Image Journal: Salma Arastu

The Tribal Joy
The Tribal Joy

How do we live our days in the afterglow of the Christmas season, with its message of “peace on earth, good will to all”? I can’t think of a better way than meditating with the works of Salma Arastu.

Arastu is a Muslim visual artist who was raised a Hindu. Not the religious grounding we’d expect to represent the Christmas spirit. Yet her work transcends particular faiths in its envisioning of humankind’s unity in the love of the one God. Arastu’s paintings sing with the angels “Peace on earth, good will to all.”

Arastu was born in India, lived in Iran and Kuwait after her marriage and conversion to Islam, and now has her studio in Berkeley, California. Through thirty years of painting, she has developed an art of the continuous line that swirls in loops creating multiple figures seamlessly connected.

These figures are beyond race or gender; they are humankind at one beyond such superficial distinctions. Together, the figures dance in joy or bend over in mourning; they merge into their natural environment as they celebrate Creation; they bow as one in prayer; they turn gray with grief or bright red with hope.

You can get a glimpse of Arastu’s work at her website. There under the Series tab, paintings like “Around the Circle of Life” or the “Around the Tree” series are composed out of the continuous lines that I described above. Under the Paintings tab are works titled “Truth and Justice,” “Love and Mercy,” and “Living Together in Compassion,” this last incorporating calligraphy so naturally that the letters swirl in and out of the human figures.

I like best, though, to look at Arastu’s work in her printed collection, The Lyrical Line.  There I can choose a painting for meditation. Following the flow of her looping continuous line, I’m reminded of the knitting I love to do: of the single looping thread out of which a whole garment is made.

But in an Arastu painting, what is created from the looping line’s flow are people in harmony. Arastu told an interviewer about the influence of calligraphy on her visual imagination:

I lived in Iran and Kuwait for a while and I was totally amazed by the beauty of the calligraphy. I started copying the figure and just followed the strokes— they are very continuous and lyrical. That’s how my figures became more lyrical, almost movement-like. Through the single stroke of a continuous line I want to bring all kinds of people in the world together. (At the American Society for Muslim Advancement website)

The interviewer also asks Arastu: “A lot of your paintings depict people that don’t have any sort of facial expressions. Why is that?” Arastu’s reply:

I started doing faceless figures because I didn’t want to give them any identity. Many cultures and religions have passed through me. After being born and raised in India, I married a Muslim man and lived in Middle Eastern countries. And for the past 17 years, I have been living in America. I didn’t want to separate Allah’s creations—they are simply people. I call it “the flow of humanity.”

“My work is worship,” she says later in the interview. “I cannot separate Allah from my existence. He is with me each moment and it pours through my art.”

Christians would call this an incarnational vision, the gift of “God with us” that Christmas celebrates. Incarnation is not a concept for Islam; yet God’s intimacy suffuses the Islamic spirituality that Arastu’s work represents. And all of her works sing the “Joy to the World” of our Christmas carol.

Peggy Rosenthal