For artist Ella Cooper, 2017's most captivating art was an invitation to engage with Islamic culture
The multidisciplinary artist reflects on how Shahzia Sikander's hypnotic installation took her by surprise
This is part of a series of personal essays in which CBC Arts asked Canadian artists to reflect back on the year that was. This essay is by multidisciplinary artist Ella Cooper.
Can you remember the last time you stood transfixed in front of a work of art — so taken by it that you felt transported to somewhere beautiful and profound?
That was my experience this fall, when I chose to stay away from the drunken masses that often make up Nuit Blanche's downtown experience and headed up the Don Valley Parkway to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto's Don Mills area. I'll be honest, I did little to no research about what would be on during the 12 hours of arts programming that this lively overnight festival so wonderfully delivers. We took a gamble, looking to experience something different — something new that would allow us to consider large-scale contemporary artmaking outside the downtown core and typical mainstream perspectives.
My three friends and I gleefully arrived at the futuristic landscape of the museum that brisk October night. Shards of dramatically lit glass and concrete seemed to jut straight out of the earth like contemporary pyramids reflecting their majesty into the inky black pool in front of the entrance. This bold first impression was complemented by a 15-foot high video installation, mirrored back to us from the same pool by the doors, that stopped us dead in our tracks. We huddled together, cold and shivering but refusing to go inside. In front of us was the video work of New York-based Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander's "Disruption of Rapture" revealing an almost hypnotic visual journey into the 17th-century "Gulshan-i 'Ishq" (Rose Garden of Love)" manuscript from the Aga Khan Museum's permanent collection. This illustrated poem, originally written by Nusrati in 1657-58, is described as a story of "connection, separation, longing and union of lovers — that is borrowed from a North Indian Hindu love story and recast in mystical Sufi garb, where the lovers stand for the soul's relationship to the divine."
No wonder we stood there for ages watching Sikander's animated illustrations cycle through each motif like tripped out teenagers. Even without knowing the exact details of what we were witnessing at the time, it was a treat to see familiar Hindu imagery interpreted in a way. The video seemed to invite the audience to go deeper into the underlying themes present in this ancient manuscript using the power of visual storytelling. I remember the warmth of my friends on either side of me, cold cheeks rosy with awe as they made futile attempts to capture a sliver of this oracle-like structure with their smartphones.
Around us, glowing yurts scattered throughout Aga Khan park were bursting with people vying for a little space to experience the live music within. Inside the museum's austere metallic walls was the continued buzz of people enjoying the cypher of performances and music in the interior courtyard. The all-night access to the permanent collection included more contemporary interpretations of Islamic culture with beautiful tapestries by Nep Sidhu and sculptures by Sameer Farooq.
Amongst the plethora of events I have attended this year, this still sticks with me. While there are many examples of artists being invited to "major" museums to reinterpret often inaccessible permanent collections, what is different about this commission is that the artist allowed the viewer to better understand this ethereal spiritual text through an accessible visual context that lifted it into the present day without changing the art itself. It was also refreshing — and a welcome change — to see culturally diverse women showcased in video installation and media arts, areas where women, let alone Muslim or Pakistani women, are still so rarely featured within mainstream contemporary art venues. The evening provided a playful opportunity to physically explore Islamic culture more deeply, which I feel is an important invitation to overturn Islamophobia within our Canadian context.
I felt uplifted as I walked through another reflective corridor of light and sound that led to the parking lot. I left with the desire to return, to know more and to learn more from an intricate culture much different from my own that informs the fabric of this metropolitan community I am part of.