At the end of her tenure as an artist in residence at the San Francisco Dump, Sharon Siskin discovered a pile of old, Arabic language textbooks used to teach Muslim children the fundamental lessons of life, such as to love their parents, attend school and share.
“I couldn’t believe my good fortune that on one of my last days I found these,” she said, gesturing to her work.
But what most surprised Siskin, 56, about the books was their resemblance to books she had learned from herself, as a child attending Hebrew school. Books in hand, she went back to her studio and put them together in an 18-collage series showcasing the intrinsic similarity between Islamic and Judaic teachings. Five of those collages now serve as part of an exhibition on religious harmony. This weekend, members and artists from Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations gathered at the exhibition’s opening at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in downtown Oakland.
Titled “Diverse Visions of Harmony,” the aim of the night was to bring religious groups together to discuss values common to all of the Abrahamic religions, according to organizers.
Over 130 works were offered for the exhibition, said Reza Rohani, 58, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, which hosted the event, though only 90 from 40 artists were featured.
Visitors entering the gallery can see a sculpture of a female pastor with open hands on the right side. Several paintings of Arabic calligraphy stand in the center, and in a corner near the door, a photo collage displays messages protesting Islamophobia that were posted on memorials in one Oakland neighborhood shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“Dear neighbors, we were saddened to hear of reports of hate messages being sent to Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern people,” reads one. “We are sending a message of love.”
“The pieces are completely different kinds of art,” said Rabbi David J. Cooper, of the Kehilla Community Synagogue, standing in front of a photograph of a man with a message of peace stitched into his jacket. “But to have all of them in the same place at once is itself a representation of the theme.”
The evening began inside the Islamic Cultural Center’s gymnasium-sized meeting hall, where about 100 men and women, some wearing headscarves, yarmulkes or nuns’ habits, listened while congregation leaders offered their thoughts on the theme of religious harmony and their hopes for ongoing cooperation.
“The artistic expression of something beyond itself is still today a holy act as experienced by even the most secular modern artist,” Cooper said during his speech. “It is a common experience for the artist, when the work is completed, to feel somehow that he or she is not so much the creator of the work, but rather the conduit through which this work traveled in order to become manifest. I, the artist, am in touch with the source. But I am not the ultimate source itself.”
The exhibition was arranged by the “Faith Trio,” a consortium of the Islamic Cultural Center, the Kehilla Community Synagogue and the Montclair Presbyterian Church.
Jean Mudge, one of the Trio’s founding organizers at the Montclair Presbyterian Church, said the group’s roots extend to just after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when two women from the Islamic Cultural Center’s congregation came to the church wanting to begin an ongoing dialogue.
The church obliged, and later on, wanting to extend that relationship to all the Abrahamic faiths, Mudge says, the Kehilla synagogue was invited to join, and the Faith Trio was born.
Since its founding, the Trio has hosted events—including joint services, poetry readings and dinners—and organized the writing of letters protesting Islamaphobia.
“Small groups like ours are happening all over the world,” Mudge said. “The grassroots are key. If you don’t put a face to the issue, you won’t actually understand it.”
With a contentious measure declaring support for Palestinian statehood awaiting passage in the United Nations, and the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks only a few days earlier, the common cause of “harmony” and “understanding” were welcomed by many of those attending the exhibition’s opening.
Greg Schwinn, 57, an exhibition coordinator from the Montclair Presbyterian Church, said the artwork had compelled him to think about the meaning of religious harmony.
“Is harmony about oneness or working together?” he asked. “I think this exhibit shows both working simultaneously.”
While each congregation includes children, young people were mostly absent Saturday night. During her speech, the Reverend Beth Buckingham-Brown of Montclair Presbyterian suggested that future events include more youth, and that organizers reach out to a wider community beyond their own congregations.
“May we open our doors wider and invite more and more people to be part of our faith communities,” she said.
Turning her attention away from an Arabic calligraphy at the reception, Buckingham-Brown elaborated on her message. “I think it would be interesting to have more youth participate in future events,” she said. “We might have to extend the definition of art to include poetry slams or performance, but I think it would be worthwhile.“
A smiling Rohani agreed that more youth should be involved. In the future, Rohani suggested, the congregations could have their youngest members work together on a mural simultaneously but from opposite sides, eventually meeting in the middle, where they would have to collaborate in order to merge their different visions together in a single work of art.
Rohani said Sunday’s opening was undoubtedly a success.
“So soon after the anniversary of 9/11, when everyone is talking about the differences in our religions, that we can bring out this many people to talk about harmony is great,” he said.
Diverse Visions of Harmony: An Interfaith Art Exhibit, will be on display at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California at 1433 Madison Street in downtown Oakland through October 22, Thursday-Saturday 10 am to 4 pm, or by appointment.
There will be a closing reception on Sunday, October 16 from 3 to 5 pm.
This story has been amended from the original. The original version of this story said that 60 artworks were submitted and 40 were chosen. Oakland North regrets the error.