For God’s Sake: A Review of Abbas: Children of Abraham at the Arthur Ross Gallery

February 8, 2016

Our second review selected from “Art Reviewing and Criticism” is by student Sam Murray. We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did: 

Black, white, and Abraham. What else could the products of Abbas’s twenty years of global photographic perspective possibly have in common? The people and pilgrimages, conflict and ceremony, ritual and resentment depicted are diverse in name and in nature. The breadth of the exhibit is ambitious, and renders it rather unsuccessful to the viewer who comes in expecting to be ushered on a linear thematic journey through religion.

The exhibition is not inter-faith. It is, however, inter-human. I imagine myself packing Abbas’s photos into boxes. There is a Christian box, a Muslim one, and a Jewish one. No boundaries have been crossed. I scrap this plan and write out new labels for my boxes.

Vulnerability. A Muslim Tajik boy undergoing ritual circumcision and an Irish Catholic girl standing lonely in her ceremonial communion dress is now somehow united.

Serenity. A peacefully resting Saudi pilgrim and a deceased Brazilian infant adorned in innocent flowers are suddenly inextricably linked. One’s in heaven and the other is on hajj, but in Abbas they sleep together – both robed in white and captured by a camera.

Just as these sentiments cause eras and traditions from across the chasm of religious difference to collide in the mirror-plane of their shared humanity, the monolithic bastions of Bible, Koran, and Torah are simultaneously broken apart by Abbas. It isn’t all black and white. The same seed of faith blossoms into disparate meanings in different soils. A Cuban elder elevates her Bible skyward to Christ, a victorious flag for the promise of unfettered evangelism. A white South African hand clutches the very same book together with her gun. Its words are ammunition, and she is ready to kill. Hijab and swimsuit sit in stark contrast on a beach in Bahrain, coexisting in contrast to what it means to be faithful.

At the same time, the exhibit reflects on the meaning of collective experiences. Supplicating figures fade into a speckled constellation of robes outside the Masjid in Delhi at Ramadan, while an evangelist’s choir of 8000 bellows in unison at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. In faith and ritual, these people are not alone.

Abbas redefines the extreme. Extremes of violence and extremes of faith. A devout Filipino man is crucified in Santa Lucia on Good Friday while a woman lays wounded on the ground after a brutal Belfast bombing. The common endpoint is death. In Children of Abraham, extremism adorns the most impressive displays of religious devotion and simultaneously permeates images of intense strife and human struggle. Blame God.

I see hands. The warped limbs of a disabled child in South Korea echo elderly entwined hands on a sacred stone in Lourdes. I see books. Malaysian Muslim boys and Israeli Chasidic ones both brood over their holy texts indoctrinated across time and space. I am lost in time and space as I reel through Abbas, attempting to cling to a crutch of chronology or linearity in this photographic narrative. No need. Come without regard for time or space, or take wonder in its universal vastness, with stars of passionate faith strewn throughout. Some images are fleeting and others are eternal, but all are preserved in film.

Though the photographer shoots with a critical eye, each photo is defined by its realness. The image that reverberated in my own eye as I left the exhibit was that of an Iranian woman moments before her death at the hands of the revolution. These hands clutch as if grasping a disheveled doll. Two irate men, not out of context in a sea of angry male eyes that usher her up a wet street, will swiftly claim her fleeting life. The shah has safely slipped out of the country, the ayatollah is assembling his new Islamic state, and on the streets there is murder. Is revolution the death of this woman?