Art as craft: The modern contemplation of ancient practices

Artist Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz discusses her interdisciplinary textile work at an open studio in New City Arts Initiative’s Welcome Gallery on January 28. Photo: Courtesy the artist Artist Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz discusses her interdisciplinary textile work at an open studio in New City Arts Initiative’s Welcome Gallery on January 28. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Contemplation is having a resurgence in the popular consciousness these days, with mindfulness festival studios, pop-up meditation groups and even the University of Virginia’s own Contemplative Sciences Center. But for centuries, artists have practiced contemplation as a necessary companion of creation.

“A lot of artists working today like to define contemplativity broadly as a means of justifying or explaining their fixation on subjective creative interests,” writes local artist Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz in an email to C-VILLE Weekly. “However, for me it is very simple and objective: Contemplation is the remembrance of God.”

This strict definition aligns Mumtaz, whose interdisciplinary work incorporates collage, hand papermaking, silverpoint, miniature painting technique, textile design and other crafting practices with a long history.

“The contemporary art world tends to look down on traditional craft and draw a harsh line separating art from craft,” she says.

Although her work has been exhibited internationally, including solo and group exhibitions in India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Europe, spirituality is the common denominator that connects her to makers the world over.

“[In Lahore] I started thinking more deeply about the status of traditional art in the modern world and the core values that defined art in the pre-modern, pre-colonial framework of the subcontinent,” says Mumtaz.

Here, she found, art existed primarily to honor the sacred. A textile that visualized and embodied spiritual principles of its culture was “as much an artwork as a miniature painting.”

It’s a welcome discovery for the woman who received her bachelor of arts from Yale and her master of fine arts from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, yet cites her artistic heroes as those from the history of craft rather than modern art.

For those of us uninitiated by graduate- level artistic training, it’s easy to believe that, like spirituality, creative legitimacy begins with the artist, not the chosen medium.

In Mumtaz’s case, she was heavily influenced by her mother’s self-taught work in archaic textile crafts. Mumtaz followed in her footsteps, working at the same living history museum and learning to weave on a loom that was nearly 300 years old. “Years later I am still fascinated by the ingenious inner geometry of traditional weaving,” she says.

As they say, God is in the details.

An artist-in-residence at New City Arts from October through the end of February, Mumtaz most recently developed these concepts through textile/collage hybrids, a technique that imitates the visual qualities of embroidery.

Her large-scale works are composed from handmade paper cutouts mounted onto woven paper silk sourced in India. They take the form of “a monumental khirqa, or initiatic cloak [of the Sufi chain of spirituality], which contains abstracted plant imagery referencing gardens of paradise.”

She decided to create these massive robes, which hang suspended in frames, after she noticed them appearing more frequently in textile museum collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. “The shape of the suspended robe reminds me of an apparition, or a figure that is both present and strangely absent, verging on the supernatural. I also love the mystical symbolism of the initiatic robe, which refers to spiritual transformation,” she says.

Mumtaz conducted additional research in the ancient holy city of Varanasi in India, where she traveled using a grant from the Lighton International Artists Exchange Program and was hosted by the Kriti Gallery residency program.

“This ancient holy city was calling me,” she says. “At first I was attracted to its identity as a living incarnation of Shiva and a city for the dead. Perched on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the most important Hindu pilgrimage site in India and a place where many Hindus go to die.”

The city, she writes, was also the home of the poet/mystic Kabir, a weaver whose poems often reference the spiritual and cosmological symbolism of weaving. (For example: “God is the Master Weaver; the warp and woof of weaving are analogous to the vertical and horizontal axes of creation; they can also refer to the often very beautiful but deceptive ‘web’ of illusion (Maya) that we are caught in as created beings.”)

In Varanasi, Mumtaz met several weaving families dedicated to the creation of the Banarasi sari, “an extremely sophisticated handwoven silk brocade textile that has traditionally been produced by Muslim weavers.” Their work, she says, was “informed by their religious imagination.”

Mumtaz asserts that her artistic orientation and attention to divine archetypes “isn’t a religious practice in and of itself.” But in handloom workshops, following principles of joint-family apprenticeship, she found men “protecting and transmitting this very high craft form, which is increasingly threatened by the inhuman mechanization of the global contemporary textile trade.”

It was humbling and very moving, she says. “Most of their designs had been passed down through generations of workshop transmission, often from father to son.”

No doubt Mumtaz thinks of her mother. And so the line blurs between art and craft, religion and reflection. So creation and contemplation open a channel to the spirit that shapes us, no matter what we call it.

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