Connecting the faiths: Finding common themes through art

September 2014 Posted in Arts, Culture & History
Anne Barber-Shams adorned this statue which will be part of the Amen – A Prayer for the World from Egypt to the US exhibit at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kristine Thomas

Anne Barber-Shams adorned this statue which will be part of the Amen – A Prayer for the World from Egypt to the US exhibit at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kristine Thomas

By Kristine Thomas

There was no way Anne Barber-Shams was going to let him leave her Silverton home looking like he did – especially since his destination was the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Spying a greasy smudge on his check, she grabbed a cloth and quickly removed it.

There, she said, standing back to look at her life-size, 15-pound, fiberglass statue, he’s ready to be packed and mailed.

Anne is one of 48 artists whose work will be featured in the exhibit, Amen – A Prayer for the World from Egypt to the US at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit includes 30 artists from Egypt – both Christian and Muslim – two from the United Kingdom, one from France and 15 from the United States. Anne is the only West Coast artist. From D.C., the exhibit will travel to St. John the Divine in New York City.

A nonprofit organization, CARAVAN was started by the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, an Episcopalian who was a mission partner in Cairo.  Chandler believes the arts can be used to facilitate intercultural and interreligious dialogue by building bridges of understanding and respect between Christians and Muslims.

The idea of the 2014 CARAVAN exhibition “is to express the deep, fundamental human acknowledgement of power and hope in the universe, for all peoples. … We may have different names for the ‘elemental force’ and alternative ways to express how we interact with or worship it, but what unites us, from the Middle East and West, is that we have all experienced moments of ‘prayer,’ sought answers, or looked for an ally, a confidant we can trust, or sent out a hope, a wish for ourselves or loved ones,” according to the organization’s press release.

Anne Barber-Shams
Home: An historic house in
downtown Silverton

Profession: Licensed massage
therapist and as well as an artist

Education: One year at the University
of Padua in Italy; Bachelor of Arts from
the University of California at
Santa Barbara with a painting emphasis

Exhibits and shows: Received a Oregon’s
Regional Arts and Culture Council grant
to create fused glass art and curate
The Wilderness Journey at Mittleman Jewish
Community Center and Bilal Mosque.
Curated Cross Cultural Bridges
at Havurah Shalom Synagogue and
First Congregational Church. Her
Sacred Voices exhibit was at
the Canton Ohio Museum of Art.

More: Anne’s website is:
www.anneshamsart.info or
see OnCaravan.org

These words resonant with Anne.

For two decades, Anne has attempted to  build bridges between Jews, Christians and Muslims through her art. When she learned about CARAVAN, she sent an email to Chandler describing herself as an interfaith artist who “first began building bridges between Jews, Christians and Muslims through art in 2004, expanding recently to other faith paths.”

Honored to be chosen for the juried show, Anne was allowed to pick from four fiberglass sculptures created by Egyptian artist Reda Abdel Rahman.

She chose one of a person sitting on the floor with legs tucked under, as though sitting in prayer. The statue arrived in cardboard box undecorated. Anne then undertook the task of adorning it.

She hopes when people see “RHM,” they will place a prayer in the prayer bowl and  read the two phrases on the black yoke that connects the Old Testament and the Koran, and “are meant to unsettle the misconception that YWH and Allah are two separate deities,” she said.

On the right side of the yolk, Anne said, is a verse from I Kings 18:39, translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi Ted Falcon as “The Transcendent One awakens in All.” The verse on the left side is from the Koran, Sura 2:115, translated by Imam Jamal Rahman as “Everywhere you turn is the face of Allah.”

Anne’s journey to use art to build bridges amongst religions started two decades ago when a bout of depression lead her to visit a behavioral psychologist.

Anne Barber-ShamsShe calls it “RHM, two of the most beloved of the most beautiful names of Allah, Al-Rahman and Al-Rahim, are derived from the tri-consonant root RHM, meaning womb or place of origin. I have calligraphed the root RHM in several art works. The root’s feminine slant appeals to me as a woman and more importantly, it contradicts the tendency to anthropomorphize the Divine as male.”

“He told me I wasn’t depressed but I was having a spiritual crisis,” she said.

The psychologist encouraged her to visit churches and use her skills as an artist to paint and draw what she was feeling. She soon found herself having vivid dreams with images she later learned where universal archetypes.

“The images that came up were a little compelling and a little frightening,” she said, adding dreams provide ideas for her art.

Describing herself as curious and on a quest to understand, Anne began to ask questions. Believing too much of the information about various religions is based on misconceptions or misinformation, Anne makes a point of referencing what she is stating from books in her personal library. Her books are marked with Post-It notes. Through meditation and painting, she started a path of soul expression unconfined by any specific religion, past or present.

“I think it’s more common for people to tend to see the differences in religions,” Anne said. “I tend to see the common threads of religions.”

Seeing how a symbol from one religion is found in another, and digging deeper to discover its beginning, Anne said, makes understanding the connections “really rich.”

The problem isn’t with religions – she said. If people were to study what groups claiming to be religious say with what their holy books say – they would find major differences, she added.

“I think too often people in each religion think they have a direct line to God and no one else has it.  I think, like any area of our lives, what we are fearful of is because we have inadequate information about the subject,” she said. “Art allows the barriers to fall away because it’s nonverbal communication. It is a way to experience something through someone else’s eyes. And when we do that, the stereotypes fall away.”

With all that’s happening in the world today, Anne said, she hopes the statue she is sending to the East Coast will allow someone to see the similarities in our faiths  instead of the differences.

“If we can’t have empathy for others and understand our differences and our similarities, we are not going to be able to live peacefully,” she said.

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