Friday, June 3, 2011


Traditionally Indian spiritual art has avoided representing suffering. Though the mood of suffering (Dukha or Shokha) has been a concern of all profound reflections on the human condition, the tendency of the Vedanta, and later Buddhist thought, has been to see this suffering as the result of ignorance, and reality as perceived through our condition within Maya, or the world of illusion. As art is supposed to aspire towards the Real beyond illusion, it has been thought improper to represent suffering, along with other forms of distortion or degradation. Ultimately art should point to that which lies beyond the passing and illusory. However, there has also been what we might term a counter-cultural stream in Indian iconography which has recognized that darkness, and the negative aspects of experience, do carry a significance that reveals a process of transformation. Kali, the dark and terrifying image of destruction, is an example of this other aspect of the Indian religious imagination. At the beginning of the Ramayana we are reminded that out of Sokha, or suffering, comes Slokha, or poetic utterance. The cry of the poet recognizing the finite, and passing aspect of existence; its transitoriness, and constant dependence on the processes of change, lead to a deeper recognition of how suffering is also an aspect of our passage through time. The Indian artist Frank Wesley, who very much influenced my art, often represented this dark image of suffering against the red background which we find in many Indian images. In the picture represented above of Cain slaying Abel, the red background shows both suffering but also an aspect of the Eternal which lies like a mystery behind the dark veil of human travail. Images of the body like the seed that falls to the ground, or the broken vessel of clay, are signs both of the human condition of suffering, but also a hope that lies beyond that suffering, pointing to a fire that also transforms.

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