“Painting Prayers: The Calligraphic Art of Salma Arastu” opened September 13 at Saint Louis University's Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) and closes December 6.
Drawing on her Hindu and Muslim background, and combining expertise in Arabic calligraphy with Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, Salma Arastu creates large, evocative canvases that invite viewers into quiet contemplation on texts from the Quran, the poet Rumi and other sources.
Text from the Quran that inspired paintings include: “Who listens to the (soul) distressed when it calls on Him, and who relieves its suffering” (Al-Quran 27:62); and “Peace! ― a word (of salutation) from a Lord Most Merciful!” (Al-Quran 36:58).
Arastu was born in Rajasthan, India, and graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts from The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India. She presently resides in the San Francisco Bay area. Arastu works in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture.
Raised in Hinduism, Arastu later embraced Islam through her marriage. While living in Iran and Kuwait, she was fascinated by the beauty of Arabic calligraphy and began incorporating passages into her work.
“I paint to express the prayers of my heart, and intend for the energy of the calligraphy, powered by the positive messages from the texts, to reveal the joy and celebration that I experience while creating them,” Arastu said. “Each verse I portray gives me strength and peace, and I hope to instill these feelings in my viewers.”
MOCRA will display works from two of her most recent series. "Celebration of Calligraphy" harmoniously blends traditional Arabic calligraphy with Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, featuring lyrical, dynamic passages from the Quran flowing across dense layers of rich color.
She can quote the Quran at length in her work, such as Al-Quran 19:13: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”
She also combines sacred texts from separate traditions, such as “God Is One,” which incorporates verses from Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu sacred texts about the Oneness of God.
Arastu said: “My purpose is to reach out to a broad community in the pursuit of peace; to celebrate diversity, and create a positive interfaith dialogue through art that subtly penetrates the human heart to evoke response.”
Her works are found in numerous private and public collections, such as the 9/11 Memorial Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, Hyderabad, India; the National Gallery of Art, New Delhi, India; the Islamic Museum of Australia, Melbourne; and the State Museum of the Arts, Harrisburg, PA.
MOCRA is located at 3700 West Pine Mall Blvd., a pedestrian mall on the campus of Saint Louis University. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5/adults, $1/students and children.