Light upon Light

Well hello, The Internet! I’ve created this blog to chronicle the process behind my paintings and other art-ventures.
   Right now, I’m preparing for my next exhibit at Ravenscroft School. I’m installing on January 7th (almost exactly a month from now). I went to Ravenscroft from kindergarten through 12th grade (what’s known as a “lifer,” you know, like jail) , so I look forward to showing my art in a place that was such a big part of my life.
   I will be showing “Technicolor Muslimah,” a series of 12 portraits of Muslim women. You can see them here:
    I’m also working on a new series called “An-Noor” (in Arabic) or “The Light.” (completed paintings are also on my site, on the homepage). I have three paintings completed so far and am working on the 4th one. I’m trying to get the 4th one done in time for the Ravenscroft show.
Here is a picture of the 6′ x 4′ (72″ x 48″) painting I am currently working on:

The imagery is derived from Ayat An-Noor, or the Verse of Light, from the Quran.

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp—
the lamp is in a glass, 

the glass as it were a glittering star—
lit from a blessed olive tree, 

neither eastern nor western, 
whose oil almost lights up, 
though fire should not touch it. 
 Light upon light.

   As wikipedia describes it, this “verse is renowned for its remarkable beauty and imagery, and perhaps more than any other verse lends itself to mystical or esoteric readings of the Qur’an.” As I looked further into interpretations of this verse, I found some wonderful things that really allowed the imagery to blossom in my mind.
    This guy, Al-Ghazali, wrote a lot about this verse, and said that it is meant to show not only God’s distance and absolute transcendence, but also his proximity and inherent presence. I did not get a sense of this during my Sunday School days. I felt that God’s omnipresence was not a comfort, but kind of a “Big Brother is watching you” and recording all of your sins for the day of judgment kind of thing. Once again, that God was separate from me. To be feared. And also that God is a “he,” of course. And pronouns are somehow even more of a limiting kind of word for such a big idea to be stuck inside. Words like God, and Allah, carry around the baggage of their history, of the politicized and stratified present day, and it can sometimes be difficult to leave that baggage behind when considering the idea of god… I sometimes use the word “Light” in my mind because it has such a vastness to it. It exists in all these different realms as something concrete, but also… not at all concrete. And it thrives in metaphor.  I know others use the word “Source.” Surely, any words we use are inherently limiting and constricting, but we need words to communicate.  Of course, we can always paint pictures, too. 
   Anyway, here is some of what I found, mixed in with my own interpretations.

The Niche: A place, a space, made specifically for the lamp. This represents the human body, the physical body.

The Glass: reflects light, contains light, diffuses light. A transparent medium through which the light passes to illuminate. It is a protective shield. It exists between the external world (the senses) and the internal world (of the spirit). It is the mind, the mental body. The glass can change the nature of the light – if it’s dirty, it can mess it up, misguide. If it is clean and passive, it allows for the light to shine through and diffuse, lighting every dark corner of a room. It is like a brilliant star, which guides the way, creates a pathway.

The Tree/The Oil: The oil that fuels the fire comes from an olive tree that is neither eastern nor western. More literally, this means that it receives an even and constant amount of sunlight. It is a tree that comes from a balanced environment. The oil is so pure that it almost lights on its own. The tree with its roots in the earth, reaches up towards the skies. The oil is the reservoir, is the spiritual body, is the source of knowing. It is most pure when it comes from balance, when it belongs to no particular tribe. 

 The Flame: The flame is truth, is god… burning, purifying, illuminating, warming, transforming So I looked into olive trees, and wow. They can live for thousands of years. Legit – Thousands of years. Carbon dated, ridiculous fact. And as they age, they don’t just keep growing taller, but instead wider, and the trunk becomes more gnarled and complex, all while hollowing out inside! Becoming more and more spacious, internally! What in the symbolism.

   So the nature of an actual olive tree lends itself well to this image – where the oil lamp sits in a niche. The gnarls and knots of an olive tree trunk create plenty of “niches.”

   Referring back to the painting in progress, the figure (her name is Nushmia), sits at the base of the olive tree, and she is clearly a part of the tree… the roots bend and curve around her form.  She’s got her own “niche,” if you will.  I imagined that the space where she sits resembles, also, a womb… that sacred space within a woman.  And all of it, to me, really emphasizes the importance of internal space.  The oil lamp will be attached to the tree, on that knot to the right of Nushmia’s head. 

  I think it’s going well so far… but I can see that there is a lot more work I’ll have to do.  Once I get Nushmia to a level of almost-completion, I’ll have to develop the olive tree.  I need to add some smaller branches, and then a bunch of texture to get the feeling of bark.  I’m nervous about all the work, but excited.  Nushmia’s sitting in a patch of grass and clovers. I will be adding a (hopefully subtle) geometric pattern into the purple of the background (I’ll be making my own stencil for the first time!).  And then I’m going to add the lamp and try to figure out how the lamp’s light will affect all of the objects that are in the painting.  I used gold leaf on my last painting (of Dina, with the big, gold leafed sun)… and it’s a brilliant material (literally).  I’m hoping to use it for some fireflies that’ll be buzzing around. 


2 thoughts on “Light upon Light

  1. Pingback: Nushmia – Completed Painting | artbysaba

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