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Prayer for peace: Calligraphic artist Salma Arastu’s MOCRA works aim to build bridges between faiths

Salma Arastu
Salma Arastu's "Peace Greeting from the Beneficent Lord."

Artist SalmaArastu knows a thing or two about intercultural communication. She was born in India and raised in Hinduism before embracing Islam through her marriage. Now, she uses that melded faith background to build religious bridges through her artwork: Arabic calligraphy melded with abstract expressionist paintings.

Credit Salma Arastu
Salma Arastu.

On Friday’s “Cityscape,” Arastu joined host Steve Potter to discuss her artwork, which is now on display at Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA). The name of the exhibition is “Painted Prayers: The Calligraphic Art of Salma Arastu.” Terry Dempsey, the director of the museum, also joined the show to discuss the genesis of the exhibit.

Arastu, who moved to the U.S. with her husband in 1986 after several years living in Kuwait and Iran, said her art initially became popular through Islamic greeting cards she illustrated. Now, she combines layers of acrylic paint with Arabic calligraphy of prayers from the Quran. In two paintings, she also incorporates the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament and Hindu Vedas to promote peace between people and religions.

“It has been a long journey for me, almost 40 years,” said Arastu. “I’ve always prayed that I want to do something that God wants me to do. When I see the disturbance in the contemporary world, the current issues and such negativity toward Islam, that really motivated me to do something positive about Islam.”

Arastu says that she read the Quran so often that she picks up prayers and repeats them and those flow into her work.

“They reinforce my trust in God—he is close, he is listening, trust him, he is sufficient,” Arastu said of some of the prayers she hold dearest. “I love doing them again and again because they reassure me. They give me the confidence and energy to deal with everyday issues.”

Credit Salma Arastu
Salma Arastu's "God is One."

Arastu reached out to Dempsey in September of 2014 with a proposal for an exhibition of her artwork in Saint Louis University’s MOCRA. “We get hundreds of these requests every year, but there was something about hers that caught my eye,” said Dempsey, who originally only planned to have a central exhibition of the art.

When Arastu visited the museum, originally a chapel with twelve “side chapels,” she asked if her art could be displayed in all of them.  “It is one of the most beautiful exhibits I’ve had,” said Dempsey of the result.

“It was a beautiful space, a spiritual space to show my work,” Arastu said. “I’m a spiritual artist and I felt people would feel that connection here.”

Although Arastu's studio is based out of Berkley, California, she will return to St. Louis on December 6 to give a talk and participate in a panel discussion on intercultural communication and art

Arastu has carved a space for Arabic calligraphy in a western-dominated artistic canon. Dempsey said you can see a dialogue with abstract expressionism, something akin to the drips of a Jackson Pollock, and also color field painting that might remind you of a Mark Rothko.

Arastu’s work holds play to themes of peace and the celebration of diversity.

“It is so appropriate we have this show at this time,” Dempsey said. “It couldn’t be more helpful for people to have another view of Islam and what’s going on. Salma uses her art to build bridges of understanding. She realizes there are differences among the major traditions but there are also many common themes. She finds those common themes.”

Credit Salma Arastu
Salma Arastu's "Healing Prayer."

One of Arastu’s favorite paintings is called “Healing Prayer,” which is a 30-layered painting that includes a prayer from the Quran which essentially says: “Do not worry, God has given you this difficulty and God is going to heal you.” Arastu said that prayer is particularly important to her today with so many hardships in the world.

The creation of a painting is almost a religious process in and of itself. Sometimes the colors, mostly earth tones, that Arastu starts out with change and take on a new life of their own.

“These colors, these images just flow out of me,” Arastu said. “I am the tool—my subconscious mind is coming through me on the canvas. I don’t know how they come.”

Dempsey said these painting are not just for those who can read Arabic. The flowing lines and abstract images are calming. “What I’ve heard frequently is how exhilarating and meditative these paintings are,” he said. “It seems contradictory, but that’s how they are.”

Arastu hopes her intention to show that Islam is peaceful gets across to people who come to see her art.

“I hope the viewer feels peace also,” Arastu said. 

Related Events

What: "Painted Prayers: The Calligraphic Art of Salma Arastu"
When: Now through Dec. 6, 2015, open Tuesdays through Sundays, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Where: Saint Louis University's Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), 3700 West Pine Blvd. 
More information.

What: "So That You Know Each Other - Intercultural Reflections on Art, Beauty, and Islam"
When: Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015 at 1:00 p.m.
Where: Saint Louis University's Xavier Hall Theatre, 3733 West Pine Mall, right across from MOCRA
More information.

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer, and Kelly Moffitt. The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.    

Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.