On the morning of March 4th, 2021, Mary Gallagher–Director of the International Institute, and Amy and Alan Lowenstein Professor in Democracy, Democratization, and Human Rights–introduced the International Institute’s Conference on Arts of Devotion:
A truly collaborative public outreach effort with a mission to bring information to the university community and the public, this conference was co-organized by the centers that make up the International Institute. It was also co-sponsored by the Program in International and Comparative Studies, History of Art, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA).
The first panel, titled Devotion and Art and Contemporary Times, was introduced by Rima Hassouneh, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and began with a pre-recorded video by David Choberka, the Curator for University Learning and Programs at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Along with his colleagues at UMMA, Dr. Choberka selected pieces of art to accompany each panel and keynote speaker.
Panel One was prefaced by a sculptural work constructed from decommissioned firearms titled “Apsara Warrior” and made by the Cambodian artist Ouk Chim Vichet. This anti-war piece came as a response to the Cambodian genocide, which ensued during the Khmer Rouge–a monument to represent a democratic state of being and peace.
This piece served as a segue to Panel One, in which Kenji Praepipatmongkol, an art historian and curator at Singapore Art Museum who also holds a Ph.D. in History of Art from the University of Michigan, presented first. Dr. Praepipatmongkol studies the relationship between abstract art and knowledge in the Philippines and Thailand, which served as the basis for his panel discussion titled “Monuments in Meme Time: Ritual, Design, and the 2020 Thai Protests”. While he touched on the fragile political scene of Thailand, and more specifically, the dynamic between constitutionalist protesters and the current Thai dictatorship, Dr. Praepipatmongkol focused on digitized symbolic monuments and the inception of novel forms of representational activism.
The People’s Party declared revolution on the Thai Monarchy in 1932, and installed a small round monument in the Royal Palace in Bangkok to commemorate its victory, called the People’s Party Plaque: “a new symbol of democracy.” Despite having been removed, the once-forgotten plaque has been reinvented and reinvigorated as a digital symbol. As Dr. Praepipatmongkol explained, virtual variants of the plaque are circulated all over social media, allowing for a “rhetoric of guerilla-style DIY making.” While these ‘digital monuments’ may be humorous in presentation, “they harbor the promise of a plaque for everyone, everywhere, a monument that can be rescaled into one’s everyday reality.” Through the power of social media, the People’s Party and its mission have gained public visibility and traction, mobilizing through autonomous activism and strengthening its cause with the simple click of a button.
Dr. Praepipatmongkol’s presentation was followed by Sascha Crasnow, Ph.D. A lecturer of Islamic Arts in the Residential College at the University of Michigan, Dr. Crasnow writes on global contemporary art practices with a particular focus on Southwest Asian and North African issues of race, social politics, gender, and sexuality. Her lecture, “Al Buraq: Explorations of Liminality in Contemporary Islamic Art,” stemmed from research that will be published as an essay in the forthcoming volume of her manuscript, The Age of Disillusionment: Palestinian Art After the Intifadas, in 2022. Dr. Crasnow detailed the work of three modern Islamic artists who use the subject of Al Buraq to examine the intersectionality of identity.
Al Buraq exists in Islamic mythology as a creature who transports prophets between different realms. Often depicted as a winged horse with the head of a human, Al Buraq’s intersectional identity–neither masculine nor feminine–and liminal function has provided contemporary artists a model subject for exploring their own liminality. Dr. Crasnow referenced three pieces in her talk: Interstellar Uber // Negotiations with God by Saba Taj (2017), Sans Titre IV by Chaza Charafeddine (2010), and Skeleton of Al Burak by Mohamad Said Baalbaki (2011). While their mediums differed, each artist exercised creative expression through Al Buraq’s liminality, with each piece operating between nonbinary identifications, fact or fiction, and the objective and subjective.
Panel One was concluded by Christopher Sheklian, a previous Manoogian Postdoctoral Fellow in Armenian Studies at the University of Michigan who is currently working on research as a Postdoctoral at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Titled “Resonances of Armenian Liturgical Music from the Minaret to the Concert Hall,” Dr. Sheklian’s lecture explored the impact of Armenian liturgical hymns and modes in modern-day Turkey, specifically Istanbul. Among the earliest Christian Civilizations, historical Armenia’s once sprawling borders and culture still influence much of the region, citing architecture and music as two primary modes. Despite being tucked behind walls and hidden from view in the city of Istanbul, the sharagans of the Armenian church can be heard simultaneously with Muslim calls to prayer–a disparate blend of liturgical hymns that rings out, to much surprise, in harmony. Much of traditional Armenian liturgical music remains in the past, but the melody, or modes, have been taken up by contemporary composers, extending the tradition of the hymns in spirit and maintaining a minority placement within the Middle East. As Dr. Sheklian expressed, “...Resonances of Armenian liturgical music and liturgical life… bleed beyond just the context of the liturgy itself.”
The afternoon marked the transition from the first panel to the second. The five scholars in Panel Two were introduced by David Doris, Associate professor of African art and visual culture at the University of Michigan in the Department of History of Art, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and the Stamps School of Art & Design. An expert of Yoruba culture in Southwestern Nigeria and its Diaspora, Dr. Doris shared a brief anecdote of Yoruba material culture–a carved figure gifted to him–representative of a single moment of devotion.
Natsu Oyobe, the curator of Asian art, served as the second UMMA feature lecturer, highlighting one of over 6,000 objects from their collection of Asian art on display. Her presentation detailed an early 17th-century tea caddy named “Hitorine” (“Sleeping Alone”) by Kobori Enshu, used in a sacred Japanese practice called Tea Ceremony. Originating from Chinese Zen Buddhism, these tea caddies originally functioned as medicine storage containers. When adopted by the Japanese, the ceramic containers were instead used to store tea powder and were soon popular among those who practiced the ceremony. Each container, individually named by its creator, is treated with the utmost intent and care, so much so that they are often encased by up to five different protective layers, each of which bears inscriptions and documentations - a true testament to their devotional value.
The first lecturer of panel two introduced by Dr. Doris was Suzanne Davis, the Associate Curator of Conservation at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology here at the University of Michigan. In her lecture “Graffiti as Social Devotion in Ancient Sudan,” Davis–also the director of conservation for the Kelsey excavation project at the royal Kushite cemetery in El-Kurru, Sudan–details graffiti carvings at these sites as acts of devotion. “Kush was the earliest empire of sub-Saharan Africa (2,000 BCE - 300 CE), and during its last phase, the Meroitic period (ca. 300 BCE to 300 CE), ordinary people began to carve images into the walls of the temples and other powerful places in the landscape.” Hundreds of pictorial graffiti depictions pepper the walls of this empire’s establishments concentrated on a select few Meroitic sites. Although difficult to interpret, these devotional graffiti images reveal themes related to religion and may also document journeys of pilgrimage. Davis explains that while each graffito was planned and carved by an individual, the pictorial depictions “almost always appear clustered together, revealing a social aspect important to their creation and placement.”
Brendan McMahon, Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art at the University of Michigan, began his lecture shortly after Davis. This LACS Feature Presentation was titled “The Matter of Impermanence: Taxonomies of Mutable Color in 16th-century Mexico” and investigated iridescent objects and their significance in Nahuatl (colloquially, “Aztec”) society. Many scholars in the past have attributed these object’s or material’s ‘brightness’ as the defining feature or central component of fascination for Nahuatl-speaking people. However, Dr. McMahon proposed an alternative hypothesis. He explored the variable coloration of these objects and the transient nature of their chromatic shifts as the central component instead, a phenomenon he suggests has greater existential relevance. Dr. McMahon references Nahuatl text found in the Florentine Codex, a collection of 12 books that make up an extensively written cultural encyclopedia of late 16th-century Nahuatl society. Nahuatl descriptions of iridescence help to construct a better understanding of how these people articulated and represented their visual experience with these mutable colors. Iridescent materials, such as feathers, shells, and wings–among others–have a material significance in Nahuatl culture and often were a crucial component of sacred objects made in the region. Brendan suggests that the mutable coloration of these materials embodied the mutability and ephemeral nature of reality and became tangible representations of life force for these people.
Panel Two was continued next by the Sally Mickelson Davidson Assistant Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Lihong Liu. Her current research concerns the interaction between art and the environment, transcultural studies, and the art of simulation and automation, all of which informed her lecture titled “Vitreous Containers and the Aura of Religious Objects.” Dr. Liu’s talk focused on crystal glass containers in China’s Qing dynasty (1644-1911), which were used to hold and constitute Buddist objects of devotion. While these containers often acted true to their function, Dr. Liu argues that these containers amplified the ‘aura’ of the devotional objects being held, impacting material, religious, and political practices as larger phenomena. Whether shrouding or illuminating the object, these crystal glass containers activated material perception and cultural recognition, ultimately manifesting the devotional force of the container’s content.
Following Dr. Liu’s lecture was Adrian Deese, an LSA Collegiate Fellow and Lecturer in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Dr. Deese shared his research on the history of inter-religious dialogue in 19th century West Africa in his talk “Early Yoruba Religious Tracts as Devotional Arts in Nigeria.” The development of the printing press established a new process in which religious texts were produced and disseminated to the public. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century Western culture engagements with Sub-saharan Africa introduced and solidified transnational interreligious relationships. The Yoruba of western Nigeria went on to produce one of the most extensive bodies of Christian print culture in the history of West Africa, one that Dr. Deese argues is just as much a visual art form as it is a written one. Early Yoruba authors often used drawn ritual motifs and modern photography to supplement the religious text. “This cutting-edge usage of print technology as an art form pioneered ethnoreligious self-articulation and interreligious dialogue as devotional models of civic obligation in modern West Africa.”
The final lecture of Panel Two was presented by Assistant Professor and the Edgar and Dorothy Fehnel Chair in International Studies at Indiana University’s Herron School of Art & Design, Orna Tsultem. An active curator of Mongolian contemporary art, her lecture “From Stone Sculptures to Imperial Portraits: Ancestral Worship and Acts of Devotion in Mongolia'' described how a single portrait of Chinggis Khayan (1162-1227) changed the landscape of portraiture and devotional art in Mongolia. The portrait of the great Khayan, produced during the Yuan dynasty, is one that commonly appears in history books all over the world. While many scholars view the portrait as independent of other Mongol artforms, Dr. Tsultem drew a likeness between the portrait of Chinggis Khayan and Mongol statues of stonemen from the Yuan period. Dr. Tsultem explored how this portrait was instrumental in establishing portraiture as an ancestral connection for the preservation of Mongol identity both historically and in modern times.
Following the conclusion of the conference’s second panel, Dr. Reginald Jackson, Director of the Center for Japanese Studies and Associate Professor of Pre-modern Japanese Literature selected and introduced the final speaker of the conference: Professor Duncan Ryūken Williams.
The third and final UMMA introductory presentation for the day’s Keynote Speaker focused on Patrick Nagatani’s photography series, Ryoichi Excavations. Jennifer Friess, the Associate Curator of Photography at UMMA, shared the photo series of the late contemporary photographer who drew inspiration for the fantastical miniaturized series from an experience he had as a child visiting a Japanese-American internment camp in California. Staged as archaeological sites, Nagatani constructed small, film-like sets to photograph the unearthing of old automobiles in front of or beside famous historical landmarks, ultimately playing with the viewer’s perception of the intersection between technology and history through a contemporary lens.
The International Institute’s Conference on Arts of Devotion was concluded with a keynote presentation given by Duncan Ryuken Williams, Professor of Religion and East Asian Languages & Cultures and the Director of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California. His current project, “American Sutra,” looks to compile a complete list of the roughly 125,000 Japanese ancestries who were incarcerated in various American internment camps during WWII. Dr. William’s keynote lecture, “The Making of Ireihi: A Monument to the WWII Japanese American Incarceration,” highlighted his project and the process of transforming the list into an art-book style registry and a sculptural installation. Called “Ireicho” and the “Ireihi” respectively, these artistic pieces are inspired by the “Ireito” monument at Manzanar, one of ten American concentration camps where Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during WWII. The art installation will be on display at the center of an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum titled “Sutra and Bible” about religion in WWII camps.