Although there is no formal guidance for Baha’is on memorializing history and its heroes, we can look to the Baha’i Shrines as an example of monuments and a practical approach to the memorialization of individuals within the framework of the Baha’i teachings. In May of 2001, the Universal House of Justice, the governing body for the global Baha’i community, wrote this statement upon the conclusion of the construction of the 19 terraces which extend below and above the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel:
The Shrine of the Bab stands … as a monument to the triumph of love over hate. The gardens which surround that structure, in their rich variety of colours and plants, are a reminder that the human race can live harmoniously in all its diversity. The light that shines from the central edifice is as a beacon of hope to the countless multitudes who yearn for a life that satisfies the soul as well as the body.
Here the Universal House of Justice refers to the unification of the entire human race, propelled and inspired by the teachings of The Bab and Baha’u’llah. The Baha’i shrines, located in Haifa and Bahji, Israel, not only host the burial chambers of those twin messengers of God, but in the most humble, majestic and strikingly beautiful way, symbolize and memorialize their profoundly unifying teachings, offering a “beacon of hope” and “a monument to the triumph of love over hate.”
This example of the future of memorialization and monuments for the world, inspired by the teachings of Baha’u’llah, creates a striking contrast between the intricate details, glory and majesty of the outer edifice, and the humble, calming simplicity inside. Those structures perfectly celebrate and encapsulate the profoundly transformative teachings the Bab and Baha’u’llah brought to the world. These monuments allow people from all walks of life and from all Faiths, to enter, to engage with the inner and outer space, to pray, and to reflect on their lives and their contributions to the betterment of the world. The world-famous surrounding gardens coexist with the Shrines. Maintained with the utmost care and devotion, they reflect the inner and outer power and potency of the monuments themselves.
This episode represents the fourth and final installment of a four-part series dedicated to an exploration of the social and spiritual implications of Confederate and colonial monuments and imagery as public forms of art here in North America and around the world.
Our last guest in this series is Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and creative producer Anisa Tavangar, who works at the intersection of art, justice, and spirituality. A graduate of Columbia University, Anisa wrote her thesis on the presentation of African art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, looking at how that presentation is rooted in colonial and imperialist ideals, and also reflecting on the role of the past in shaping how we continue to see works of art as cultures unlike our own are rapidly changing moving into the future. Anisa currently works for a non-profit organization called For Freedoms, which serves the public at the intersection of fine art and civic engagement, using fine art and artists’ voices to engage in public discourse. For Freedoms also looks at public art and publicly accessible art, through public installations and billboards, inviting artists and communities into conversations surrounding thought-provoking questions.
We invited Anisa to speak with us about memorials as public works of art, and how the Baha’i Faith offers us a blueprint, a framework, for how individuals and artists, communities, governments and institutions can design effective and inspiring monuments and memorials in the future.
We begin our conversation with some clarifying questions, such as the definition of public art, and the difference between monuments and memorials. We then take it back to the very first episode of the series with Professor Derik Smith, about how these Confederate and colonial monuments are often considered public forms of art. These monuments, which have stood on pedestals in central and public spaces for decades or even centuries, are often protected by law and maintained through public funding. To many, they represent the past, a part of our collective history, and their removal erases that history.
More recently however, we’ve witnessed communities standing together in opposition to these Confederate and colonial monuments, decrying what they symbolize and stand for. As a result we’ve seen monuments decapitated, spray-painted, thrown into rivers, re-imagined by artists, and removed from public spaces. These events have once again brought to the surface questions surrounding the validity of these monuments as public forms of art, and the racist individuals and ideologies they represent. We ask Anisa: how does this movement speaks to the spiritual reality of our contemporary world?
We continue by asking about the concept of the three protagonists—the individual, the community and the institutions—and the Baha’i principle of the independent investigation of truth. The eldest son of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, explained in a talk he gave in 1912 how each and every human is endowed with the power of reason, which enables them to investigate reality and truth:
God has not intended man to blindly imitate his fathers and ancestors. …. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. He must not rely implicitly upon the opinion of any man without investigation; rather, each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality.
In that light, we ask Anisa to look to the future, and explain some of the ways she believes these three protagonists can work collectively to navigate the conversation surrounding monuments and memorials. Anisa reflects on her work with For Freedoms, and examples she’s encountered where institutions and governments engage individuals, communities and artists in the consultative process, building capacity to work towards unity and a foundation of truth, as Abdu’l-Baha recommended:
The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument …. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.
We continue our conversation by exploring information about the artists who make monuments themselves. We know very little about the creatives behind these public works of art, their thoughts and views on their subjects, and how they chose to convey certain perspectives and ideologies. Together, we reflect on the idea of artistic coherence and the importance of artistic integrity, which artists often convey by seeking truth and authenticity. We ask Anisa to elaborate on the aspects of identity which she believes artists should draw on, the points of view they should express, and the questions they should ask themselves when designing and constructing memorials and monuments.
Anisa then reflects on the beauty of a work of art that shows praise and gratitude, and memorializes the spirit of the Creator. In a fragmented world where the intersection of art and faith is often disputed, we ask Anisa whether she believes there is space for this duality in the future of public art and memorialization.
We conclude this episode and series by reflecting on other guiding principles the Baha’i teachings can offer us when designing monuments in the future. The concept of beauty is universal, and one that is central to the Baha’i faith, physically and metaphorically. Abdu’l-Baha said that beauty can be recognized within humanity’s progress towards peace. In “Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha,” he wrote, “… when diverse shades of thought, temperament and character are brought together, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest.” So how can that beauty and nobility, we ask Anisa, be incorporated into our public monuments in the future? We close this episode and four part series on monuments by reflecting on this passage from The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah, regarding the station of nobility: “Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.”
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