It has a familiar ring to it: “A rabbi, a minister and the director of an Islamic cultural center walk into a planning session for an art exhibit …”
But the three East Bay religious leaders, and other organizers who worked together to produce “Diverse Visions of Harmony: An Interfaith Art Exhibit,” aren’t joking around.
The exhibition, which opened with a Sept. 17 reception at a mosque in Oakland, brings together artists and community members from a wide range of religious faiths. It was organized largely by the Faith Trio, an Oakland-area coalition that includes the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, Kehilla Community Synagogue and the Montclair Presbyterian Church.
Featuring more than 90 pieces by 40 local artists — some professional, some amateur, made by a range of people ages 16 to 93 — the exhibit will run through Oct. 22 at Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Oakland. It includes paintings, photographs, sculptures, stained glass pieces, beadwork, fabric work and digital art.
The exhibit was the next logical step, according to organizers, in a decade-long collaboration that aims to open minds, inspire discussion, and serve as a model for tolerance and understanding between religions.
“Shortly after 9/11, a group of women [from the ICCNC] arrived on the doorstep of Montclair Presbyterian Church wishing to become friends,” Jean Mudge, chair of the Faith Trio, recalled of the group’s beginnings.
What was born of a desire to combat racism and fear of American Muslims following the 9/11 attacks soon grew in size and scope.
By 2003, after reaching out to Kehilla in Piedmont, members of the Faith Trio began meeting monthly to talk about ways to bring their respective communities together. The congregations — all of which share somewhat progressive leanings — since have held harvest dinners, organized volunteering at soup kitchens, co-written letters protesting racism and Islamaphobia, celebrated each other’s holidays and more.
On Sept. 11 of this year, they came together for an emotional memorial to honor the victims of the 2001 attacks, to acknowledge the work they’ve done toward building interfaith relationships and to consider the work they’ve yet to do.
For the art exhibit, organizer and Kehilla member Lea Delson said the goal was to allow local artists of all backgrounds a venue for expressing their commitment to “interfaith understanding, coexisting, peace and cultural exchange.” An open call went out for art that fit the bill.
“We were really interested in being inclusive,” Delson said. “It wasn’t necessarily about having an exhibit that was really high-end art or that would get reviewed in art journals. This was about bringing people together.”
The results have been overwhelmingly positive, she said. One of the most talked-about pieces is by Jewish artist Sharon Siskin. A professor at Goddard College’s MFA program in the interdisciplinary arts and in Berkeley City College’s art department , Siskin submitted pieces that combine pages from Arabic-language children’s schoolbooks and Hebrew school textbooks.
Years ago, while working as the artist-in-residence at the San Francisco dump, she salvaged the Arabic schoolbooks without an end project in mind. Some time later, Siskin’s mother sent her a stack of old Hebrew schoolbooks she’d found while cleaning out the house. Many aspects of the two sets of books, right down to the design and illustrations, were almost identical.
“I can’t read Arabic, and I can’t read Hebrew anymore,” Siskin said. “But I think that, as a visual artist, I know how to read images. And it became very clear to me that, in a lot of ways, Jews and Arabs teach their kids the exact same things.”
Using thread, fabric, zippers and other materials, Siskin wove the two sets of pages together, an act that she views as a metaphor for “repair” between the two communities.
According to Kehilla Rabbi David Cooper, the aim of exhibition is the same as every Faith Trio effort — to get people talking, thinking and working with people with whom they would not normally have contact.
“I think we have a common vision that we need to live out,” Cooper said. “We need to demonstrate, by what we do now, a vision of what coexistence can look like in the future. We maintain our separate cultural identities — and we can celebrate each other’s.
“It’s also about finding more and more ways to learn from each other’s culture and religion — not just tolerating each other, but getting to a place of saying, ‘Is there some way that what you do can be an enhancement to what we do? What wisdom is there in this culture that we can use in our own?’ ”
“Diverse Visions of Harmony: An Interfaith Art Exhibit” runs through Oct. 22 at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, 1433 Madison St., Oakland. Free and open to the public. Thursdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment. Information: www.kehillasynagogue.org.