Tikkun Daily is the multimedia blog site of Tikkun Magazine, a progressive Jewish and interfaith publication founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner. The site serves as an Internet hub for the religious and spiritual left, and today they published a feature on my art. The post is by Akile Kabir, the art intern for Tikkun, and is republished here. You can also see a slideshow of my work to the left:
Raw Form and Beauty: Communing with Allah in the Natural World
by Akile Kabir
Al Kahf (The Cave)
To see more of Davi Barker’s work, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery and the artist’s website.
The clarity of composition and richness of color in Davi Barker’s work were what struck me first. Then, as I began to reflect on his art, I noticed the serenity of his paintings, which juxtapose Islamic calligraphy and sites with beautiful, surreal panoramas. The paintings featured in Barker’s exhibit on Tikkun Daily are products of his experimentation with a combination of digital and fine art mediums. The scenes of nature or Islamic architecture may appear to be realistic landscapes or still lifes, but they also have a supernatural quality. Take for instance, the onion-shaped domes that dramatically emerge against cloudy skies, or the pristine smoothness of sand dunes, warmly bathed in sunlight. Each painting possesses a quality of light, even in darker settings, whether it is reflected on the surface of the water in Al Kahf or through the ominous clouds and birds encircling the Kaaba. In fact, the subjects featured in these paintings, such as the Kaaba on a bed of glass, are first arranged from digital photographs on the computer after which Barker produces the images in paint, thereby creating these fantastical compositions.
The wondrous scenes that Barker evokes in his paintings are inspired in part by his extensive travels as a child: in an interview he told me he encountered many inspirational landmarks and places of great natural beauty. Barker’s travels also led him into the art world. Upon returning to the United States for school, he said, he often felt disconnected from the rest of his peers as a result of having been so far removed from American culture. Mainstream cultural trends such as brand names and sports held little appeal. Art, on the other hand, became a familiar place of escape, as Barker’s father had also been an artist. These days, in addition to being an artist, Davi Barker reports on Muslim concerns for the San Francisco Examiner’s website and is a columnist at Illume magazine. A striking feature of Barker’s paintings is the absence of the human form, which is a result of his having converted to Islam after college. Many schools of Islamic art are devoid of the human figure because of the belief that depicting it is a form of idolatry. While Barker acknowledges the limitations of avoiding the human form (for instance, he abandoned collage work for years due to this limitation), he also appreciates the benefits that emerge from the absence of the human form.
Dome of the Rock
I asked Barker to share some thoughts about the practice of creating artwork without ever representing the human form. He said:
The human form is perhaps the most potent symbol possible, bringing the viewer directly into a fantasy realm. But I have found that the conspicuous absence of the human being can be an equally potent symbol. Raw form and beauty, the hallmarks of Islamic art, are artistic tools that can survive any limitation.
In fact, because of the absence of human forms, viewers may imagine that they are encountering these fantasy realms themselves, thereby simulating the effect of solitude in nature. Indeed, Barker said practicing solitude in nature can reveal spiritual connections:
As a Muslim I don’t believe true solitude exists. So it is an opportunity to commune directly with Allah in the natural world.
Without depicting the human form, the presence of humankind still prevails in these works. This is accomplished through the depiction of architecture and calligraphy or through markers indicating the existence of a lone figure, such as the boat underneath the cherry blossom tree or the prayer mat situated in the desert. While the overall effect of these paintings is to instill a sense of tranquility and contemplation on nature, Barker said his collage work serves a different purpose:
The goal is chaos. As a Muslim I don’t believe that true chaos exists. I see apparent chaos as an opportunity to witness the signs of Allah in the natural world. The modern world, especially the information age, is the most pregnant manifestation of chaos, constantly erupting into dazzling disorder. Much of the impact is more subconscious than conscious. I try to strike the viewer there, in the chaos created in the mind. I select images, headlines, and blocks of text from magazines and newspapers and I scramble them, ripping images from their context, breaking grammar and syntax, and I begin to reassemble them randomly. If a pattern emerges I will foster it, but I am careful not to direct it. The result is a soup of the words and images we are bombarded with everyday, but with no narrative, which forces the viewer to grapple with them subconsciously. Any message the viewer interprets in the composition is a projection of their own mind, not mine because I have divorced the process of my conscious influence. It emerges from the chaos…. Where chaos offers an opportunity to find meaning in the urban environment, solitude represents the return to meaning in the natural world.
Davi Barker is currently working on the first showing of his collage work since he abandoned the process in 2005 upon converting to Islam. It will be featured in the Islamic Art Exhibit in Oakland this March.
Akile Kabir is the current art intern at Tikkun.