Shems Friedlander retrospective breathes spirituality into the Gezira Art Center
Shems Friedlander is an artist and a sheikh.
While he is known as a professor, author, filmmaker, poet, photographer, graphic designer, and painter, his views on spirituality, move Friedlander’s works beyond the boundaries of his material.
His first solo exhibit also serves as his first retrospective, on display at the Gezira Art Center, which unites forty years of his photography, sketches, and paintings; unassumingly matching the successes and experimentations, the mystical and the ordinary in one show.
Curated by Naglaa Samir, the exhibit was inspired by her first encounter with Friedlander through his documentary film work. Interested in establishing harmony between religion and art, Samir probed more deeply into the artist’s work searching for cohesion.
“You sense a totally different approach in Shems’ work. It is spontaneous, not pre-designed, Samir ruminates. “It is original in that it was produced just for the pleasure of producing artwork. He never had exhibition in mind. Others who document rituals have well-composed photographs with no human approach. You sense a connection. You feel a connection. He is an insider.
Friedlander’s work on the Whirling Dervishes has, for good reason, attracted much attention. The photography is atmospheric, luminescent, and, from a distance, nearly abstract.
Friedlander relies on the documentation of shape and light more than individual portraiture. He uses natural lighting, movement and the impression of movement which lingers like grainy, ghostly residue, framing each dancing figure.
Although the film was shot over thirty years ago, many of these photographs have been printed for the first time for this exhibit. Friedlander admits that what he once may have viewed as imperfection, he now understands as emotion.
In one photograph of the Zemazen (1973), a hazy outline of dervish hats evokes a range of mountains, their summits shrouded in the half-light of rarified air. Friedlander blurs the line between figure and landscape, thus consciously sacrificing the tangible in order to arrive at the intangible. While the subject matter is religious, it is Friedlander’s hand, which translates its spirituality.
Friedlander’s painting and sketches, although warmly and lovingly attended to, do not convey the same experience of transcendence. They are familiar and often lack the energy of his photography. That said, his pieces reveal clearly cultivated relationships. His portraits are of friends and his models are often students. He employs the same intimacy here which allowed him access to the Sufi community. His bold, unblended colors further emphasize the presence of a greater relationship; a whole amid a collection of disparate parts.
In “Egyptian Sisters (2006), the blood-relatives are further connected through a palette of vibrant citrus and emerald swatches, which form the contours of their features.
Friedlander says: “Beings become one in art. In photography there is one moment; in painting there are many moments when this happens. Just as in the development of any relationship, “things evolve.a painting evolves. It’s a metamorphosis. It’s alchemy.
When speaking with Friedlander, one finds that at every level, his focus is holistic. His artwork is about a learning process, about the wisdom gained through building relationships. The recurrent angelic figure in his work, best represents his philosophy and motivation.
When asked about this figure, Friedlander confesses, “the symbol of the one winged man played a great part in my art for a long time. He refers to a verse in the Quran which states, “Lower thy wings to those that follow you. He points out how the flow of the dervishes’ garments in motion creates the illusion of wings.
Friedlander postulates, “Wings represent knowledge. You can’t fly with just knowledge but it offers you the opportunity and hope that if you could have one wing, you could certainly have the other. Two wings represent wisdom and with wisdom we can fly.
And just as we cannot fly alone; we cannot produce art alone.
“Within every person there is a sacred space. It is the duty of every person to tap that sacred space.
Friedlander attempts to tap this space both in all his subjects, from sheikhs, to colleagues and friends. By reflecting on his work, we join him in this endeavor. But can we too gain wings?
Friedlander’s documentary “The Circles of Remembrance will be shown Monday February 12th at 7 pm at the Gezira Art Center. Admission is free.