A show of faith: Gallery opens its doors to Middle Eastern art

Salma Arastu sees humanity united in a single line, fluid and continuous, scrawled across her 6-foot canvases. Sometimes the line loops in circles, representing a sea of people with featureless oblong faces, huddled in a mass of script and scribble.

Her line forms prayers, too, in Arabic calligraphy layered against harmonic watercolor backgrounds.

“ ‘Do not grieve, God is with us,’ I kept repeating those words. It’s a deep meditation for me,” Arastu said as she described the painting on the flier for her show at Robert Graves Gallery, “Universal Messages: New Vistas.”

“ ‘God is with us.’ I said it again and again, sometimes with large strokes, sometimes small strokes.”

Arastu will talk about the show at an artist reception Feb. 20. She’s bringing eight large-scale paintings — 4-feet tall and 6-feet wide — and eight smaller pieces from her Berkeley, Calif., studio. The exhibit will up for about a month.

Arastu, 62, has shown her work all over the world — India, Kuwait, Germany and Burma. She was commissioned for public sculptures in San Diego and Pennsylvania. The Robert Graves show will be her Washington debut. She found Wenatchee through an ad in a California Arts Council newsletter and sent the gallery a proposal.

The idea behind “Universal Messages” is the commonality between faiths, she said. Arastu was born into a spiritual Hindu family in India, where she earned a master’s degree in fine arts. She later married a Muslim and converted to Islam.

“When I did that, God stayed the same for me. I realized he’s coming with me, and I saw beauty in that,” Arastu said. “I realized we’re all the same, that God doesn’t keep track of the differences.”

In her latest show, she explored that theme through the poems of Rumi, a 13th century Muslim theologian. She created 52 paintings from Rumi’s poems of love, joy and unity, she said. Several of those paintings will be part of the Robert Graves show.

“People love Rumi here,” she said. “I used Rumi as a way to fill these gaps that were happening between Muslim communities and non-Muslims.”

For “Universal Messages,” she expanded from Rumi to the Quran. She’s now working on a series involving several religions including Hindu, Judaism and Christianity.

“They all teach good things, right?” Arastu said. “I’m not trying to preach to anyone, it’s just my love for humanity pouring out in fluid form, in calligraphy.”

Arastu and her husband, an architect, moved with their two kids to the U.S. in the late ’80s to be with family and for better job prospects. After 9/11, she said people began asking her about Islam and the Middle East. She didn’t know what to say. The extremism portrayed on the news wasn’t the religion she practiced.

“I never thought my god would ask to kill, I knew that,” she said. “What we hear in the media, that Islam teaches people to kill, I was shocked to hear that. Of course what happened was wrong … but that shouldn’t paint the entire religion.”

Gallery President John Crew said they booked Arastu for the quality of her paintings, not for faith, politics or the rarity of Middle Eastern culture in the area.

“We weren’t looking for Middle Eastern art, but looking at the images themselves, we liked the energy and the skill that goes into it.”

Crew said he admired the way she transfers calligraphy — a small action of the hand and fingers — into a sweeping, arms-length motion across the canvas with the same grace and detail. Born without fingers on her left hand, Arastu learned Arabic calligraphy on slow days when she worked at an Islamic arts museum in Iran.

“They’re many layered,” Crew said. “There’s an incredible amount of subtlety to them. They have decorative quality, and I’m sure they have spiritual meaning for her, but we made the decision on the art, not on the person.”

Rachel Hansen: 664-7139


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