Nicola Green explores Recent And Contemporary Religious Leaders At St Martin-in-the-Fields in Encounter an exhibition of the world’s most significant recent and contemporary religious leaders, this autumn at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
For the past decade, artist Nicola Green has been a witness to meetings of religious leaders around the world, from the UK to Italy, Israel, Egypt, Qatar, India, and the United States. These meetings have seen religious leaders sit down together and consider possibilities for cooperation, dialogue, and friendship which lead the way towards respect for and honouring of other religions, without any compromising the truth of their own traditions.
On these occasions, Nicola Green has had the privilege to meet with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Baha’i, Jain, Confucian, Humanist, Shinto, and indigenous leaders. These meetings have gone mostly unreported in the media, yet Green has been there as a ‘witness’ to a new era in interreligious relations. She believes in the power of the visual image to record momentous events and wishes her exhibition to prompt reflection on the encouraging trend that these interfaith meetings represent.
The exhibition includes portraits of Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Pope Benedict XVI, Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali, former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, emeritus Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chinna Jeeyar Swamiji, and Chief Nosakhare Isekhure. This is the first time that portraits of the world’s major religious leaders will be shown together and given equal status.
Green’s portraits document the continuing patriarchal nature of the world’s major religions, with few women featuring. Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue, the academic book that accompanies the exhibition, comments on frequently neglected dimensions of such encounters including gender and participation in Encounters.
Her work challenges the idea that the sacred is separate from contemporary ‘secular’ society. The exhibition is a visual exploration of difference – how do people of different beliefs, or none, communicate and reconcile their firmly held and, sometimes, opposing views.
These questions are also explored in the Autumn Series of lectures at St Martin-in-the-Fields which focus on this theme of encounter. How are we changed by the people, events or objects when we meet them face to face? How do prejudices shift? How are new insights born? What inspires us to new ways of being and relating to God and to others? How do we become who we truly are through those we meet? How do we encounter God in our lives?
In each of these lectures prominent and inspirational leaders, thinkers and practitioners (including Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Neil MacGregor, Sarah Mullally, Ben Okri, Imam Mujeeb Rashed and Justin Welby, among others) speak from a personal but also public perspective about the way such encounters have changed the course of their lives. The first lecture on Encountering the Other is by Rowan Williams, who will also launch the Encounters exhibition.
The exhibition has two elements. In the first, The Encounter Series, Green’s portraits of global religious leaders are presented without any hierarchy. Each image has a unique patterned background particular to the faith of the sitter and the details of each encounter. Sources for these range from religious leaders’ gowns, jewellery, and textiles, to ancient manuscripts in the Vatican and Lambeth Palace libraries, to a Torah pointer, a Zoroastrian tile, and architectural details from a Mosque and a Hindu Temple. These elements are transformed into deceptively simple graphic patterns designed by Green. They are embellished by hand with 24k gold, silver and copper leaf and diamond dust. The subject of each portrait has been painted in muted tones to obscure the face and hands, turning identity into a fluid category and exploring the relationship between the individual and their office.
The Light Series is made up of twelve life-sized figures of religious leaders, who are presented, as in The Encounter Series, as equals. Viewers are able to meet them in one space for the first time, standing together. These images are created on sheets of laser-cut Perspex. Green uses silkscreen printing techniques for her subjects’ faces and then paints their clothing with acrylic, applied in reverse to the back of the Perspex. This precarious and painstaking process recalls reverse glass painting, practiced in many cultures from ancient Byzantium and China to Renaissance Venice. Each figure is backed with live edge Perspex, radiating light like a prism. No special lighting is required to make the figures glow.
Nicola Green artwork, the book and lecture series provide lenses through which to explore and analyse the state of interreligious dialogue today. Together they enable evaluation of the conditions and implications of interreligious dialogue, encouraging viewers, readers and hearers to take up the challenge of encounters themselves.
Words: Revd Jonathan Evens St Martin-in-the-Fields
Encounters by Nicola Green is at St Martin-in-the-Fields from 17 September 2018