Sunday, May 18, 2003

Painting the pain

In late August, 2001 I wanted to paint so much my fingers ached with longing for a paintbrush. So, I dug out my pre-motherhood paints, put small openings in the corners of a large stretched canvas so that it could be hung, and then primed it with gesso. I taped newspapers to my bedroom wall with masking tape to protect my townhouse’s dead white paint, hung my primed canvas up and started to work. I painted the Dome of the Rock, the famous mosque in Jerusalem, it’s celestial golden dome rising like a burning sun over Jerusalem, above the blue and white tiled walls that support it. In the background I painted angry flames and billowing thick smoke filling and choking the surrounding air of the canvas. In the foreground I sketched an Israeli soldier, face shield drawn tightly down, gun trained on the mosque, in an attitude of watchful, suspended waiting.

It was difficult for me to paint, though, with a 10-month-old baby and two older children. It was hard to find the time when I could have enough mental space to think about art and put those ideas down in paint. It was harder logistically to keep children out of bright acrylics and wet canvas, even in my tiny bedroom studio. My artistic dilemma was solved for me when those planes were flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a grassy Pennsylvania field.

All of a sudden I couldn’t paint only about the conflict in Palestine. Although the Intifada in Palestine still distressed me, the issue was much larger now, more menacing, more deadly. The problem wasn’t only a land issue, a struggle for independence in an environment of repression, but was more evident as a worldwide sickness. It now was a global conflict of religion and oppression, which has spread like the most malignant cancer, and the cure is far from being found. No easy surgery or chemical treatment will remedy the discrimination, bigotry, terror, anger, and hate that multiplies so freely in all areas and cultures.

My painting stopped there – at September 11th, suspended on my bedroom walls, framed by newspapers dated August 27th, 2001. The thin strips of masking tape that hold up these yellowing papers are brittle and dry and have begun to fall away off the wall in desolate arcs. Every morning I look wistfully at this abandoned painting, my heart seized by sadness, my hands paralyzed with shock. I want to finish this painting – but I cannot – yet. My mind lurches toward this suspended piece with Parkinsonian steps – haltingly, haltingly, with only terrible slowness, unable to reach this visual idea again.

My Jerusalem painting was begun in an easier time, a more innocent time to be a Muslim. The world only had some conflicts then. In hindsight it seems that bombs weren’t always going off everywhere, that more lives were being lived, that wars weren’t being waged every year. True, there were terrible problems and conflicts, but there were none of the cataclysmic shudders that have been shaking the world with rhythmic, regular spasms of horror.

I haven’t digested all the carnage yet. It’s as if I am frozen in late August, 2001 – unwilling to think forward and accept this changed world, these new horrors, these bombs. I haven’t been able to process all these fast new facts, fresh images of suffering, of torn flesh, of broken buildings and broken bodies.

I cannot distill this terror from everywhere.

Crossposted at A Portrait of the Artist as a Muslim Woman

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