A window on the many worlds people inhabit

Jyoti Kalsi, Gulf News, April 1, 2015

Using philosophies and technology, an artist portrays a spiritual journey to a land of joy

Ala Ebtekar often combines futuristic concepts from science fiction with philosophies and mythologies to explore mental and spiritual transcendence of time and space. In his latest show, “Nowheresville\‘nä-kōja,-abäd” the US-based artist of Iranian origin juxtaposes the Illuminationist cosmogony of the 12th century Persian mystical philosopher Shahabuddin Suhrawardi with images from the Hubble space telescope and sounds recorded by the Voyager spacecraft, to link the past with the future, the microcosm with the macrocosm and inner journeys of self-discovery and enlightenment with voyages into the unknown depths of the cosmos.


According to Suhrawardi’s ancient cosmic philosophy, all creation is a successive outflow from the Supreme Light of Lights, and the universe and all levels of existence are but varying degrees of light.


The Light of Lights is the only absolute reality, and from its placeless place —‘nä-kōja,-abäd (Nowhereseville) — it radiates the universe into being, dispersed into nine spheres. Human beings live on the ninth sphere, furthest from the light.


But they forgot the light, so as they gaze upon the skies, some just see a sapphire sea of stars; others see the stars with an astrologer’s eye, missing what lies beyond. But a few know that seeing is a journey with the mind’s eye, in which the first step is closing the eyes and the final destination is Nowheresville — beyond time and space, where the immortal mythical bird, Simurgh, resides atop the cosmic mountain Qaf.


It is this spiritual journey, and the idea of Nowheresville that Ebtekar has tried to visually represent in his show. Embedded in his artworks are portals that invite viewers to enter another plane of consciousness and embark on a journey into forgotten pasts and imagined futures.


“This show is about a journey, about light and about connecting worlds and times that are centuries apart. The mythology of almost every culture talks about a hero’s journey and the challenge of performing seven labours to get to his final destination.


“And such journeys are also depicted in science fiction literature. We can all connect with this because we are all doing this journey in different ways. While researching Suhrawardi’s work, I was fascinated to see how relevant it is to contemporary times. His illuminationist philosophy is about light, consciousness, being rooted in the here and now to understand the future, and the connectedness of things.


“So, light is a big part of this show. Suhrawardi described Nowheresville as a place that your index finger cannot point to. It is a place that cannot be located and that is different for each individual. I want to explore the possibility of creating access to that place by providing windows and gateways for viewers to begin their journey towards their own Nowheresvilles,” Ebtekar says.


The artist has depicted the journey from the orb of the eye to celestial orbs through various imageries and metaphors of the portal. In the “Tunnel in the Sky” series, cut mat boards are placed over pages from a first edition of sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein’s 1955 book, “Tunnel in the Sky”, about a group of young people teleported to another planet.


“The openings I have cutout are based on the shapes of arches, which in Sufi philosophy represent gateways from earthly existence to the divine. They are also portals for a journey that connects the personal psyche with the cosmic psyche,” Ebtekar says.


In another untitled series, the artist has cut out the words of Rumi, Hafez, Suhrawardi and other poets and philosophers from pages of old manuscripts to create windows through which viewers can transcend the here and now, using the power and aura of the words to discover a cosmos of infinite possibilities.


In a painting titled, “Zenith”, the artist has incorporated light as a medium by using the Cyanotype technique, invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel. In this photographic printing process the canvas is coated with certain chemicals, and covered with a stencil and then exposed to the sun, thus using natural light to develop the image.


Ebtekar used a negative of an image from the Hubble telescope to create a cosmic scene filled with sparks of light on his canvas. Over this, he painted clouds, which have been used in ancient Persian philosophy to symbolise moments of enlightenment and the infinite possibilities in a seeker’s journey.


The centrepiece of the show is a light installation titled “Sakina”, a term that describes a state of lightful raptures in Sufi philosophy. The work features two heptagonal tubes of light representing earthly and celestial existence, with the seven-sided-shape symbolising the universe, the seven days and the seven labours of mythological heroes. The light gradually changes from a warm candle light yellow to a cool celestial bluish white in a continuous cycle evoking the eternal cycle of life.


“My work is essentially about using contemporary approaches to looking at things of the past, and about showing a window for accessing that other domain of the many worlds within us,” the artist says.


From the Gulf News website.