"Divine Flags, Divine Names"
by Carolyn Goodridge
DIVINE FLAGS, DIVINE NAMES exhibition is a work dedicated to the Eastern, Vedic religion and the Middle Eastern Sufi religion, known by some as the mystical side of Islam. The Islamic text, Asma’ul Husna, or, The 99 Beautiful Names of Allah, served as the initial point of departure for painting the world flags. Just as divine names (i.e., The Most Patient) are qualities of God, so also are the names of nations aspects of one divine Earth.
Divine Flags, Divine Names, my body of work for the 1997 MFA Thesis Exhibition, was conceived from a life-long study of eastern religious texts and participation in spiritual disciplines and practices. This showing is comprised of three pieces: Unbound Prayers, 25 Divine Names, 192 Divine Flags.
Four years ago in an art history class I learned of Fra Angelico (c. 1387-1455) a Dominican painter-monk who above all else, stressed the religious content of his paintings. Fra Angelico was the first artist who triggered in me the religion possibilities of painting. Fra Angelico exhibited his devotion to Christianity by painting frescos of historical Christian events. Many of his smaller paintings were on the walls of monks’ quarters, for their private meditation.
More modern artists such as the abstract expressionist Mark Tobey and the color field artist Mark Rothko also have inspired me. The meditation canvases of Tobey helped me understand how a specific religion may play a more practical role in the work of the abstract artist. His love of the Ba’hai faith motivated his later works which were also intended to be used as objects of meditation.
Illuminated manuscripts have a profound effect on me. According to Gardner in Art Through the Ages, "…a long tradition of pictures in manuscripts began in pharaonic Egypt and was developed to a high degree by the Hellenistic Greeks…" Illuminated manuscripts are sacred texts manually copied by holy men and artisans, and subsequently passed down through the ages. These spiritual words are beautifully caligraphed on parchment or velum. Paintings of scenes, human and/or animal figures or beautiful geometric interlinear designs served to further illuminate the meaning or lesson of a Holy Scripture. Illuminated manuscripts were an important tradition within a religion, a means to preserve and disseminate ancient teachings.
Seventeen years ago I saw illuminated manuscripts for the first time. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was showing an exhibit on The Islamic. The show exhibited several illuminated manuscripts of the Qur’an done in beautiful Kufic script. These pages evoked within me a feeling of reverence. The care and expertise demonstrated by the artists were astounding.
More recently I saw the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin during a 1996 summer trip to Ireland. This massive book of the Latin text of the gospels was displayed with unsurpassed reverence. Each day one could view the next page. The Book of Kells was in a dimly lit room under a glass case, where the gold leaf and richly colored pigments became luminous. In the outer galleries one could read about the history of this and similar manuscripts--how they were fashioned, and see the objects and tools used in this long process. Precious metal dust and raw pigments for making the inks, calfskin, and mallets used to pound them were all on view to study and appreciate.
The pomp and circumstance of this holy manuscript’s presentation, and the long procession of daily viewers, impressed me to no end. I knew without a doubt that religion was not dead. Through art one can present sacred teachings to not only an elite few, but also to the popular masses. The light that shone down on the Book of Kells strategically appeared as a heavenly light, reminding me of the purpose of any holy scripture: to help enlighten the individual spirit.
It is in this spirit that I have created Unbound Prayers.This prayer book is dedicated to all seekers of inner peace in the outer world. Unbound Prayers is inspired by the 100 verses of the chapter entitled, "Peace", in the ancient Vedic scripture, Astavakra Samhita, and 108 Sufi prayers. The abstract forms, which appear in Unbound Prayers, are painted in wet-on-wet technique on rice paper. The liquidity of the paint medium is important, serving as a metaphor for inner freedom--relinquished control. The chosen colors are those of human body fluids. Many of the printed flags, which are revealed as the viewer lifts the small paintings, are perhaps unfamiliar to most viewers. This is a good vehicle towards meditation since one is less able to project judgements of racial, political, or economic status onto them.
Unbound Prayers is a scriptural marriage between Sufi prayers and Vedic text. The one hundred verses were originally written in Sanskrit, a language older than Hebrew and Latin. The very first sacred books of Hinduism are the Vedas. Vedas means Knowledge. There are four Vedas, claiming to teach humans the highest aspects of truths which lead us to God.
25 DIVINE NAMES
The abstract images of 25 Divine Names speak to the internal activity of the human body. As my body’s location constantly shifts from location to location, and the atoms which make it up defy permanence, so to do the borders and names of nations change continually. Constant flux seems to permeate all phenomena, masking an underlying Great Indivisibility.
Disciplines such as Tantra, Yoga, and Transcendental Meditation condition the seeker to modulate body processes such as breath, heart rate and temperature to achieve inner balance and harmony with the Universal Energy. The miniature paintings entitled 25 Divine Names were done during contemplation of my physical body’s inner universe and the mental images evoked within me by each Divine Name.
25 Divine Names start from number seventy-five of the ninety-nine Divine Names of Allah, and continue through number ninety-nine.
The 25 Divine Names in this installation are:
The Manifest; The Hidden; The Governor; The Supremely Exalted; The Righteous; The Acceptor of Repentance; The Avenger; The Pardoner; The Kind; The King of Supreme Dominion; The Lord of Majesty, Glory, and Honor; The Just; The Gatherer; The Rich; The Enricher; The Preventer; The Distresser; The Benefiter; The Light; The Guide; The Incomparable; The Enduring; The Inheritor; The Unerring, and The Most Patient.
192 DIVINE FLAGS
Studying the spiritually-charged color field paintings of Mark Rothko, I was able to envision the pure geometrical shapes of color within each flag form as… transcendent. My intention is to transform the idea of flags as political symbols of group ego into a personal vocabulary of meditation symbols to aid the mind in transcending ego. Where these flags were originally used to motivate soldiers in war, I see them as banners of a spiritual war to relinquishthe ego and align with God.
Thirty of the flags are composed of an algae-mandala form superimposed as a brutal contrast above a basic design of the flag. These aggressive marks serve the idea of natural decay, nature’s power over human construction—physical or mental (i.e. national borderlines.)
192 Divine Flags also serves as a visible display of an inner quandary: "How is the geophysical, political domain connected with the spiritual, egoless Kingdom?" The outer realms are reflections and/or projections from the inner self. As long as there is inner conflict there will be war, disease, pestilence... Inner conflict produces social conflict, and each moment of peace that a person experiences contributes to world peace. This installation advocates inner peace as the key to world peace. Outer and inner are complementary opposites, and thus necessarily connected. Through meditation one can affect important social and political change.
This installation speaks to the living connection between apparent opposites. Divine Flags, Divine Names include the very large and the very small, with the size of the human body mediating between each. One hundred and ninety-two small, brightly-colored canvases comprise one larger aggregate flag. This configuration illustrates the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm, the outer world and the inner realms. (As an aside, one may even find these concepts behind the chaos theory, fractals and holography.) Scale is important.
The viewer of Divine Flags, Divine Names may choose between one extreme or the other, the larger-than-life-size flag installation, or Unbound Prayers. The small prayer book provides an even more intimate vehicle to meditation, than does the expansive 192 Divine Flags. The human body bridges these two realms of the large and the small.
Meditation is a state of no-mind, of pure consciousness with no content. Meditation happens when you let go of whatever worries or anxieties you are experiencing. Fear causes both inner and outer conflict and hinders peace.
The very last word of Unbound Prayers is "place." Place is very fitting since a seeker of truth or peace may either travel the four corners of the world, represented by every world flag, or brave the limitless inner realms. The physical or spiritual change undertaken by any one person affects the physical or spiritual integrity of the whole world. All nations are comprised of human beings, kindred spirits longing for peace.
This document was submitted to the Faculty of the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Fine Arts in the Department of Art.