Palestinian artist showcases similarities between Christianity and Islam

Palestinian artist showcases similarities between Christianity and Islam
By Kate Chester for the Catholic Sentinel

The handcrafted tiles appear murky, a bit shadowy, somewhat blurred…yet to the observer, certain details rise to the surface, albeit in a muted fashion:  curvy, willowy Arabic calligraphy, on top of what appears to be a crown, or perhaps a halo, all encased in protective layers of beeswax that serve to both seal the art and soften the images, thus adding to the mystery.

But ask the artist what each tile means, and you’ll be hard-pressed to obtain an absolute answer.
“I prefer not to ‘explain’ the meaning behind each work, as my interpretation is just that – only mine,” said Palestinian artist Kanaan Kanaan, with a smile.  “Each tile is a combination of Christian iconography and Islamic calligraphy, that much I can say.  My hope is that they create a means of dialogue between people of both faiths, to learn about one another and to see the commonalities of both religions, each of which represents peace and justice.”

The collection of Kanaan’s tiles – entitled, “The Pulse of Spirituality” – is currently on display at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, along the second-floor hallway as part of its Diversity Art Gallery.  Kanaan’s exhibit illustrates, literally, the hospital’s diversity initiative – to promote the inherent value of each individual through education and awareness projects.

A celebration of Islam and the Muslim culture was the hospital’s focus throughout the month of January, and as part of the celebration, it hosted a public reception for Kanaan in addition to his exhibit.  Other activities sponsored by Providence St. Vincent included a standing room-only presentation by Shagufta Hasan, M.D., entitled “Providing Health Care for Muslim Patients,” as well as a brown bag discussion surrounding “Medicine, culture and ethics with the Muslim patient,” an excerpt from Worlds Apart, a documentary that highlights potential conflicts and reconciliation needed between observance of Islam and western medicine.  All of the month-long activities were free and open to the public.

“Our community is growing, changing and becoming more diverse,” said Sr. Lynda Thompson, a member of Providence St. Vincent’s diversity committee and the hospital’s mission director.  “By gaining a better of understanding of who it is we serve, we in turn offer better and more compassionate health care to our patients and their families.

“It is imperative that we reach out to our community – we are here to serve.  Creating a diversity initiative has placed learning about our community on the ‘front burner,’ and in so doing, we are living our mission.”
And having the chance to share his collection with the general public who visit the hospital daily means a great deal to Kanaan.
“This is the first time this collection has been displayed in such a big building and public place,” he said.  “This is the right ground for it, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity.  I hope it hits a cord with people, that they can connect to it.”

The collection took Kanaan two years to complete.  Each piece began with a series of ideas and then sketches – both Christian icons and Islamic calligraphy – that he scanned and manipulated on the computer.  After generating images he liked, Kanaan printed them and pasted them onto wood tiles, followed by adding layers of beeswax tinted in a variety of colors.  The process of using beeswax, called encaustic, “gives the tiles an ‘organic’ look, enriching and deepening the colors and contributing to a murky quality,” he said.

By creating a series of layers, Kanaan challenges viewers to probe deeply into the work to find meaning.
“Observers must dig through these layers, much like they would when going to any place of worship – a church, mosque or synagogue – and taking in the artwork and architecture there,” he said.  “When they go to any of these places, they process and reflect in order to be with the Divine.  Hopefully, my artwork creates the same kind of reaction – reflection followed by dialogue.”
For Kanaan, his tiles are part of a larger body of work that documents a personal journey to find his place in the United States.

He is of Palestinian heritage, specifically from Ramalah in the West Bank, but born and raised in Amman, Jordan, in a refugee camp.  In 1994, he moved to the United States and settled in Portland.  Currently, he is an instructor at Portland State University (PSU) where he teaches courses in interactive media, including Web design and computer graphics.

Kanaan launched his art career in 1991, studying at the College of Fine Arts at Baghdad University.  He obtained his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and Graphic Design from PSU in 1999, and he’s currently finishing his master’s of Fine Arts program through Warnborough University in the United Kingdom.
It was through Kanaan’s master’s program that the idea of melding Christian iconography and Islamic calligraphy came to be.  Christianity evolved over time to tell stories from the Scriptures to the masses by way of highly symbolic images, illustrations and icons within its churches and basilicas.  As the religion’s strength took hold in the new Roman Empire in the 700s under the leadership of Constantine the Great, Christianity dissipated in the Middle East – which helped to usher in the birth of Islam in this region around the same time.

Muslims, meanwhile, opted not to use imagery to decorate their places of worship.  The decision was threefold – partly not to mimic the Christian approach; partly not to cause distraction among the faithful worshiping at the mosques; and partly because imagery was seen as putting “soul” into artwork, which was likened to doing God’s will and imitating his creation…activities mere mortals should not take on.
Instead, Muslims used abstract forms and calligraphy to tell stories.  These designs and patterns – flowers, vines, trees and geometrical shapes – were combined with verses from the Qur’an to decorate mosques.  Because the Qur’an was written in Arabic, calligraphy was – and is still – considered to be the highest form of Islamic art.  Arabic script was first transformed and beautified so that it might be worthy of divine revelation in the Qur’an, thus calligraphy gained prominence and became essential to Islamic ornament.

As both religions are monotheistic, experienced their “golden” periods at nearly the same time in the seventh century, and relied on art forms to tell their stories, Kanaan began to more closely evaluate how they communicated their doctrines.  Christianity utilized imagery to invoke a sense of divinity and holiness, to attract the mind and soul of the believer into the presence of God.  Islam relied on words, bolstered by geometrical patterns and designs, to do the same.  In the case of each, art was used in places of worship as a means to create a separation between the outside world and an individual’s spiritual space.

“It seemed natural to study one’s use of imagery and the other’s use of words to communicate their messages,” said Kanaan.  “There are so many similarities between the two religions when interpreted in their purest forms.

“My artwork is an attempt to convey their essence, individually and together.  Art offers a gentle, non-confrontational platform on which to think and then discuss.  It can enter – and open – a person’s heart and mind.  And that is my goal.”