflect on the challenges to practicing interreligious dialogue authentically. There is a great deal to be learned here, from people “on the ground” about the practice of interfaith dialogue as it is taking place in the world today. These reflections leave the reader hopeful despite the rising polarization evident in so many places.

It is a testament to Brepols that this book has been so very well designed and reproduced to the highest standard, contributing to an engaging reading experience. The book opens (and closes) in glorious technicolor with dazzling endpapers featuring detail photographs of some of the gold illumination that occurs within the patterned portrait backgrounds, leading the reader into these artworks and the thought-provoking essays that reflect on their value. The highly saturated colors, featured in Green’s art, are picked up throughout in bold title pages for each chapter, following a double-page-spread featuring two portraits of religious leaders.

This thoughtful inclusion and referencing of her images throughout the book create a flow through the text and integrate the artworks and the essays superbly well. This book deserves many readers. It would make a wonderful text for those engaged in the academic study of interfaith dialogue, theology through to anthropology, as well as being accessible to the non-specialist casual reader interested broadly in religion and art.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda Dillon is a Research Fellow in the Loyola Institute, School of Religion, Trinity College Dublin.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron Rosen is Professor of Religious Thought at Rocky Mountain College and Visiting Professor at King’s College London.

Nicola Green is a Social Historian and Artist.

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