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Dome Sweet Dome 

Said Nuseibeh's photos evoke a place where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in peace

Wednesday, Aug 13 2003
A Potrero Hill delicatessen might seem an unlikely venue for a one-man show by a Palestinian-American photographer featuring the Arab mosques and palaces of Southern Spain. But the life of Said Nuseibeh is all about crossing cultural and religious borders. Nuseibeh is a San Francisco­based artist who describes his work as "a quest to imagine and peacefully engage Islamic visual culture." His roots suggest how that journey began: His father was a "displaced" Palestinian architect; his mother descended from a pioneer family and lived in Wildcrest Creek, across the road from one of California's most famous photographers, Edward Weston. After his parents separated, Nuseibeh spent some of his childhood living in a Quaker household in Chattanooga, Tenn. In an effort to integrate the diverse currents of his background, he turned to photography, he says, "for meaning and redemption."

Nuseibeh's best-known work, the book The Dome of the Rock, focuses on the third holiest shrine in the Muslim world, the Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, a site whose symbolism and history, for many, lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Photographer Ruth Bernhard was unsparing in her praise for the volume: "The art of architecture at its highest captured ... by the art of photography at its best." Nuseibeh's new show at Klein's Deli, titled "Convivencia: Islamic Architecture in Andalucía," features some of his most recent pieces -- a portfolio of 18 large-format, black-and-white prints that explore the cultural fusions reflected in some of Spain's most impressive historical monuments, including the Alhambra in Granada, Sevilla's Royal Palace (known as the Real Alcázar), and La Mezquita, or the Great Mosque, of Córdoba.

Andalucía, where most of these stunning photographs were taken, is Spain's southernmost province, renowned for its sherry, flamenco, and bulls. It was also, for nearly eight centuries, the center of an extraordinarily rich and diverse civilization governed by Arab rulers, the Omayyads, who had conquered Al-Andaluz (the land of the Vandals) in the eighth century. The emirate they established in Córdoba in 756 was an Islamic state notable for its tolerant attitude toward the Christian, Jewish, and other non-Islamic populations living there. Córdoba soon became Europe's largest city west of Constantinople (now Istanbul), a place where philosophers, poets, court musicians, mystics, and scientists flourished under Omayyad patronage. This dynasty and its successors made the cities of Andalucía centers of learning and art, where splendorous mosques, libraries, universities, and conservatories were built at a time when the rest of Europe languished in the Dark Ages.

The spiritual harmony and cultural diversity of that era (it ended in 1492 with the Catholic reconquest of Spain and the forced conversions and expulsions of Jews and Muslims) are what Nuseibeh's photographs evoke. Nuseibeh says that he returned to these monuments of Islamic Spain in part because of his research on the Dome of the Rock, a place that for him celebrates the convergence of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. And the Omayyads were early promulgators of the idea of peaceful coexistence among the three faiths. "Photographing in synagogues, cathedrals, mosques, and palaces," writes Nuseibeh in the notes to his current show, "I explore themes of fusion and convivencia, or 'living together,' that address the peculiarly Islamic manifestations of tolerance and coexistence in pre-Inquisition Spain."

Artistically, Nuseibeh follows what he calls the West Coast handcrafted tradition of photographers like Weston and Ansel Adams, with their attention to elegant tonal quality and careful processing of final prints. He shares Weston's delight in sensuous forms and dramatic contrasts of light and shadow. And like Weston, he eschews the documentary style of photography, using the camera and darkroom to reveal metaphorical and metaphysical aspects of the visible world. These qualities are apparent in Celosias and Starlight, an image taken in a room of the Alhambra, a hilltop complex of palaces and gardens. In it, a brilliant, diagonal shaft of light falls like a comet across a dark wall ornamented with starlike portals and an intricately carved stucco latticework of arabesques and inscriptions. The beam in the empty room suggests a mystical picture of divine illumination against the background of Islamic texts and interlacing patterns decorating the wall. Nuseibeh uses high contrasts and sharp edges again in Column to the Stars, an interior of a public bath called El Bañuelo al Hammam. In this photo, a bright galaxy of circular windows perforates the ceiling with hot, white orbs, while the thick supporting column of a dark arch rises toward them from the floor of the cavernous room below. The textures of the column's ancient, cratered surfaces are clearly highlighted in the shot, and the pillar's angled presentation, together with the surrounding globes of light, suggests the biblical tree of life.

The vast, fortified Alhambra, the subject of several of Nuseibeh's photos, was once the seat of the Nasrids (1232-1492), the last Spanish Muslim dynasty to fall to the Christian reconquest. Its nearly impenetrable location suggests why. Extending close to a half mile along the crest of high hill, its walls overlook the city of Granada and a fertile plain ringed by the snowcapped Sierra Nevada range. The complex, a city unto itself, once included royal residences, 23 towers, four gates, administrative buildings, stables, mosques, and baths. A river was diverted up the hill to water its lush, aromatic gardens and to flow through some of its rooms. Its plantings and interiors embodied a Muslim vision of paradise on Earth, as suggested by Nuseibeh's dramatic photo Floral Muqarnas Dome, taken in the Alhambra's Palace of the Lions. His image emphasizes the harmonic unity of the dome's various architectural elements. Supported on a drum framed by an eight-pointed star, the dome ascends in a vault honeycombed with floral patterns and illuminated by 16 arched, recessed windows that also light the square hall below. Nuseibeh's use of shadows and highlights makes the dome's interlacing geometric patterns appear organic and alive. The star, which symbolizes the heavens, is mirrored in the dome's apex, an eight-petal floral pattern representing an earthly garden, and the lines of the vault converging upon it resemble some primordial protozoan from the sea -- the very source of life.

A more playful juxtaposition of abstract and natural patterns appears in Nest and Arabesques, which focuses on two panels of a wooden door. Next to the perfectly carved octagonal star of one panel, a bird has nested in the collapsed recess of its twin. The nest's interlocking strands of twigs, feathers, and strips of cloth seem chaotic next to the star, but on closer view the structure -- though it may lack symmetry -- is no less intentional in design and spiraled arrangement.

The most obvious examples of the cultural and spiritual fusions that figure in the monuments Nuseibeh has photographed appear in two works, Horseshoe Arcades and Arch Ages. The former shows the ribbon-patterned arches of the old Jewish synagogue of Toledo, later appropriated for the church called Santa María la Blanca. The shape and size of these arches is a simplified version of those found in Córdoba's Great Mosque, La Mezquita, with its forest of columns and seemingly infinite regression of arcades, its curved tops unfolding in a fanlike sequence. Arch Ages goes further, to capture some of La Mezquita's complex history. The mosque stands on the site of an ancient Roman temple, whose foundation was transformed by the Visigoths into a Christian basilica. Then the Omayyads arrived and turned the structure into what became the largest mosque in the Islamic world. In turn, during the 16th century, the city's Christian conquerors built a massive cathedral in La Mezquita's prayer room. The photo shows a row of the cathedral's arches decorated with friezes of Catholic martyrs and supported by Corinthian columns. Behind it extends a second row of Omayyad arches, whose rounded caps resemble the treetops of date palms. A deliberately blurred group of tourists seems to vanish as it passes under the entryway.

In this show, Nuseibeh brings a fresh vision to some of Spain's most photographed and visited tourist spots. It is no small feat to have found a new way of seeing these extraordinary monuments, one that avoids a purely descriptive and literal reading and, instead, rediscovers the life and spirit of their interiors. In doing so, he suggests alternatives to a history that condemns us to separation and exclusion.

About The Author

Carl Nagin


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