I have slowly been working my way through “A History of the World in 100 Objects” (see previous post.) I have given up the idea of dutiful chronological study and instead I choose chapters at random. Last night I landed on “Gold Coins of Kumaragupta” and found a passage on Hindu worship that struck me on multiple levels:
Hindus will see a deity, on the whole, as God present. God can manifest anywhere, so the physical manifestation of the image is considered to be a great aid in gaining the presence of God. By going to the temple, you see this image that is the presence. Or you can have the image in your own home — Hindus will invite God to come into this deity-form, they will wake god up in the morning with an offering of sweets. The deity wil have been put to bed in a bed the night before, raised up, it will be bathed in warm water, ghee, honey, yoghurt, and then dressed in handmade dresses — usually made of silk — and garlanded with beautiful flowers and then set up for worship for the day. It’s a very interesting process of practicing the presence of God.
–Shaunaka Rishi Das, Hindu cleric and Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies
There is a wonderful poignance to this image of bathing the deity, of feeding it sweets, of dressing it — such tenderness. It made me think, where do I practice this in my own life? And do I practice this in my work?
In the process of designing the new and revised version of my website I have been going through my archives and deciding what to add in, keep or delete. After sleeping on the passage above, I remembered a series I had done a long time ago which reflects this same devotional impulse, although not in a Hindu frame of reference. For about a year I painted hundreds of small studies of African fetish figures. I used books on African sculpture as my reference, and did my studies the way I would practice kanji, repeating them over and over again, on different papers and with different paints and inks, trying to allow the “figure” to become part of me. The practice became a mobius of energy between myself and the ritual object. The koan was “what is the self?”
The figures fell into fifteen or twenty different tribal archetypes including a woman holding her head, her body or her baby, a figure holding a mirror, a figure holding a drum, and a recurring double figure, two conjoined in various ways. The paintings’ very smallness helped me to keep the practice devotional. I wasn’t creating anything for a “wall.” But I was inviting the gods into my house. It is good to remember to open that door.
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