Frida did not create the above photograph, but she would have appreciated its quiet beauty. It is part of a series of photographs by Syrian artist Khaled Akil, which symbolize peace. As I looked at the large photographs with the dark backgrounds foregrounding a man with closed eyes in a succession of elegant dance moves, I felt an inner calm I hadn’t experienced for months. “How ironic,” I thought, that it took a Syrian artist’s work to evoke such equanimity when the Syrian people have been embroiled in a horrific war.
Hearing Akil discuss his series of photographs, via a video, was powerful. He wanted to do something to pay homage to his friend, Karaina, an animal lover who was killed because she couldn’t bear to leave her war-torn country without her twelve beloved dogs. At first, the photos were a way to come to terms with her death, but after working with the Turkish performer Alper Akcay, they turned into a prayer for Karaina and, ultimately, a tribute to her and Syria itself.
Akcay is trained in traditional and contemporary dance, particularly Sufi and Bektashi sacred rituals and movements, which include whirling. The “Whirling Dervishes,” as they’re known in the West, spin as a form of physical meditation. The wide skirt, worn while spinning in repetitive circles, symbolizes the shroud of the ego, which is symbolically abandoned with the succession of movements accentuated by hypnotic music. The transformation of self through the loss of ego is a means of achieving union with God.
Akcay and Akil’s collaboration consisted of Akcay whirling while Akil photographed him. But, Akil wanted to incorporate a white dove into the whirling meditation to represent Karaina’s love of animals and its Jewish, Christian, and Islamic association with peace. During the photo shoot, Akcay entered a trance-like state; for two or three hours he prayed with the dove as he spun. Akil was so moved that he couldn’t photograph the entire whirling meditation, but this profound experience shaped the images seen in the photographs. And, it shapes the viewing experience as well. I attempted to describe some of the photographs, but no matter how I revised the words, they were inadequate compared to the extraordinary splendor of the images. It’s best to go see the photographs in person on Stanford’s campus, but you can also view them at Akil’s website: www.khaledakil.com.
Requiem for Syria is an appropriate title because these photographs, which incorporate drawing, painting, and Arabic calligraphy, are both a prayer and a token of remembrance for Karaina, but also for the people of Syria. The whole process of creating this work of art was an act of love and for the Sufis, love is the power which opens the heart to a feeling of oneness with God. As the 13th century Persian poet Rumi put it: “All loves are a bridge to divine love.”
Syria, Akil said, is not the first or last country to experience war. There will be more. Requiem for Syria embodies exactly what we need right now in this moment of history: beauty, peace, reflection, and above all, love.
The exhibit, which was organized by Anne Sconberg, will be up through April.
The Markaz: Resource Center at Stanford University
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© Celia S. Stahr 2017